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Plus Ça Change: DRC 2020 in Bottle
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 14, 2023
If you can stop drooling at the prospect of drinking Romanée-Conti for breakfast, you will spot a framed drawing hanging on Corney & Barrow’s tasting room wall portraying a wine tasting from a bygone era.
I stop drooling.
A framed drawing hanging on Corney & Barrow’s tasting room wall.
I assume it depicts Corney & Barrow’s former premises back when the East End was obviously more verdant. Yes…come to think of it…I vaguely remember that day. Probably around the first DRC tasting I attended way back in 1997. The woman in the black apron is pouring La Tâche and silently praying that the men will leave some for her to taste. I wager that is the domaine’s former owner Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet in the brown suede frock jacket and neck ruff looking on intently, while the rather smug-looking gentleman in black must surely be a rival member of the fourth estate. Possibly you have recognized already, but that’s yours truly in the green velvet tailcoat and breeches when my hair was shorter and darker. Of course, this predates my trusty iPad. In those days, I unsheathed my quill and composed florid tasting notes upon vellum. Once sealed by wax, the notes were handed to a rider whose steed galloped through roaring crowds to the Middle Drawbridge outside the Tower of London. Here, the vellum was handed to a jowly rotund town crier who bellowed: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The latest scores from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti” to an assembled ragbag of wine merchants. Bare-footed ragamuffins were then hastily assigned to sprint through the city’s crowded cobbled streets to transmit this news to aristocrats and wine buffs who spent several weeks deliberating whether to fill the dank cellars with the noblest Burgundy or spend their shillings on “proper” wine, like German Hock.
Returning to the task, I survey the same room in January 2023. The outside verdure vanished and is now concreted over. No longer the smell of ink and vellum hanging in the ether. Despite the polite written request for silence, there is a gentle hubbub of chatter against the background of tapping keyboards. Nowadays, there are more attendees and, of course, the ursine frame of Bertrand de Villaine, standing next to me in deep conversation about bees. Yes, buzzy bees. I make a mental note to ask him for a jar of homemade honey next time I pop around. After he finishes his conversation, we repair to a private room to discuss the vintage.
de Villaine sat behind the desk, and I felt as if I had come for an interview.
He played along and asked why I wanted the job.
Bertrand de Villaine explains how the team at the Domaine is adapting their winemaking, especially their viticultural practices in light of global warming, or rather what de Villaine more accurately sees as the wilder climatic pendulum swings that must be expected. This includes later pruning that commences in February instead of December to delay vines’ development and reduce potential frost damage, keeping two “baguettes” or canes with more buds until mid-May once the risk of a late spring frost has passed, trials of higher trellising and using green cover crops. They are also introducing wind turbines and using wood-pellet fuelled heaters that are more environmentally friendly than traditional wax burners, though he cautions that they are not seen solutions. They are monitoring their effects on temperatures to ascertain their efficiency. De Villaine is adamant that the implementation of electrical wires traversing the vineyards is not something he can countenance. Rhetorically, he remarks: “Can you imagine what the future generation will think when they see wires across these historic vineyards?”
The main underlying factor concerning the 2020 vintage is the winter rainfall, which enabled vines to focus their energy on ripening the fruit rather than switching it over to create more foliage. De Villaine believes the vines have a memory, allowing them to remember previous warm summers and respond accordingly. Vines on the mid-slope coped better than those at the top or bottom. Vine age is another factor; the older ones are naturally less productive and develop more concentrated fruit. This was noticed in the upper sectors of La Tâche where the most venerable are located.
Regarding the 2020 vintage, de Villaine tells me the domaine used 90-100% whole bunches. “It means that the pH is higher, but we have been using stems for many years,” he says. “We are using them more and more because the quality of the berries gives us that opportunity to do so. We have not seen botrytis in the vines since 2013. These days, we are thinking about phenolic maturity and whether we must wait for optimal phenolic maturity. But what is optimal? So we must alter the way of picking the grapes. We use refrigerated units [to store the fruit at cooler temperatures] and harvesting in the morning, from six o’clock until two in the afternoon.”
The use of refrigerated units is crucial when considering that much of the domaine’s vines cluster around Vosne’s ambit occupying similar orientations and altitudes. Putting their plots of Chardonnay aside, faster ripening cycles mean optimal picking dates tend to be closer. As de Villaine pertinently points out, the potential alcohol of their Richebourg rocketed from 11.7% on August 10 to 12.7% four days later and then 13.2% by August 21. Therefore, to stagger the fruit entering the winery, it is important to temporarily store picked fruit for a steady and manageable stream of fruit to enter the vat room. Interestingly, he remarks that it is not just ripening that has sped up but that the wines are ready to be bottled sooner, mandating shorter élevages, creating the concertina effect that I mentioned in my recent Burgundy 2021 report.
2020 vintage sees the sophomore Corton-Charlemagne cut from a slightly
different cloth to the debut. Broaching de Villaine on that subject, he informs
me that 2020 was a normal crop in quantity (1,530 cases compared to just 506
cases in 2019, triple the amount). This meant that the 2019 had more concentration,
though I discerned more typicité in the 2020, not least in terms of
texture or what the French term “gras”. Also, the parcels were vinified
separately for the first two vintages of Corton-Charlemagne. The 2021 was severely
diminished by frost, and the resulting four barrels underwent single
vinification. This modus operandi will continue from the far more abundant 2022
vintage and going forward.
Concerning the reds (most but not all were initially tasted from barrel in 2021), there is much to admire. This year’s tasting included the Vosne-Romanée Cuvée Duvault-Blochet, which is a mélange of younger vines in La Tâche and Grands-Echézeaux. Although readers should note that as is customary, it is reserved for the on-premises trade. It’s always fun to hunt down these bottles; they can sometimes turn up in unexpected places! (The Montrachet is never shown at the UK tasting, and I assume there will also be a Vosne-Romanée Petits-Monts. The Bâtard-Montrachet remains for private use.)
In terms of style, the 2020s fit into the category of more powerful wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, with alcohol levels circling around 13.5%, which is still less than many other producers. I detected occasional confit-like aromas, particularly on the Echézeaux, less so on its elder sibling, the Grands-Echézeaux, indicative of that warm summer and early picking. Indeed, grapes from this vineyard were harvested five days earlier than the first in Echézeaux, and the difference is tangible. The fruit is perhaps a shade darker than recent vintages, with more Pinoté evident in the ethereal twins: La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Generally, the wines in bottle correlate to my assessments in barrel. The good news is that volumes are higher in 2020 than 2019 (numbers of cases can be gleaned from individual tasting notes). However, somehow, I think the laws of macroeconomics dictating prices decrease with increased supply will not apply. Of course, we should steel ourselves for minuscule volumes in 2021. They’ll be harder to obtain than a Beyoncé ticket.
As Burgundy prices begin to soften, even at the top end, it will be interesting to see how, or even if, this impacts the market for DRC. Being the most illustrious renders you more immune to fluctuations, but not completely immune. Yet as Bertrand de Villaine commented during our tête-à-tête, the only thing that gives him more pleasure than seeing somebody drink their wine is to see people sharing it, perchance, not unlike those people depicted in that drawing that caught my attention. Forgive my folly in the opening paragraph. As I studied that scene, I reflected upon wine and its attendant rituals that have remained a reassuring constant throughout the decades. Fashions change. People change. The world is barely recognizable from the time depicted. Yet La Tâche is still La Tâche, and Romanée-Conti is still Romanée-Conti. The appreciation of such wines is unchanged.
Plus ça change.
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