If you ask most wine collectors to name the world’s single most important and sought-after wine estate, many of them – even tried-and-true Bordeaux lovers – would likely cite the great Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
With roots going back to the 13th century in the Vosne-Romanée district of Burgundy, the single vineyard that gives the domaine its name was once the prized possession of King Louis XV. For many collectors, opening one of the massively powerful but also elegant wines produced there year in and year out is a kind of communion.
THE VINEYARDS OF ROMANÉE-CONTI. PHOTOGRAPH © 2015 DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-
CONTI, COURTESY WILSON DANIELS.
“In great vintages, lots of people make great wines, but even in the perceived lesser vintages, they still make great wines,” says Jamie Ritchie, CEO and President of Sotheby’s Wine, Americas and Asia. “They are super-consistent and reliable.” And the amounts that DRC produces are tiny; the “richness balanced with elegance and finesse” that Ritchie singles out in the wines is simply scarcer in the marketplace – hence their ever-growing allure at auction.
The producer’s gilded reputation is such that you might expect an imperious chamber of French tastemakers to be running it. But the person in charge and co-owner, Aubert de Villaine, 75, comes across more like someone tending an elaborate vegetable garden: proud of his work and deeply passionate about it, but relatively unassuming.
De Villaine rarely speaks to journalists – he doesn’t have to. But when he sits down with me on his yearly visit to New York, the only indication of his special status is that he is speaking in a conference room at the French Consulate. He is allowed occasional overnight stays in the consulate’s Beaux-Arts building, a rare privilege that reflects the admiration given to DRC by a country that reveres grand tradition and excellence.
If you tell de Villaine that you are not fortunate enough to taste DRC very often, he says with a laugh, “I don’t either,” given that the value of a single bottle can be thousands of dollars. But he quickly adds, “I taste in barrel often,” meaning that he closely monitors the wine’s progress as it is made.
De Villaine, who started working at the domaine in 1974, is descended from a family that has been involved with the winery for decades. He can reminisce about the famed 1945 vintage, now legendary but at the time, when he was a child, it was simply considered a difficult year to make wine in the region.
By 1991, a complex management struggle was resolved and, de Villaine says, “I began running it as I wanted.” From the beginning, his tenure involved a meticulous stewardship of the famed vineyards like Romanée-Conti, Richebourg and La Tâche, capable of producing what are agreed to be among the world’s best pinot noir-based wines. And don’t forget the rich Chardonnay from DRC’s portion of the Le Montrachet vineyard.
“Things have changed a lot,” de Villaine says, reflecting on the evolution of his home region. “First, and maybe most important, the 1970s mentality of Burgundy was to emphasise productivity. The idea was to protect the crops, buy chemicals and make as much wine as possible because the market was good.” But, he explains, DRC resisted this: low-yielding vines are part of what can make wines long-lived and desirable, since the nutrients get concentrated into fewer grapes.
PHOTOGRAPH © 2015 DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI, COURTESY WILSON DANIELS.
While de Villaine is fortunate enough to have come into some of the world’s best vineyards because of his family heritage, he emphasises that terroir, also known as climat, or the unique natural characteristics of a particular vineyard site, isn’t everything.
“That’s always a big discussion: nature, culture, terroir,” he says. “The climat exists, but man has to have the philosophy that makes him able to maximise the potential. It could be a vineyard like any other if it’s not properly handled. Climat is a marriage between nature and man’s decisions.”
He has thought carefully about how to pass along the estate in good hands, and has already transferred shares to the next generation. His nephew, Betrand de Villaine, will take over management. But Aubert de Villaine has set a lasting tone. “The challenge of the domaine today is to keep the right spirit,” he says. “And it has to be the whole team, from the bottom to the top.”
Ted Loos is the Wine Editor of Travel + Leisure.