The Epicurean's Atlas: Domaine De La Romanée-Conti La Tâche Grand Cru 1971
Region: Côte de Nuits, Burgundy | Variety: Pinot Noir
“A great La Tâche like the 1971 will always demand at least a decade in a cellar to reveal its secrets”
L a Tâche. Two words, two syllables that, for numerous lovers of Burgundy, including myself, represent both the epicentre and the apotheosis of Burgundy. You do not drink a wine like La Tâche… you experience it. It is a wine that goes beyond sensory perception and into the realm of profundity.
Weighty tomes have been written about the long and fascinating history of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which dates back to the 13th century and a vineyard operated by a monastery. In the early 17th century, the Croonembourg family bought the Romanée vineyard, as it was then named, and expanded it by purchasing the neighbouring vineyard known as La Tâche. The wines gained in esteem to such an extent that, when the Prince de Conti bought the estate in 1760 for the princely sum of 8,000 gold livres, he duly appended his name. Somewhat selfishly, he kept the wine of Romanée-Conti for his own pleasure: despite protestations, everyone else had to “make do” with La Tâche.
From 1815, the original 1.4 hectare La Tâche vineyard was owned and farmed by the Liger-Belair family although, confusingly, the adjacent climat of Les Gaudichots was often marketed under the same name. In 1869, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was sold to Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet, who bought small plots in Les Gaudichots. Due to a combination of financial and inheritance difficulties, the Liger-Belairs were forced to auction off most of their holdings in 1933 and they were acquired by Edmond Gaudin de Villaine, along with those owned by his brother-in-law, in the names of his sons Henri and Jean. After a couple of further minor exchanges of land, he united the holdings to create the monopole that authorities ratified as a Grand Cru in 1936. Although shareholders in Domaine de la Romanée-Conti include the Leroy and Roch families, La Tâche is under the aegis of the de Villaines: they are responsible for the constant meticulous tending of vines, managing the harvest, directing the winemaking and distribution. Over five decades, under the guidance of Aubert de Villaine and now, since his recent retirement, Bertrand de Villaine, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has become the world’s most revered winery. At its heart lies La Tâche, their most significant Grand Cru.
The paradox of La Tâche is that, while demand far outstrips supply, it is a comparatively large vineyard within the mosaic of the Côte d’Or, comprising 6.062 hectares of varying terroirs: above a bedrock of oolitic or Premeaux limestone, the clayey topsoil becomes deeper as you descend from its upper reaches at around 300 metres. The vineyard husbandry is meticulous, now under biodynamic principles, vinified using 80–100% whole bunch and matured entirely in new oak barrels for two winters. Production is usually around 18,000 bottles and the 1971 vintage is recorded as a total of 17,753 bottles.
I should preface my proselytisation of 1971 with an assurance that my adoration of this vintage is based on my experiences of its wines rather than it being my birth year. I am not the only one to rank 1971 above 1978 as the finest Burgundy vintage of that decade, though the season was not straightforward. It began inauspiciously with a freezing March and a very uneven flowering with widespread millerandage that limited potential yields. The weather turned more clement: July was consistently warm and dry, so that by early August, winemakers became concerned about drought and sunburnt bunches. That worry was abruptly resolved on 19 August when the Côte d’Or witnessed violent storms with large hail stones that caused serious damage across the region. This episode traumatised the vines and stymied photosynthesis, which might have spelled disaster had September not been warm and, despite the humidity, almost free of rot. While most dispatched their pickers in mid-September, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti held fire until 27 September. This meant that they were able to achieve full ripeness, but had to be vigilant in jettisoning any damaged berries. The wine was made by legendary Cellar Master André Noblet, who had begun working in the cellars as a 16-year-old in 1940 and had overseen every vintage since 1946. The most successful 1971 reds were concentrated and tannic upon release, and it took a few years before the cognoscenti recognised their quality. They were destined for the long haul and those with the wherewithal to cellar them were ultimately rewarded with sensational wines.
It is natural to ask which is the better of the two monopoles: La Tâche or Romanée-Conti. Despite the latter being far more expensive, it is incorrect to assume that it is implicitly superior. They are just different. La Tâche tends to be slightly deeper in colour, depending on the vintage, endowed with darker fruit on the nose. The palate usually has a little more backbone, a touch more grip and substance. Certainly, La Tâche has as much longevity as Romanée-Conti. A great La Tâche like the 1971 will always demand at least a decade in a cellar to reveal its secrets.
It took four or five attempts over two decades for me to taste the 1971 La Tâche. Finally, in January 2023, at the newly reopened Ledbury restaurant, a good friend, knowing that if one had only one option on a desert island, this would be the wine, poured it blind. The bouquet unfurled layer by layer, revealing melted red fruit, dried tobacco and freshly picked morels, all delivered with astonishing detail and focus. The palate was so perfectly balanced that I felt it was standing on tiptoes, poised and utterly refined but still with plenty of red fruit entwined with orange rind and spices. Yet it was the transparency of this La Tâche that was completely mesmerising, that paradox of weight and weightlessness. Ethereal is a word that gets bandied about a lot with regard to Pinot Noir, but this wine merited the description. When my friend revealed its identity, I would have cheered had I not been in a two Michelin-starred restaurant.