As any self-respecting Pinot Noir lover will know, a large amount of the grape's fans think that the best example of its capabilities come from Romanée-Conti, which is a tiny vineyard in the most prestigious area of Vosne-Romanée, surrounded by other Grand Cru vineyards and produced by some of the world's most talented vignerons. The Rolls-Royce of Pinot Noirs, it is unquestionably the world's most famous Pinot and, virtually all the time, the most expensive.
A monopole of the domaine of the same name, which is usually abbreviated DRC, Romanée-Conti is the domaine's prime offering and claim to fame, having brought fortunes to many of those originally involved with Romanée-Conti's rise to power. For decades now, it has been considered the best vineyard for red Burgundy, and one of the best spots for wine growth in the world. Why is the vineyard so highly esteemed, and what makes Pinot Noir grow so well there? These are difficult questions to answer, even for the involved winemakers. The answer is a combination of great soil with some of the best vinification techniques in the world, making for a wine of incredible purity and depth of flavor.
If there has to be only one defining factor, it may be Romanée-Conti's consistency. In vintages like 2005, the great Musignys and Chambertins are able to rival the vineyard's production, but in seasons with hail or snow or where the fruit fails to ripen fully, this is when Romanée-Conti's skill advantage comes into play. In a region where consistency isn't exactly renowned, the flagship wine of DRC is a veritable beacon of quality.
The vineyard itself is about six acres, which does not include any subprime dirt. The size is normal for great red Burgundy vineyards (twice that of La Romanée!), but when you compare this to other top wines, the amount seems low. Examples include Lafite-Rothschild (250 acres), Latour (190 acres), Ausone (17 acres), Pétrus (28 acres), Harlan Estate (38 acres), Screaming Eagle (60 acres), and even Hill of Grace (roughly 10 acres). Around 3,000 cases of wine are produced each year, which are quickly sold due to their collectible value.
It may seem obvious that the Romanée-Conti wines would sell out so quickly, but it's still surprising once you hear their prices. The 2005 retails for a shattering $16,000, and costs more in restaurants and in private sales. Other vintages are not nearly so dramatic, but rarely cost less than $5,000. This puts Pétrus to shame and makes Romanée-Conti easily the most expensive wine in the world. And yet even if you are willing to spend these thousands, a bottle is hard to find. This is how much of a cult following Romanée-Conti has accumulated.
Romanée-Conti has an interesting history that played a significant part in shaping its greatness. Early on, it was owned by the Abbey of St-Vivant, which played a huge part in the initial development of Vosne-Romanée, and brought Romanée-Conti some of its initial magic. Philippe de Croonembourg, a Belgian lord, purchased the Grand Cru in 1631, and began charging exorbitant prices for the wine. At that time, it had only a fraction of the prowess it does now, but it was still extremely expensive.
In 1760, the vineyard was bought from a Croonembourg descendant by the prince of Conti, who appended his name to the existing name--which at that time was La Romanée, same as the vineyard that we now know as La Romanée. The price paid for the vineyard was extraordinary, but the prince was not interested in making a profit on the wine--rather, he produced the wine and kept it for himself. After the French Revolution, the government confiscated it from the prince and sold it to private interests, and the vineyard was passed down through the generations until it ended up in the hands of the de Villaine family. Under this family it gained much of the fame it currently has.
In 1936, the vineyard became an AOC. During the 1940s, after the Great Depression and during WWII, there was little interest in great Burgundies, especially expensive ones. The Villaines were forced to sell their shares in order to avoid the breaking-up of the vineyards, and the Leroy family bought exactly half of the vineyard. They still own their half, but management is handled by de Villaine and crew. In 1986 the decision to change to organic farming in the vineyard added to Romanée-Conti's pedigree.
Climate and Viticulture
It's undoubted that the climate in Romanée-Conti is great, but why is it great, and why can't the style of the wine be replicated anywhere else? Why isn't there a single other vineyard in the world that can be used to make wine this good, or at the very least, of the same style? This is a difficult question, and it takes a serious viticultural analysis to explain it. Certainly, the weather and climate are as perfect as they are in the surrounding Grands Crus, but then why is there such an acute quality difference?
The answer, if there is an explicable one, can only be found in the soil. The slope of the vineyards is fabulous itself; not too steep or exposed to make for lean wine, and closed in by trees and the other vineyards, but quite steep nonetheless. The purity, depth and concentration in the layers of clay here are simply something that cannot be outdone by other vineyards. The clay, which is a rich brown color, only slightly reddish, is interspersed with small, pure chunks of limestone which add much of the character of the wine. If it isn't terroir perfection, it certainly comes close.
But of equal importance to the soil is the skill with which the de Villaine family has handled the production of the Romanée-Conti cuvée since they came into ownership of the vineyard. Having always used traditional methods and been extremely careful to remove any poorer-quality grapes, they still spare no expense in bringing the wine to the absolute best quality. In return, they generate great profits for themselves and the Leroy family, which owns half of the vineyard.
- Pinot Noir: Romanée-Conti is made from 100% Pinot Noir, the Fin variety specifically. Description of the wine's flavors and ageability can be found in the Major Producers section below.
- Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: The great Romanée-Conti is noted for its combination of a velvety texture with amazing depth and concentration of flavor; though this mix often takes 15-25 years to become its most expressive, many nevertheless consider it to be better than many Pinot Noirs that are more drinkable early on. In the wine's youth, it is amazingly full-bodied, more so than most Pinot Noirs, and rich, but closed and backward. Initial notes that show up seem to include spice and herbs, some of the cinnamon-like spices giving the wine an almost exotic character. Notes of pepper and earthy herbs add to the spice element, and the flavors are often soil-driven, so this could well be called an "earthy" style if in only the best of ways. Some more harsh critics call it "vegetal", a term usually used in a negative way, but tastings of old bottles indicate that this edge will go away with time. Fruit flavors are initially barely present, although Cabernet-like blackberry and plum flavors can sometimes appear. But these flavors are hard to make out even by the most discerning critics, as they are all but buried under the massive concentration and intensity of this wine. Blistering tannins, rather high acidity, and a strong smoky mineral note all seem to combine to make the cuvée completely inaccessible within its first few years of life. But what happens over the next 15-30 years is remarkable: the earthy note changes to elegant flower and spice notes, to go along with a pleasant berry character. Meanwhile, the texture becomes smooth and velvety, making for a wine of remarkable ripeness and elegance as well as a great amount of remaining power. But the incredible concentration will preserve this wine for even longer: tastings of current '60s bottles have indicated that the wine has by no means lost its complexity or definition. While price isn't always guaranteed to be the best indicator, it says something that the most expensive wine in the world ($5,000 per bottle to start) sells out almost as quickly as the vignerons can put it on the market.
Due to its small size, Romanée-Conti has no subregions. Quality is so high within the vineyard that sections are unneeded.