Complicated: 2017 DRC in Bottle
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 25, 2020
6:26am – Throw
off the duvet and let out a sleepy “Hoorah” because it is DRC Day, which ranks
between Christmas Day and my birthday in terms of anticipation. The new bottled
vintage will be lined up for inspection at UK agent Corney & Barrow. Of
course, I will assess it as objectively as any other wine – granted, not easy
to do when face to face with such an icon. However, it would be an abdication
of responsibility if I did not place the latest releases within the context of
previous vintages and those producers disadvantaged by not being called
“Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.” What I really enjoy about this tasting is
contrasting vineyards side by side: same grape, same producer and same
approach. How will they perform as a team? Who’s the strongest player? Do they
remain faithful to the DNA of the vineyard, or will one of them throw you a
curveball? I’ll find out later.
6:55am – What
to wear at the DRC tasting? This question confronts me every year. In the early
days it was easy: suit and tie. Things were more formal back then. You would
not be allowed in if your brogues were scuffed or your pinstripes creased. Nowadays,
wine tastings have become a tad more informal because slovenly attendees without
an ounce of sartorial flair (like yours truly) began loosening their necktie
and then binning the suit altogether. But it’s DRC. One must make an effort. I
opt for smart trousers, slim-fit shirt purchased to show off my recently
acquired slim-fit torso, and leather ankle boots whose innards have fallen
apart but remain in service. Smart casual. Sorted.
7:05am – Read
my Brian Eno “Oblique Strategy” of the day. Yes, I’m an Enophile. It tells me
to “Remove specifics and convert to
ambiguities.” Hey, Eno, that’s been my strategy for wine tasting since
7:10am – What
breakfast precedes a DRC tasting? The answer is my wife’s 100-point homemade
granola. Mrs. M is to breakfast cereal what Aubert de Villaine is to Pinot Noir.
My daughters, dressed in school uniform and half asleep, ask what I am doing
today in that familiar monotone teenage mumble. “I’m going to be tasting
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” I answer, ignoring Eno’s advice to remove
specifics. Neither offspring registers a flicker of interest. The eldest dives
back into her chemistry book so that the periodic table can be imprinted onto
her cerebral membrane. Maybe I should revise for my tasting; I peruse my barrel
tasting notes and comments. Perhaps all invitees should complete a
multiple-choice examination on their way out. (What is the yield for the
Corton? On what dates was La Tâche bottled? In 2017, who replaced Bernard
Noblet, maître-de-chai since 1985?) Anyone
failing the test will be escorted to a private room by a Corney heavy and not
allowed out until they have written “The Democratic Republic of Congo is not
the same as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti” a hundred times. The lowest scorers
will not be invited back. (FYI, the answer to the last question is Alexandre
Bernier, who had worked alongside Noblet for the last eight years.)
7:25am – Wait
for Number 37 bus to Guildford train station. Bloody hell, it’s nippy this
7:35am – Bus
cancelled. Emergency Uber.
7:50am – Arrive
at Guildford station. Naturally, the South Western Railway ruins my cunning plan
to arrive at the tasting early. A train has died on Platform 5 and is currently
waiting for the undertaker. Irritated commuters are herded onto another
platform, where we cram onto a stuffy, overcrowded train. Instead of spending
my journey writing, I am forced to stand in the aisle. To compensate for our
discomfort, instead of the fast route, our train driver takes the longer scenic
route to Waterloo. Cheers, mate.
9:00am – After
a stationary 10 minutes just outside Waterloo station, the train driver
presumably finishes his Sudoku puzzle and decides that yes, he will drop off all his irate passengers
at their destination so that they can work and keep the country afloat.
9:15am – Tube
to Tower Hill station. I find myself sitting in the crossfire of a three-way
argument conducted in an unfamiliar but belligerent-sounding tongue. I
eavesdrop on the increasingly furious exchange, just in case they are feuding
over whether DRC should bottle separate blends of their three Corton vineyards.
I don’t think so. It sounds like they’re arguing about the price of Burgundy.
9:30am – Brisk
walk past the Tower of London. It’s awe-inspiring how, in the shadows of the priapic
skyline of glass skyscrapers and gherkins, there stands a fortification that is
almost a thousand years old. Gazing at its defensive walls, I reflect on how
the keep was constructed during the primordial soup of the Côte d’Or, when holy
orders began walling off the most coveted vineyards. The first mention of
Romanée-Conti was several centuries after the Tower’s foundations were
9:50am – Arrive
at Corney & Barrow. The front entrance is decorated with two large British
and French flags. I do hope they kept the receipt for the British flag, since we’ll
be leaving the EU in two days’ time and the Union Jack will have to be
redesigned as the United Kingdom disintegrates and civil war is declared
between Brexiteers and Remainers. I wonder how Brexit will affect allocations
and prices of DRC. I guess that is not at the top of the list of priorities for
the Minister of Trade, who is busy signing multi-hundred-pound trade deals with
the Faroe Islands.
9:55am – Drop
off my coat at reception, pick up my free red 2HB pencil and descend down to
the basement where the tasting is traditionally held. Thoughtfully, they always
provide stemware pre-rinsed with Pinot Noir, probably something expendable.
Maybe last year’s leftover Romanée-Conti? Maybe not.
Enter the tasting room and... Hold on a minute. That’s...
10:00am – ...David
Beckham. The David Beckham. Becks! Golden Balls! Mr. Posh Spice! He is
undeniably a finely chiseled Adonis whose handsomeness causes other males in
his company to lose confidence in their looks, and his tattoos make him resemble
a walking, talking Sistine Chapel ceiling. He has clearly mastered proper wine
tasting technique, following the unwritten rule that professionals always spit out wine... unless it
happens to be DRC. (No need to clean out the spittoons after this tasting.) I could be wrong, but I think
I detect a bit of nervousness, a player out of position. I can understand that.
Even a legend of his stature can feel intimidated entering this chamber of
wall-to-wall scribes and sommeliers swirling glasses and honing thousand-yard
stares that feign deep contemplation when in truth they are thinking, “OMG.
It’s Becks!” He should keep in mind that none of us can curl a ball with
pinpoint accuracy or win the European Cup. His chaperone introduces him to
Aubert de Villaine. I resist the temptation to photograph this meeting of GOATs.
Is de Villaine asking about the last-minute equalizer against Greece in the 2001
World Cup qualifier? Is Beckham inquiring about the differences in terroir
between Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux? Or are they perhaps discussing Eno’s
oblique strategy of the day?
10:05am – Right,
enough of this celebrity gawping. Commence tasting. At least there are no
missing cuvées like last year, when the 2016 Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux were
poleaxed by frost and gave up minuscule yields; the few bottles produced remain
in the domaine’s bottle cellar. But 2017 is the most abundant vintage since
2009; just compare production figures in the tasting notes. So we have seven
wines from Corton to Romanée-Conti, the Montrachet calling in sick as usual. I’ve
reserved a couple of hours so I can take my time, since the wines always
respond to aeration, preferably 10–15 minutes. I don’t mind waiting, and I chat
to old friends in attendance. The tasting has evolved into a bit of a meet-up,
one of the only occasions when practically every name is congregated in the
same room. Our hosts are aware of this. A sign by the door instructs: “We ask
that you taste in silence.” Next year they should be more direct: “SHUT IT” in
big red capitals. Like a mob of unruly feral school children overdosing on
lemon-flavored Space Dust, everyone ignores this polite request, except for
Becks, who is clearly the model pupil.
10:10am – I
browse the DRC brochure, the vellum lovingly stapled together. The prose is usually
poetic, with a Latin phrase that you make a mental note to Google later, or a
passing reference to some obscure character in Greek literature (though pot, kettle,
black – I’ve done the same in this article). This year’s language is a little
more economical, perhaps reflecting the straightforwardness of the wines in
question. But there are some lovely photographs of the team. There is Aubert de
Villaine, wrapped up in his favourite corduroy jacket, standing next to
co-director Perrine Fenal, the daughter of Lalou Bize-Leroy, appointed after
the passing of Henri-Frédéric Roch in 2018. There’s a smiling Nicolas Jacob in
a white T-shirt, tidying the vines in the Burgundy sunshine, and Alexandre
Berrier looking like the moody lead singer of a moderately successful
Manchester indie band circa 1983.
10:11am – I
make note of the growing season summary.
The threat of frost on April 27 and 29 was preempted by burning bales of hay to
obscure the morning sun over three days, hence the brochure’s sub-heading, “A
good smoke...” (For a moment there, I thought the de Villaines had started
growing marijuana in California.) There was early and rapid flowering at the
end of May that augured an early picking. The hot June, when the mercury spiked
at 39°C, caused some burnt skins and accelerated growth of shoots, up to 10cm
per day. August was dry and warm, though the domaine elected to hold back the
pickers to achieve phenolic ripeness, eventually commencing on September 4 in
Corton, which is the first cuvée that I taste.
10:20am – I
get off to a good start with the Corton,
which this year perhaps eclipses the Echézeaux for the first time. It exhibits
the DNA of the vineyard and, just as importantly, the DNA of DRC, which I think
was missing in their earlier vintages. I speculate when the domaine will elect
to bottle the Le Clos du Roi, Les Bressandes and Les Renardes separately. Not
yet. I am a believer that occasionally the blending of Burgundy climats
can be more than the sum of its parts. So while comparing separate bottlings
would be an intellectually stimulating exercise, we would be deprived of a
Corton that has found its home within this star-studded lineup. The 2017 is
expressive and open, a leitmotif throughout the range.
10:25am – Aubert
de Villaine would never tap a spoon on his glass to hush his audience before
sermonizing the latest vintage. Rather, he works the room and spends a few
minutes chatting with as many guests as possible in a hushed voice, like a
priest taking members of his flock aside for a few private words. If I was
going to confess my sins to anyone, it might be Aubert de Villaine. He apologizes
for not recognizing me at a private dinner last November, but he’s not the only
one. Placing a hand on my shoulder, he advises me to keep healthy and drink
good wine. Should I say that my doctor recommended a bottle of La Tâche each
day and could he help me out? Another time. De Villaine tells me how pleased he
is about the 2017s, which he sees as “elegant and graceful.” He remarks that
they are not powerful wines and that cuvées such as the Corton, Echézeaux and
Grands-Echézeaux are expressive and approachable, whereas he finds La Tâche and
Romanée-Conti more backward. Finally, he introduces Perrine Fenal. She is based
in Geneva, but her attendance today alongside Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine
suggests that she will take an active role in the future.
10:30am – Echézeaux is up next. I often think
this cuvée is underrated simply because of the stature of its siblings. It’s
their Ringo Starr. (Who doesn’t love Ringo? It’s not his fault he ended up with
Lennon and McCartney.) That said, I find that in 2017, it does not possess the
same degree of concentration and will surely be an earlier-drinking wine.
10:40am – The
Grands-Echézeaux is a step up from
the Echézeaux, the gap more tangible than in previous vintages. The aromatics
are fuller and there is more body on the palate. I wonder what Beckham thinks. I
turn to find him: I would love to just say hello and tell him not to be afraid
of us wine nerds. We don’t bite. (Well, most of us don’t. I can’t vouch
for Oz Clarke.) Maybe Posh has phoned and asked if he can stick the fish
fingers under the grill for the kids; I observe him thanking and shaking the
hand of each pourer. That’s class.
10:45am - De
Villaine’s nephew Bertrand and I step away from the hubbub for a conversation.
He opines that the 2017s are “complex but not complicated,” a perfect
description of the wines. He echoes his uncle’s view that the 2017s are by no
means powerful wines like the 2015s, 2016s or inchoate 2018s, but they are
approachable and easier to read. He suggests that they possess “drinkability”
and then almost retracts that word because of the more pejorative connotation
of its French translation, buvabilité.
But there is nothing wrong with being drinkable. What is the purpose of a wine
that is not? Perhaps you could argue that a bottle with the standing and price
tag of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti should possess more drinkability. But as Bertrand de Villaine says himself, it is
important that there is variation between vintages. If the 2015, 2016 and 2018
vintages are more concentrated, then the amiable 2017s will make interesting
comparisons. The question is how the wines will perform in 10 or 15 years.
Experience has taught me that supposedly “weaker” vintages of DRC can
ultimately reward those with the nous to keep faith and stick them away for a
few years. De Villaine’s fear is that many of these 2017s will be consumed in
their youth as people wait for other vintages to mature; he could be right.
10:50am – Interesting...
This year, the Richebourg is being
poured before Romanée-Saint-Vivant.
This was the order around a decade ago, before it was changed back. I can
understand why when I taste each wine, the Richebourg without the backbone and
arching structure you would expect, the Romanée-Saint-Vivant
demonstrating a little more substance than anticipated. I speculate whether the
showers that interrupted the picking between September 8 and 10 diluted the
Richebourg a notch. It will be interesting to see how the two wines evolve and
whether the Richebourg will gain weight with bottle age.
11:05am – Another
brief conversation with Aubert de Villaine. He makes the valid point that at
the end of the day, these wines are made to be drunk. I wonder if he yearns for
the days when, unthinkable as it is now, their wines were not that easy to sell;
when they were not misused as failsafe investment vehicle.
11:20am – Hello,
La Tâche. Not that I drink it daily,
but irrespective of history, status or price, it is one of my favourite
Burgundy wines. I’m probably not alone. Though one of the most revered wines in
the world, its relatively large production is widely overlooked. The monopole
yielded over 2,000 cases in 2017, about the same as Petrus. As usual, it
demands time to open in the glass, eventually and atypically revealing discreet
blue fruit on the nose and a slightly accentuated floral aspect, the palate
complex and exquisitely balanced. It is a lovely Pinot Noir with a soupçon of
11:30am – Hello,
fermented grape juice, a.k.a. Romanée-Conti.
It has a more immediate bouquet than the La Tâche at the moment, blessed with
very pure and vivacious red cherries and cranberry and an undercurrent of
estuarine aromas that I am sensitive to, having spent half my childhood
frolicking on the Thames mudflats. It is effortless on the palate, beguiling
and harmonious, and yet, comparing the two, I find that this year La Tâche
possesses greater complexity.
11:45am – Time
to leave. Reflecting on the 2017s, they are not as powerful or as concentrated
as the 2015 or 2016s. The pertinent question is: When will each cuvée give the
most pleasure – in the flush of youth or with age? I keep coming back to that
word “drinkability.” As banal as it sounds, these 2017s are going to be
delicious to drink and share with your most reciprocal friends. There is no
crime in cracking open a bottle of great Burgundy in its infancy. You don’t
have to confront the obdurate tannins of Bordeaux or the richness of young
Rhône. In 2017 Alexandre Bernier elected for “minimal de-stemming” – 75–80%,
according to Bertrand de Villaine when we discussed the wines in barrel last
year. Perhaps this is one factor that renders the 2017s more approachable and
pliant. If they had used 100%, the wines might have come across too green,
something that afflicts vintages of DRC from the early 1990s. Having bid
farewell to Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine, I stroll up to Bank tube station
via a Joe The Juice avocado sandwich. Alas, there is no DRC on their drinks
menu; I settle for a cafe latte. At
Bank I am suddenly surrounded by firefighters and ordered to evacuate. At least if I am
caught in a conflagration, it is after and not before the DRC tasting. We file
out, and I walk down to Cannon Street, which isn’t on fire. Bonus.
2:00pm – Catch
the train home from Waterloo to Guildford. My tasting notes have already been
written. Wishing to complete my write-up of the 2017 DRCs by the end of the
day, I commence tapping away on my laptop. This is the 23rd time I have
attended this same tasting. Loath to repeat myself or compose overexcitable
puff, I decide I should pen something different. I begin to recount my day and
start typing the words: “6:26am – Throw off the duvet and let out a sleepy ’Hoorah’
because it is DRC Day.”
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