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Complex, Not 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 day one!
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 morning.
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 laid.
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.
9:59am – 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 enigma.
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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