Some of the greatest red wines in history come round once a year—but you'll only get a thimblefulby Barry Smith / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Every year, one event stands out in the wine calendar: the chance to taste the most sought-after red Burgundies. Held in January at the London headquarters of Corney & Barrow, it is the annual tasting of new wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. However dry your January may be, no wine-lover would want to miss this event.
It’s an unusual affair and takes place in an underground room near Tower Bridge. The tasting is from 8.30am-12pm. Well-dressed young men and women are stationed behind tables on which the glories from each vineyard are arranged. When you approach with your glass they carefully pour a thimbleful.
Members of the trade are there to sample and secure allocations of these precious liquids, while wine writers focus both on the wine and their laptops.
It is to Aubert de Villaine, eminence grise and owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, that I owe my invitation. Surprisingly, it’s my academic training that earned me an invite to these tastings (I’m not the first professor of philosophy to have taken part in these tastings: Roger Scruton recounts his experience in his book, I Drink, Therefore I Am). In my case, it was due to my good fortune to be working with sensory science colleagues in Dijon. De Villiane supports this research.
For these reasons I was invited to the cellar in Vosne Romanée in 2010 where I guessed two vintages of DRC wines tasted blind: a 2001 Romanée St Vivant and a 1962 Richebourg. This was less due to my tasting abilities than to my prior knowledge of vintages and to the generous hints Aubert offered as he invited me to guess. As a result I was then invited to join for the annual tasting; an invitation generously extended since then by Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow. There is a polite huddle as people wait in turn for their audience with de Villaine. He responds graciously to their questions about the season; and even though he has now handed on responsibility to his nephew, it’s clear that he still has an undimmed fascination for the wines. There is no possessiveness here but rather a sense of care and respect for the exceptional soils that he has done so much to promote in his organising role for the committee that secured Unesco World Heritage status awarded to the climates of the Cote d’Or.
And what of the tasting? Writing about wines of such extraordinary finesse is a huge challenge: you soon run out of superlatives. They express both the essence of Burgundy and are like nothing else. Earthy and ethereal, as Jasper Morris once described them; and he’s right. Even the names are exotic: Échêzeaux and Grands Échêzeaux; Richbourg and Romanée St Vivant; the magnificent La Tâche and finally La Romanée-Conti. Pale crimson in colour, the wines were rich and full and yet had freshness and good acidity to balance the ripe fruit. The opening price is £1,000 per bottle for La Tâche and £2,950 per bottle for La Romanée-Conti. It’s an unusual vintage, one that de Villaine says we are only likely to see two or three times a century. I am unlikely to know them in their older age, and yet they seemed perfectly harmonious now.
There’s so much in these wines. The mouthwatering fruit and superb seductive texture of La Tâche; the slow unfolding of aroma—nectarine, rose, violets—from the Échêzeaux; the gorgeous smoky sweet and bright flavours of the Richbourg; and finally the elegance of La Romanee-Conti, a wine that stamps its quality on the mind, as Adam Brett-Smith says, and I knew at that moment that I had tasted greatness.