The World’s Best Wine? No Contest: Romanée-Conti By Domaine De La Romanée-Conti
by Ken Gargett
If somebody with no expertise at all was to pose the question, “What is the world’s best watch?” I’d be very surprised if endless debate didn’t follow, offering numerous options and quite a few reasons as to why that is an impossible question to answer.
With wine, you can be sure that this is a topic that will occupy many late nights (the advantage wine lovers have over watch lovers is that they can sip on the subject while arguing its merits).
Styles and regions of wine will bring just as many disagreements – some friends swear blindly that there is nothing to match Champagne; for decades, the great Bordeaux were presumed to be the pinnacle; others will look down their noses at these wines and declare allegiance to the best Burgundies (my thoughts: these are the people who have it right!).
There is, however, one producer that has taken on almost mythical status in recent years. And one of its wines stands out above all others. For most wine lovers, if it is not the pick as the very best wine in the world, it will almost certainly rank very highly (of course, that does not preclude endless debate).
The wine is from the famous Burgundian producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and it is the flagship (one can argue that all of this producer’s wines are flagships), Romanée-Conti.
Sure, there will be vintage variation, but for me Romanée-Conti is peerless. A great bottle is literally as good as it gets.
The mythical status of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti comes with a price
Needless to say, do not expect to wander down to your local bottle shop and pick up a couple for dinner. The production is small, the demand relenting, and the price astronomical. A quick check of wine-searcher.com suggests that the cheapest bottle available anywhere in the world is a 1982 (not the greatest of vintages) for $6,000.
Good vintages will cost you three to eight times that. For a bottle.
Now before you shake your head at such madness, remember that most of the world simply needs something that tells the time.
Who and what is Romanée-Conti?
Romanée-Conti is owned jointly by the de Villaine and Leroy/Roch families, though things have not always been sweetness and light between them (Madame Bize-Leroy was unceremoniously dumped many years ago and has subsequently formed her own operation, Domaine Leroy, which also owns sections of some of the great vineyards in Burgundy and charges equally stratospheric prices).
That said, a visit here is the most desirable in the world of wine and an experience that sits atop the bucket list of most wine lovers. For years, winemaker Bernard Noblet would show the fortunate few around, sampling future gems from a barrel and pulling past glories from dark cellars. It is a thrilling experience, though Noblet has just announced his retirement.
No doubt, under his successor, a visit will continue to be one of the world’s vinous highlights.
DRC – as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is often referred to – is a monopole, meaning that the entire vineyard is owned by one entity, rather than, as is usual in Burgundy, shared among many winemakers. It also owns La Tâche (another monopole) and sections of Richebourg, Romanée-St-Vivant, Échezeaux, Grands Échezeaux, and more recently Corton.
The only red vineyard that DRC owns that is not Grand Cru (the highest regional wine classification for Burgundy) is a small section in Vosne Romanée, but that is very rarely bottled. For whites, DRC also owns a tiny section of Montrachet and an unbottled section of Batard-Montrachet. Most other wine producers would think it heaven to have even one of these sites.
The jewel in the crown is Romanée-Conti, though in fairness La Tâche is not far behind. And all of them can be truly superb.
Turning interest into obsession
Wine lovers often talk of the wine that flipped the switch, turning an interest into an obsession. For me, that wine is easy: the 1971 DRC Romanée-Conti.
It was served blind many years ago during a dinner featuring the great wines of 1945 (a brilliant vintage in France), mostly featuring Bordeaux. But this wine just soared.
Thirty minutes after finishing the wine, the empty glass was still redolent of violets; it was an extraordinary wine. Magic.
If I have ever had better then that, it would be the 1929 Romanée-Conti, opened a few years ago by a most generous friend. It was still in glorious condition, so complex, silky, and seductive.
DRC is one of those amazing producers that has the ability to transcend poorer vintages. The DRC DNA eventually emerges, and wines that should be unimpressive at best exceed all expectations.
A 1975 Romanée-Conti at the estate, from a near malignant vintage, was sublime. That said, there are certain vintages that are considered especially desirable: 1929, 1945, 1959, 1969, 1971, (I always liked 1972, but it hardly garnered universal acclaim), 1978, 1985, the trio of 1988,’89 and ’90, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2009, and more recently the scintillatingly elegant vintage from 2010.
Never buy any bottles of 1947 to 1951 – they were never made and will be fakes.
Production is very small and, as noted, prices are stupendous. And yet demand is through the roof.
On one visit to the estate, I was shown around with a couple of other aficionados, including a gentleman from India who ran a series of luxury hotels. Despite having one of the better wine lists and cellars in that vast country, he told us that he had simply never been able to source a single bottle. Not just of Romanée-Conti, but of any wine from DRC.
Unless you have the connections and a very good wine merchant, your best chance is at auction or from a wine list.
Just how good is it?
An old quote from an English judge, Maurice Healy, who began life as a teetotaler but was introduced to the glories of wine by his priest and subsequently wrote several books on the subject, puts it better than anyone ever has before or since. This excerpt from Stay Me with Flagons, which he wrote in 1940, was about a Volnay and not Romanée-Conti. But this is how I feel about DRC’s Romanée-Conti.
“I took one sip; I closed my eyes and every beautiful thing that I had ever known crowded into my memory. In the old fairy tales, the prince drinks a magic potion, or looks into a magic crystal, and all the secrets of the earth are revealed to him. I have experienced that miracle. The song of armies sweeping into battle, the roar of the waves upon a rocky shore, the glint of sunshine after rain on the leaves of a forest, the depths of the church organ, the voices of children singing hymns, all these and a hundred other things seemed to be blended into one magnificence.”
For more information, please visit www.romanee-conti.com.