A few South Africans had the fortune of tasting the wines of Domaine de la Romanée laid on by importer Great Domaines. David Finlayson from Edgebaston Family Vineyards in Stellenbosch was one. Here are his thoughts.
People become winemakers for different reasons, the main ones being they see a career that looks relatively interesting, offers a decent salary, opportunity to travel, you can consume your product etc, etc. But there are also those winemakers who make wine for an added reason – passion. A passion to strive and aspire to vinous perfection, year after year and over their lifetime. I like to think that I am one of these winemakers.
I have been born and bred into this business, raised to think in terms of producing excellence in a glass and all such wonderful thoughts. Be that as it may, after nearly 25 years in winemaking and experiencing the many highs and lows of the industry, sometimes the flame gets dulled. And it takes something momentous to ignite the fire in its full glory again.
The past week gave me such and experience.
The Cape Winemakers Guild, of which I am member, was fortunate enough to somehow, miraculously, arrange that Monsieur Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s iconic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti host a tasting of this most illustrious estate’s Grand Cru wines from the 2009 vintage.
The murmurings around the room were that the value of the wines to be poured was in excess of R2.5m in the current global market index.
I entered the Rust en Vrede tasting room with much expectation and hope that this would be a good tasting. I was wrong …… It was an unbelievable tasting! Out of this world!
Aubert de Villaine is a phenomenal man, so incredibly humble and modest despite being in charge of the most expensive wines and viticultural real estate in the world. His introduction and discussion during the tasting was almost ethereal and otherworldly in its calmness and the serene manner in which he presented it.
At 76 he is upright and firmly elegant, calm and gently authoritative when talking about his mentors and helpers over the years he has worked with DRC. He explained how he has been charged with looking after the land and the soil that has been worked since the times of the Benedictine monks, through the phylloxera crisis, the two World Wars and upgrading over generations by selection in the vineyards, leaving human-kind with a special place and vineyards, hopefully soon to be a World Heritage site.
Mr De Villaine’s biggest love is for the soil and that is why over the years he has converted the Domaine to complete organic farming and since 2006 to biodynamic status. The nuances of the latter’s ultimate coercion with nature are difficult to explain or describe, but they are what make the wines great.
And so, to the wines themselves. I won’t go into great detail on the flavours as each site has its own uniqueness and they were very different and clearly identifiable as being different. Therein lies the beauty of Burgundy versus other wine regions in the world. These varieties of flavours and styles from over 1 200 sites in the Cote D’Or, each making wines which have an own discernible unique finger-print. And DRC is the very best of these…
The Corton was fresh, crisp and herbal showing plenty of juicy tannins so youthful it seems a crime to drink now. The Échézeaux was the most difficult wine to get to grips with. Showing greener notes – DRC uses around 80-100% stems in their ferments, apparently – the wine exuded herbal and mineral concentration and still quite closed under oak it was tight and grippy. Needs 15-20 years I would say.
Grand Échézeaux had a slightly lighter colour than the previous but then again, they all have pretty deep and medium dark colour. (No wishy-washy, light Pinot Noir issues here.) The wine: silky, seamless and balanced.
Romanée St Vivant: dark fruit, minced fruit and spice-cherries; plums with a strong gripping palate and all muscle.
Then we hit the ultimate big guns.
Richebourg was dark in colour showing herbal, anise and some edges of cinnamon and cloves underscored by minerality and a solid structure. I’d say 20-30 years is needed to bring the wine to the edge of maturity.
La Tache: lighter red colour, bright fruit, anise and fennel on the nose but dark red berry fruit on palate. Silky smooth with a very long finish.
La Romanée-Conti: What to say? Simply sublime and not because of the reputation. It truly is such a magnificently seamless but powerful wine in terms of flavour complexity. There is a certain umami character, seaweed/nori, nuances of roasted coffee on a cold morning in the fern covered forests of central France.
I had to close my eyes and the pleasure it brought reminded me of when Nelson Mandela recounted in his biography how he would very rarely get a chocolate during his time in jail and he would slowly savour the pleasure of its taste.
Weird of me to think about that story at the time, I know, but true….
And then came the glorious Chardonnay, Montrachet. I wasn’t expecting this, nobody was really as it is apparently not for sale. It blew my socks off and the same for all the other winemakers in the room. Such intensity with balance and elegance we had never tasted before in a white wine. It had marzipan/roasted almond, anise, cinnamon and lime on palate and nose and was just out of this world.
To sum it up, the tasting and experience of listening to Mr De Villaine was everything I could have hoped and dreamed of, and more.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The thoughts and flavours of those wines just kept going round in my head. The next day I woke up after three hours sleep feeling rejuvenated and invigorated and able to run a mile. My Fire is re-ignited. I know we can never make DRC in South Africa. But then again, we have such diversity in our soils and sites that we should look more to farming as one with nature. Perhaps biodynamics should be brought into our viticulture on a giant scale, kick out all the chemical companies that sell us toxic products and let African vineyard soils, some of the oldest on earth express their true potential.
It can be done. It is just up to us.