The Domaine Romanée-Conti is the most rarefied and expensive wine in the world, with vintages that need decades to mature. At a tasting for the 2006 DRCs, Bruce Palling hears one vintage intone “Leave me alone you fool--don’t you know I am trying to sleep?” ...
The acronym DRC is a potential minefield. Besides Drug Rehabilitation Centre or Dutch Reformed Church, it more commonly refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo or Domaine Romanée-Conti.
The former is perhaps the most misruled, war-torn kleptocracy in Africa, the latter is the most rarefied and expensive wine in the world. My preference is always for the Domaine Romanée-Conti: less sexual violence, more deliciousness.
The wine has a long history. The Romans cultivated this tiny slice of Burgundy a couple of millennia ago, with the Benedictines taking over from the Bishops of Langres and Autun in the tenth century. Its most illustrious five-acre vineyard was purchased by the Prince de Conti in the 18th century; upon his death it was sold to one of Napoleon's bankers. Then as now, only a few hundred cases were produced each year.
But it's not the pedigree that really matters. Rather, it's the calibre of Romanée-Conti and the handful of other wines produced by the Domaine--all in mystique-fuelling miniscule amounts. The First Growths of Bordeaux--Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Haut-Brion and Margaux--produce on average 100,000 cases annually, whereas DRC releases around 6,000--and less than 500 of these are Romanée-Conti. The only other exclusive wine they produce is La Tâche, in twice the amount as the Romanee-Conti, plus portions of Richebourg, Romanee-St.Vivant,Grands Echézeaux and straight Echézeaux.
It's tricky to describe the difference in taste between red Burgundy and Bordeaux. Burgundy is more difficult to grow; only a handful of producers succeed in regions beyond Burgundy itself. At its best, it is floral, mouth-filling and heady, appealing more to the emotions than the intellect. But when off-target it is thin, weedy and without depth, which is why many Bordeaux lovers think it is a complete con (particularly as wines from the same region vary dramatically in price and quality). Bordeaux is more linear and straightforward, whereas Burgundy is more elusive and sensuous. Bordeaux is Bach, Burgundy is Mozart.
So the Domaine's rarity, together with the fact that it is released at prices that are often a fraction of its market value, ensure an unholy annual scramble for bottles. One friend of mine who used to help allocate the vintage in Britain for Corney & Barrow, the country's exclusive agents, said it was often necessary to hide himself for days after the allocations were made to avoid harassment from otherwise polite customers. But who can blame them? A story going round is that one British customer paid for his child’s education purely through the sales of his annual allocation. Prices for the exceptional 2005 vintage are astronomical--the entry level Echézeaux is now around £600 a bottle, while La Tâche is upwards of £2,500 and Romanée-Conti nearly three times that.
But like many of life's most trumped up experiences, DRC vintages are not always so thrilling on first encounter. Alas, most are drunk far too young. Great vintages shouldn’t be touched for at least 20 or 30 years; lesser ones demand patience for 15. The 2005 DRCs, for example, probably won’t even begin to re-emerge until the middle of the next decade. Most connoisseurs will tell you that the earliest vintage that you should drink now is the '92.
I have tasted most all of them probably 50 times. The first serious tasting I attended was 20 years ago, when the DRC's then co-proprietors, Aubert de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy, hosted a dinner at London's Groucho Club in Soho. Only one of the ten or so wines really bowled me over that night because the oldest was only 15 years. Before they mature, DRC wines can be tight and unyielding.
I remember being at dinner with a friend in the mid-1990s; he opened a bottle and asked me to guess the vintage. It was prickly, dense and powerful--I rashly assumed it was a great Rhone--a young Hermitage or perhaps a Côte-Rôtie. To my surprise it was a La Tâche '66! It took more than an hour for it to settle down in the glass, and by then I was acting like a crazed junkie, attempting to wrest a few more drops from the long-emptied bottle........