Tucked away in a corner on a narrow back street in Vosne-Romanée is a modest courtyard surrounded by a few buildings housing a winery and offices. Only the initials RC on the red metal gate reveal the destination: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Inside this unassuming compound, some of the world's most sought-after wines are vinified, matured and bottled. They are the fruits of an extraordinary collection of vineyards, one of the largest holdings of grands crus in Burgundy, patiently assembled and tenaciously held for more than 140 years. At the zenith is La Romanée-Conti, wholly owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC). Slightly larger than 4.5 acres, it occupies the heart of Vosne-Romanée, the nerve center of some of the greatest terroirs in the Côte d'Or.
Wars, pestilence and economic turmoil have broken up many of the region's best estates. DRC narrowly escaped a similar fate. If not for the commitment and skill of the two families that co-own it, the domaine would have been sold in the 1940s, either in its entirety or in parcels. However, through difficult times and prosperous ones, DRC has endured.
To possess great terroirs (known as climats in Burgundy) is one thing. What sets DRC apart is its history and its track record for producing wines that express the authentic character of their particular climat. For it is this notion of terroir, that elusive concept in which a grape transmits unique characteristics from a site, and the pursuit of distinctive wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is at the very heart of winegrowing excellence in Burgundy.
That DRC achieves this pinnacle is underscored by the prices commanded by its wines. DRC's Romanée-Conti 2005, for example, was released in 2008 for $3,650 to $4,300 per bottle; at retail, it now ranges from $8,000 to $16,000. And the wines' value just keeps increasing over time. At the peak of the New York auction market in 2007, Sotheby's sold a case of Romanée-Conti 1990 for $262,900-nearly $22,000 per bottle.
AT THE HELM
Aubert de Villaine is the person charged with protecting this treasure and maintaining its quality and prestige. He has been the domaine's co-director since 1974, sharing duties with members of the Leroy family. At 70, tall with an athletic build that gives him the appearance of a younger man, de Villaine carries his responsibilities with unassuming grace.
"To produce grands crus in Burgundy is, I consider, a mission," states de Villaine. "They represent barely 1 percent of the total production. They have been identified and delineated for centuries. They are the epitome of the idea of climat, which Burgundy is founded on. They consequently deserve the greatest respect and attention. The domaine, which has the responsibility of making wine from seven grands crus, two of them monopoles, is very conscious that it has the obligation to be one leader in that mission."
DRC currently owns 62 acres of vineyards, mostly in Vosne-Romanée and neighboring Flagey-Echézeaux. La Romanée-Conti and La Tâche are the two monopoles (sites owned by a single producer), supplemented by holdings in Richebourg, Romanée St.-Vivant, Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux. DRC's parcels in Le Montrachet lie on the Chassagne-Montrachet side of the appellation. Nearly 6 additional acres are leased from the eastern side of the Corton hill.
There is no disputing the consistency and brilliance of monopoles Romanée-Conti and La Tâche over the past 25 years. Where DRC shares climats with multiple growers, its bottlings are among the best, though noteworthy wines are generally produced by others.
Times are good now, but de Villaine has experienced his share of turbulence, as has the domaine during its long history. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is jointly owned by the de Villaine and Leroy families; each controls a 50 percent share. The de Villaine family has been involved in the management since Edmond Gaudin de Villaine assumed that role in 1911. The Leroy family entered the business in 1942, when Gaudin de Villaine's brother-in-law, Jacques Chambon, sold his shares to Henri Leroy. Leroy's investments allowed the domaine to survive the chaotic war years and the economic difficulties that followed.
"If what happened had not happened, I think the domaine would have been sold," de Villaine reflects. "I think it is the meeting of this tradition represented by my family and this new blood brought by Leroy that really allows the domaine to have the strength it has today."
Growing up in the 1940s and '50s, de Villaine wasn't directly involved in the wine business. The family farm, located about 100 miles from Vosne-Romanée in Moulins-sur-Alliers, raised Charolais cattle.
After his military service, de Villaine spent a year in the United States, where he worked variously for Frederick Wildman & Sons in New York (at that time the importer of DRC), Almaden Vineyards and an advertising agency in California. The experience prompted him to write his father, expressing the desire to pursue a career in wine. Upon his return to DRC in 1965, he began learning the business and taking enology courses in Beaune.
Henri Leroy had transferred his ownership share to his two daughters, Pauline and Marcelle (known as Lalou), in 1954. In 1974, Lalou Bize-Leroy and Aubert de Villaine were appointed as co-directors. However, de Villaine notes that "our parents were still there, and it's really 10 years later that we consider we took over."
Bize-Leroy, a charismatic and demanding vintner, helped push the domaine toward organic viticulture and raised the quality of its wines. But she was also a polarizing figure, and in 1991, conflict over her business decisions with the 1988 vintage of DRC's wines resulted in her leaving as co-director. She was replaced by Charles Roch, her sister's son. But less than three months after his appointment, Charles Roch died in a car accident. His brother Henry-Frédéric was named the new co-director in April 1992 and has served with de Villaine ever since.
It was a setback for de Villaine and a difficult period, but he resolved to continue to pursue the goal of making great wine from the domaine's crus. "Since '91, when Lalou left, I had to really start the domaine almost from scratch. We really, I think, progressed fast, as fast as you can imagine. We knew where we were going," he says.
Progress has been helped by stability in the team that runs the domaine. The cellar master is Bernard Noblet, 52, who joined his father, André, at DRC in 1978 and has been responsible for the vinification since 1984, when the elder Noblet retired. Nicolas Jacob, 31, was hired in 2006. He worked alongside former vineyard manager Gérard Marlot, assuming sole responsibility for the vineyards in 2007.
De Villaine owns property in Bouzeron, in the Côte Chalonnaise region immediately south of the Côte d'Or. He settled there after his marriage to Pamela Fairbanks in 1971; the two had met in New York. He felt it was necessary to be independent of DRC and wanted to be a vigneron. De Villaine has no children, and has entrusted the management of Domaine A. & P. de Villaine to his nephew Pierre de Benôit. In 1999, he entered into a partnership with his wife's cousins in the Hyde family to produce quality wines in California. He is also president of a committee proposing the candidacy of the Côte d'Or as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite these outside interests, de Villaine keeps his focus resolutely on the domaine, defending and improving it in any way he can.
IN THE VINEYARDS
De Villaine's first challenge was to improve the vineyards so that their fruit could better express the exquisite subtleties of DRC's historic terroirs.
The vineyards he inherited in 1974 were far different from those that had made the reputation of Burgundy as far back as the 16th century. The disruption caused by phylloxera, two world wars and a depression, combined with the opportunities promised by new technologies, had caused significant breaks with tradition beginning in the 1950s.
At the end of WWII, Romanée-Conti and parts of Richebourg were still planted with the traditional Pinot Fin vines (an old scion of Pinot Noir, considered desirable for its low yields, small clusters and small berries) on their original rootstocks, a result of centuries of selection using a pre-phylloxera system of cultivation known as provignage.
But decades of treatments with carbon bisulfide against the phylloxera louse had weakened the vines. After a spring frost in 1945, Romanée-Conti produced only two barrels of wine, about 600 bottles, almost one-tenth of what it produces today.
Edmond Gaudin de Villaine (Aubert de Villaine's grandfather) and Henri Leroy decided to tear out Romanée-Conti and the oldest parcel of Richebourg. "They did it completely, in one shot," Aubert says.
But the domaine had a nursery, and over the years had been selecting the best Pinot Fin plants from Romanée-Conti to propagate and replant all the vineyards, when necessary, either replacing individual plants or whole parcels.
Alas, many Burgundians were not so prudent, or so conservative. From the time of phylloxera until the 1959 vintage, the region had experienced difficult times. Yet the post-WWII period had also brought new markets and increased demand for the wines of Burgundy. Growing, protecting and harvesting larger crops through the use of new clones, chemical fertilizers and modern technology meant a vintner had more wine to sell.
Given the decades of hard times, the widespread adoption of chemicals, machinery and technology was understandable, according to de Villaine. However, it wasn't long before customers began to realize that the wines being produced in Burgundy were not at the level they expected. Technology may have improved efficiency and quantity, but quality was suffering.
Then, in the 1980s, a new wave of vignerons emerged in Burgundy, graduates of enology school and hungry for experience in other wine regions around the world. Rather than increase production through the use of technology, they questioned the current practices and wine quality. According to de Villaine: "The young people took advantage of the prosperity [in Burgundy] to improve the quality and come back toward the old lessons of tradition."
DRC was in the avant-garde of this movement. "In the beginning of the '80s, that's when these ideas of bio, of organic came in," de Villaine recalls. "I must say Lalou and I were very sensitive to these ideas because you realize little by little that this is a great terroir [that] had given great wines over the centuries without any other defense or nourishment than what man could do naturally."
Though DRC had never used herbicides or pesticides in the vineyards, de Villaine and Bize-Leroy became concerned about the effects of the use of fertilizers and chemical fungicides in the vines, not only on the soil, but on the workers.
"Of course, it took a little time, but at the beginning of the '80s we were already on our way to being organic, for the people and for the soil. In 1986, we were completely organic."
The organic work had another positive benefit: The elimination of routine fertilization combined with the low-vigor Pinot Fin reduced yields roughly 20 percent. Then DRC took another step away from technology. Under de Villaine and Roch's stewardship, the team began experimenting with biodynamic cultivation.
"Now we are entirely biodynamic," asserts de Villaine, "not because it was superior to organic, but because it was difficult to have both together. What we are interested in biodynamie is the use of plants to fight mildew. [This] helps to diminish in some years the use of copper, which unfortunately is the unavoidable way in organic cultivation to fight mildew."
The enemies of the Burgundy grower are mildew, oidium and botrytis. Copper, sulfur and clay are used, respectively, to combat these fungal diseases at DRC, however, vineyard manager Jacob stresses that "clay must be used right after the rain."
The soils are worked with light tractors, or even a horse in some parcels, to keep them fresh and aerated and promote bacterial and organic life. A compost of manure, pulverized vine cuttings and grape pomace is applied every three to four years.
Yields are naturally low because the vine age is relatively high (45 years on average; young vines don't make it into the grands crus wines), and the compost fertilizers are used sparingly.
The ultimate goal is a holistic natural balance between the plants and soils in the vineyard, a healthy symbiosis which then uses the Pinot Noir cultivar to transmit the individual climat.
"What I would really like to reach is a point, where, in the vineyards, your plant material is so good that you have very little work to do to protect the grapes and very little to sort at the harvest in order to put in the vat grapes that eventually [reflect] yields, depending on the vintage, of 20 to 30 hectoliters [per hectare]."
De Villaine has discovered archival material about the history of Burgundy and its wines in both the national library in Paris and locally in Dijon. More specifically, he's read about the Prince of Conti and the Conti family, once owners of La Romanée-Conti and the origin of the name of the vineyard since 1794.
"I realized that the Burgundy I was reading about in the books of the present, with this sort of golden legend, all these anecdotes, was completely surpassed in interest by the reality of Burgundy, the reality of its past, and that this reality gave us a very important duty," he reflects.
"In the modern world, there was a risk that we were going to pass by this duty and start to make wines that were good wines, but not the great wines that were made in the past," he continues. "I must say, I had the luck, from time to time, to be able to taste wines from the past, from the old [pre-phylloxera] Romanée-Conti, and this put the goal at a high level. The extraordinary quality of these wines told me that we really have to work at it and not only produce grapes and make wine with them, but find the way to make really great wines."
IN THE WINERY
While de Villaine believes that great wines originate in the vineyards, it is still necessary to transform the grapes into wine. For this, he relies on traditional methods in a process that is as simple, natural and as transparent as possible.
"We don't try to make better wine than the grapes we have," he says. "This is our philosophy, and I think it's a good one for Burgundy, because the talent isn't with the winemaker, it is in the climat."
During his time as director, little has changed in the winery. In 1976, two years after their appointments as co-directors, de Villaine and Bize-Leroy had a sorting table built, one of the very first in the region, allowing for a more meticulous selection of grapes when they arrived at the winery. The domaine also increased its use of new oak barrels, from 50 percent to 100 percent, in the early '70s. New oak is hygienic and helps to clarify the young wines during the élevage.
The vinifications themselves are very simple, though there is no one recipe. In some vintages, such as 2007 and 2008, a severe selection is first performed to remove any less-than-ideal fruit. In general, whole clusters are put into the vats, though partial destemming occurs in certain vintages (in 2007, for example, about 10 percent to 30 percent of stems were eliminated, depending on the appellation). There is a short, natural prefermentation maceration, up to five days, during which the must is pumped over, until the indigenous yeasts begin working.
Once the fermentation is under way, the wine is punched down once or twice a day; again, depending on the vintage. "The sunny years have more structure, so there is less pigeage in those years," explains cellar master Noblet.
What he seeks most of all is what he calls "a gentle infusion rather than extraction." Once in barrel, the fine lees are important to protect the wine and keep it fresh. According to Noblet, the better the quality of the lees, the better the wine. For the Montrachet, he likes to keep the lees in suspension to nourish and fatten the wine.
The quality of the lees and their influence on the wine during its maturation in barrel is significant. Quality grapes give quality lees, thus the need for a strict selection of only the best fruit. The lees insulate the wine from oxidation and keep it fresh. Too much lees and the wines become reduced and difficult to clarify; too little and the wines don't develop fatness in texture, what the French call gras.
Since DRC matures its wines in 100 percent new oak, barrels represent a significant investment. It purchases the stave wood three years in advance in order for the oak to have the proper seasoning prior to being coopered.
The wines spend about 18 months in barrel. There is one racking, but sometimes not until the wines are assembled for bottling. In recent vintages, when the wines are racked after the malolactic conversion, it is done barrel to barrel into one-year-old barrels, in order to avoid excessive influence from oak.
There has been no fining at DRC since the 1990 vintage, and a light filtration is done only when necessary. Noblet follows the lunar phases for bottling, which is done by gravity, six barrels at a time, and proceeds with care: "It is important to bottle slowly to retain aromas and carbon dioxide," he explains.
The DRC vinification is traditional and classic. The approach is not unusual in Burgundy, although there are variations. Some vignerons destem 100 percent and some practice a prolonged prefermentation maceration to extract color from the genetically light-colored Pinot Noir. Others like to macerate the solids and new wine after the alcoholic fermentation is complete.
What sets DRC apart is its attention to detail, from sorting to bottling. Also, it's the simplicity of the work and the patience to do nothing other than "respect the nature of the wine," in Noblet's words. Most importantly, DRC vinifies its wines to age and to express their unique characteristics.
Nonetheless, the wines are made very differently now than in the Prince de Conti's time. According to Richard Olney in his book Romanée-Conti, the fermentation time back then was much shorter and the barrel-aging about three years. And roughly 20 percent of the grapes were white.
Today, DRC wines are known for their purity, consistency and longevity. The estate is among the handful of top growers and négociants whose wines are capable of aging 50 years or longer in the best vintages. The grands crus of Vosne-Romanée are equal to the best in the Côte, such as Chambertin and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze from Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de la Roche in Morey-St.-Denis, and Bonnes Mares and Musigny in Chambolle-Musigny.
Asked whether there are any grands crus better than Romanée-Conti, Anthony Hanson, senior consultant for Christie's wine department and author of the classic Burgundy, replies, "I don't drink mature Romanée-Conti often enough to be able to comment on that, but La Tâche is a totally thrilling wine, of the greatest beauty, complexity and length of flavor, with the potential to age immaculately. Is it better than a great Chambertin, or Clos de Bèze, or Musigny? It depends on the vintage, grower, winemaker and bottler."
Given the efforts made in the vineyards over the past four decades, is DRC making its best wines today? Entrepreneur Wilf Jaeger, a Burgundy fan and longtime admirer of DRC wines, feels the domaine provides benchmark wines in their respective appellations. "Though it is hard to know whether the wines made at the domaine in recent years are the best, they are certainly as good as they have ever been," he says. "What is more obvious is the remarkable consistency that they've achieved. The wines from the top vintages are of course excellent. But what separates DRC from most other producers is how well its wines show in the more challenging vintages. I recently tasted, for example, the 1997 Richebourg and it was lovely."
HISTORY AND PEDIGREE
De Villaine's efforts are part of a long history of work in these vineyards. Benedictine monks settled in the area with grants of vineyards at the beginning of the 10th century, establishing the Abbey of St.Vivant. The monks of St.-Vivant acquired vineyards over the years, but at some point, says de Villaine, they became less interested in cultivation and leased their vines to local growers.
Records of the delimitation of vineyards around Vosne-Romanée date to at least the 13th century. Only traces the origins of Romanée-Conti to a parcel known as Clos des Cinq Journaux and a small adjoining parcel, which represent the exact boundaries of today's Romanée-Conti. These became the Cros de Cloux, and as such were leased by the Benedictines. Between 1584 and 1631, the lease passed through several hands, eventually landing under the ownership of Philippe de Croonembourg. By 1651, the parcel was known as La Romanée. La Romanée was sold by de Croonembourg's great-grandson to Louis-François Bourbon Prince de Conti, a first cousin of King Louis XV, in 1760.
By this time, La Romanée had a reputation for making great wines, and they were priced accordingly. When the Prince de Conti purchased the vineyard, he paid an enormous amount of money, more than 10 times the price of neighboring vineyards. He also reserved the entire production for himself.
Upon that prince's death, in 1776, La Romanée became the property of Louis-François-Joseph de Bourbon, Louis-François' son and the new Prince de Conti. After the French Revolution, the Prince de Conti was arrested, and in 1794 the vineyard was put up for sale as La Romanée-Conti.
Through the mid-19th century, Romanée-Conti, then under the ownership of Julien-Jules Ouvrard, remained the most expensive wine in Burgundy, selling for more than Clos de Vougeot or Chambertin. Ouvrard died in 1861; in 1869, his heirs sold La Romanée-Conti to Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet, Aubert de Villaine's ancestor.
"Romanée-Conti was sort of a crowning of [Duvault-Blochet's] buying career," recounts de Villaine. "He put together a property of 137 hectares [338 acres]. He was already in Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux, Richebourg and Les Gaudichots [called La Tâche today]. We only enlarged in Echézeaux, we bought [in] Romanée-St.-Vivant, La Tâche and Montrachet. The biggest part of the domaine today comes from Duvault-Blochet."
A great-granddaughter of Duvault-Blochet, Marie-Dominique-Madeleine Chambon, along with her brother, Jacques, and two cousins, inherited the Vosne-Romanée portion of Duvault-Blochet's holdings. She married Edmond Gaudin de Villaine in 1906. In 1911, Gaudin de Villaine became the manager of the estate. The following year, he bought back half of Romanée-Conti from his wife's cousins and also trademarked the name Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
"My grandfather started to manage the property and became passionate with it," recalls de Villaine. "He realized how precious it was and part of history. He was somebody who took the domaine through very difficult times without ever giving up, making the ends meet with his farms in the Alliers."
These were difficult times for DRC. The vineyards had not been maintained well and the market for Burgundy after WWI and the Great Depression was virtually nonexistent. At the same time, investments had to be made.
Gaudin de Villaine's brother-in-law Jacques Chambon had never been active in managing the domaine. In the 1930s, he became discouraged about the poor financial state and lack of return on investment and decided to sell his shares. DRC was incorporated in 1942 and Chambon's shares were purchased by Henri Leroy.
"He decided to sell his shares and that's when Henri Leroy bought half of the domaine. Which has been the best thing that could happen because Monsieur Leroy brought his professionalism, his very strong financial power-he never financed the domaine, but he could have been a support if necessary-and his love for the domaine," says de Villaine.
Leroy's purchase of Jacques Chambon's shares kept DRC intact, giving the two families the opportunity to bring it to the level of worldwide prestige it enjoys today.
Until the 1960s, the shareholders meeting of DRC consisted of two: Henri de Villaine and Henri Leroy. Today, there are 30 shareholders representing the two families. But it's Aubert de Villaine and Henry Roch, 47, who make the important decisions. De Villaine's cousin Henri de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy's daughter Perrine Fenel represent their families as board members.
DRC employs 31 people, excluding de Villaine and Roch. There is roughly one person per hectare (2.47 acres) working in the vineyards. In 2011, the administration will move to new offices in the renovated cuvérie of the abbey of St.-Vivant.
The company has earned sufficient revenue to cover its investments since WWII, according to de Villaine. However it did not pay distributions to shareholders from the time of the phylloxera epidemic (in the 1880s in Vosne-Romanée) until 1972.
DRC is a privately held company, and it's difficult to estimate its revenues or profits. It has been successful for the past 40 years, enjoying the boom in fine wine markets. The 2007 vintage (the latest release from the domaine), including full markups, would retail for between $62 million and $73.8 million if the entire production were sold in the United States. "Today we are in a good position, the best since a long time, but with a good conscience that we can still improve the quality in the vineyards," says de Villaine.
The wines used to be sold in mixed cases that included one bottle of Romanée-Conti. Today, DRC sells Romanée-Conti to its clients in a proportion corresponding to the crop in each vineyard each harvest.
DRC's main markets are the United Kingdom and United States. In the 1980s, Japan became a growing market, while some of the more traditional European markets, such as Belgium and Switzerland, declined in importance. De Villaine points out that current demand from Asia will force prices upward.
"We at the domaine have always had the policy to keep the price of our wines at a level where, even if this level is high, where the amateurs, the connoisseurs could buy the wine, even if it's in small quantities," says de Villaine. "The problem we have of course is that somebody who buys our wine from us can put it on the market [and] make an enormous profit. And so, we don't want to increase our prices," he continues.
But he is determined to continue to increase the quality of the wines. "With the exception of Romanée-Conti, we still have not reached our potential in the vineyards," he says. "In a good one-tenth of the domaine, the material is still not what it should be. That's why I am very pleased we have this new venture with Corton, because it gives us another goal, something to reach."
Though de Villaine may continue to play a role as a future board member, the day-to-day operations of the ongoing work in the vineyards and the overseeing of vinifications will soon be passed to the next generation. "I am 70, but I don't feel 70. I still have energy and I still feel I can bring something to the domaine," he says. "Nobody in the families is eager to see me go.
"Henry has learned about the domaine under my supervision and he is totally in phase with what we do. He is here more and more, and he shares completely my goals, my philosophy, and he is a great support. He represents half of the domaine, so his support is extremely important and efficient."
Roch has been playing a larger role, although he has his own property, Domaine Prieuré-Roch, also located in Vosne-Romanée. "There are still important challenges ahead of us," Roch says. "We must always focus on the excellence of the wines. ... There is very little to invent, but much to observe, understand and, ultimately, perfect. The goal is always to adapt to each new vintage in order to achieve the fullest and most beautiful expression of the terroirs which we have the good fortune to bring to life."
Since 2009, de Villaine's nephew Bertrand de Villaine has been training to succeed his uncle as co-director with Roch, although he will have to be elected by the shareholders. He went to enology school in Dijon and currently spends two days a week at DRC.
"At the domaine, we have always had a key generation, somebody with this passion for the domaine," Aubert de Villaine reflects. "My grandfather, for instance, never saw any of the fruit he allowed the domaine to give later, because he died in 1950. He only knew difficult times. My father knew difficult times, but also good times. I hope the next generation, who only know for the moment good times, will be able to [carry on] through the difficult times that can certainly come one day."
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has endured for almost a century and a half. Its flagship vineyards have existed even longer, witnessing wars, revolution, disease, financial instability and nearly a dozen owners. The wines of DRC are recognized around the globe for their quality and tradition and are among the best in Burgundy. It appears that, at least for the next generation or two, its future is bright.