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A Special Patch of Burgundy

In a 20-vintage tasting, the celebrated terroir of La Tâche shows why it's so special

Bruce Sanderson
Posted: January 3, 2006

Great old Burgundies are always in short supply, so the opportunity to taste 20 vintages of La Tâche, a grand cru from the heart of Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits region, drew almost three dozen wine lovers, collectors and wine professionals to L'Auberge Carmel in Carmel-by-the-Sea for a weekend of wine and food, despite the $2,995 price of admission.

The La Tâche vineyard is wholly owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a venerable estate in Vosne-Romanée. The domaine, whose origins date from the 19th century, makes wines that rank among the best in the region and grace the cellars of the most avid Burgundy collectors. What made this tasting even more special was the presence of DRC's co-director Aubert de Villaine.

The vintages included the current release, 2002, and spanned all the way back to 1934. The bottles were assembled by collectors Wilf Jaeger, Rudy Kurniawan and Burt McMurtry, along with Win Wilson of Wilson Daniels, DRC's U.S. importer. The tasting took place over the weekend of Dec. 2 through 4, 2005.

After a reception that featured the whites of de Villaine's own estate in Bouzeron, Friday's dinner showcased the Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet, Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux and Romanée-St.-Vivant from the 2002 vintage. I had tasted the 2002s twice earlier this year and was amazed by how approachable they were, with fragrant aromas, intense fruit and firm structures. They are set for a long life ahead. Served with the cheese course was a mystery wine, which proved to be the La Tâche 2000. We were off to a good start and walked out into the fresh Pacific air anticipating the next day's main event.

It began with eight vintages of La Tâche paired with a four-course lunch. What made the tasting interesting was the order of the vintages. They were presented "not by vintage but how we think they will taste together," said L'Auberge managing partner David Fink as he introduced the lunch.

De Villaine made some opening remarks that put the tasting in context. "The essential quality of wine is to be drunk," he began. "Like everything that is born, wine will die. Some terroirs have the advantage to age better than others. And like all vins de terroir, they whisper more than shout."

He also urged us to allow the wines to develop in the glass. "Some wines were in prison for a long time, and now they are free. They need to breathe," he cautioned.

First up were the 1997 and 1985 (tasting notes and ratings follow). The '97 displayed a green, vegetal aroma that was present in a few of the other wines, too.

"One thing I noticed in the evolution of our wines, especially Romanée-Conti, is a vegetal note that later becomes this aroma of rose petal," de Villaine explained. The 1985 revealed a more mature, seductive bouquet of berries and spices that I find so appealing in aged Burgundy, but became fragile after an hour or so in the glass.

These were followed by the 1966 and 1956; 1993 and 1990; and 2002 and 1942. My favorite was the 1942, a La Tâche of immense power and vigor at more than 60 years of age. It was followed closely by the 1966, 1990 and 2002.

But the vintage that perhaps most illustrated the quality of the La Tâche terroir was the 1956. Pretty much a write-off on most vintage charts where France is concerned, it almost wasn't bottled by DRC.

"It was always a thin wine, the runt of the litter," stated de Villaine. "After about 30 years, it opened." Though one of the lighter and more fragile wines of the tasting, the fact that this wine is alive at almost 50 years of age attests to the pedigree of La Tâche.

Wines like the '56 show how difficult it is to predict how a wine will evolve. "Ultimately, you have to be confident in the terroir. If the work is done well, the terroir should show itself," said de Villaine.

The concept of terroir is difficult to describe. I liken it to an environmental genetic code that provides certain vineyards with a biologically competitive advantage. Energy is transmitted from the soil and subsoil to the grapes. From La Tâche, the earth speaks through the complexity and longevity of the wines. In the wine, a combination of flavors—fruit, flowers, vegetable and mineral—evolves in the bottle and changes, once it is poured in the glass, over time. This is what puts La Tâche in rare company with a handful of other wines from Burgundy, elevating it above most.

Beyond this, specific terroirs can impart distinctive flavors and consistent character to a wine, setting it apart from other terroirs that may be no more distant than down a hillside or across a road. In La Tâche I find fraises de bois, the wild strawberries that grow in France, with a spicy character, sometimes exotic, like Asian spices, particularly in the 1985 and 1978. These spice notes seem to develop into underbrush or forest-floor aromas and flavors with time. There is also a vegetal note in some of the young wines that develops into floral and mint flavors with age. Above all, there is intense, sweet fruit.

At the evening session, six pairs of La Tâche were matched to a seven-course menu prepared by L'Auberge Carmel executive chef Walter Manzke and his team. The 1989 and 1980 opened the series. "I thought these would be a good wake-up call," said Jaeger, who organized the vintages. The '89 showed surprising firmness, and the '80, great clarity and precision. The 1957, poured with the '47, again proved that a poor vintage can result in a pleasant drink when the right combination of terroir and human commitment come together.

It was back to youth for the 1996 and 1991, both fine, structured reds with beautiful fruit that promise pleasure in future decades. Then, two of the highly anticipated vintages of the tasting: The 1962 and 1934 are rich, masculine versions of La Tâche. I was less enamored with this pair than others at my table. Nonetheless, they were impressive. The 1971 and 1964 followed; the '71 was not in the best condition, but the '64 was my favorite of the evening's vintages.

We concluded with the 1999 and 1978, two fabulous Burgundies from highly regarded years. The former exhibited loads of candied cherry and berry flavors, while the latter was sexy and oozed the kind of aromas the I love in mature red Burgundy: sweet cherry, forest floor, truffle and exotic spices. If the '99 is on the same path of evolution as the '78, La Tâche fans are in for a real treat in 20 years.

But predicting the future of these wines is more art than science. Those lucky enough to have these bottles in their cellars can follow the evolution over time and connect their impressions of these vinous snapshots. And though this tasting and others like it serve to generate much discussion, ultimately the wines have the final say.

The following notes are presented in the order tasted in three separate tastings. Beginning with the 1997, the wines were presented in pairs.

Wine Score Auction Price
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI Vosne-Romanée Cuvée Duvault-Blochet 2002 91 NA
Light garnet. Very fragrant, floral, fruity aromas of strawberry, mineral. Slightly peppery in taste, this is very supple, yet with grip and a long finish. —B.S.
Mint and spice notes accent the cherry aroma. This is more feral, with earth and underbrush accents too. Still quite oaky, but this has more power and depth. Needs time. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI Grands-Echézeaux 2002 94 NA
Sweet fruit aromas of pure cherry. Rich, yet elegant and firm displaying a vibrant structure. It shows more finesse than the Echézeaux and the fruit has absorbed the oak better, but it's very tight now. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI Romanée-St.-Vivant 2002 95 NA
Very seductive aromas of strawberry, cherry, floral, spice and pepper. There is even more structure here than the E & GE, from both acidity and tannins. Very fine, with a long, long finish. —B.S.
Light garnet color. Cherry and strawberry notes embedded in the firm structure. It's smoky, but without the depth, length and finesse of the '02s. It picked up a vegetal note with air. —B.S.
Light red with brick rim. An herbal, vegetal aroma initially, this is a supple, gentle La Tâche, with more underbrush than fruit flavors, fine tannins and moderate acidity. It opened up with air, showing more floral and fruit tones and a richer texture. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1985 93 $1,604
Red brown center, orange edge. Seductive fruit and spice bouquet, with fleeting notes of cherry, kirsch and rose. Warm and spicy on the palate, elegant yet sumptuous, showing fine length and harmony. After about an hour in the glass, it turned more acidic and fragile. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1966 97 $1,304
Light brick with orange edge. This also exhibited a slight vegetal note initially, along with plenty of forest underbrush, growing more penetrating with a core of sweet cherry in its bouquet. A caressing red, full of silky, sweet cherry and berry flavors and smoke. A picture of finesse, superb balance and a long finish. This did not lose any intensity over an hour in the glass. —B.S.
Brick with an orange rim, very close in color to the 1966. There is a different set of aromatics here, offering caramel, raisin, smoke and decaying autumn leaves. Pleasant enough on the palate, in an immediate way, slim and without the impact and length of the '85 or '66. Very enjoyable. —B.S.
Light red to rim. Beautiful nose, very youthful and pure. With air a vegetal note emerged. Packed with dense fruit and marked by a very firm structure of both acidity and dense tannins. The fruit is locked up right now in this massive, powerful La Tâche. Rather than open in the glass, this appeared to close up. You have to have faith; this will be great. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1990 97 $2,137
Brilliant aromas of sweet cherry, strawberry and spice herald ripe sweet fruit on the palate. It's concentrated and beginning to show some maturity as truffle and forest underbrush notes emerged over time. There's terrific balance between all the elements, followed by an excellent finish. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 2002 96 $1,251
Limpid garnet. Absolutely stunning aromas of pure cherry, strawberry and raspberry mark this La Tâche. It's vibrant, balanced and very elegant, with ripe fruit and tannins and a long finish. Very promising future. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1942 98 $1,763
Recorked at the Domaine. Incredible color, red center with a brick rim; more youthful than the 1966. The complex bouquet of autumn woods, smoke and mineral notes changed to wild strawberry and violet after about 20 minutes in the glass. Very sweet fruit in the mouth, displaying hints of caramel and raisin, this is expansive and vigorous at 60 years old. This continued to gain with time in the glass and just cruised along. —B.S.
The immediate impression is one of a fresh, sumptuous nose of cherry and currants. Tight, firm and closed, this has an edge today, along with a velvety texture. Patience is required here. More textural than the 1980. —B.S.
A La Tâche of great clarity, the 1980 possesses a delicate, complex bouquet of cherry, currant, smoke and mineral, and later a touch of mint. Very elegant and vibrant, this shows fine length, intensity and delicacy. —B.S.
Pale and light in color. Complex notes of underbrush, truffle, and sweet fruit mark the bouquet. It's a hedonistic wine initially, giving more in aromas and the initial impression on the palate. Fleeting flavors, a delicate balance and shy on the finish. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1947 89 $2,350
Recorked in the mid-60s. Good color, but a musty, cellar aroma never blew off. Vigorous on the palate, this has a sharpness to its acidity, displaying dried cherry and woodsmoke flavors, followed by a modest finish. Not typical cork taint, but definitely compromised. —B.S.
Deep color. Very pure, fruit confit aromas of cassis and blackberry. A rich La Tâche, with a combination of ripeness and high acidity. It's upfront in its appeal today, with a great nose and tight finish. —B.S.
Very good color. This is fresh and succulent, with saturated cherry and currant flavors. It's bright and well balanced, but the dense tannins dominate the finish. A muscular style that requires time yet. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1962 95 $3,760
Fading color. Big, powerful bouquet of molasses. sweet fruit and smoke. Sweet licorice and dried berry flavors get a boost from fine acidity, yet this is dense with finely-meshed tannins. A real layered wine. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1934 94 $9,367
Recorked. Good color. Slightly musty nose, but then mint and underbrush notes emerges. This is complex and powerful, but a little chunky and dense with smoke, sweet dried cherry, ending with slighty rustic tannins on the finish. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1971 88 $2,820
There's an alluring, sweet fruit bouquet of strawberry, cherry, leather and smoke. Like a different wine on the palate, it dissipates quickly and is dry on the finish. A green, vegetal note appeared with air. The consensus was that this bottle was not in good condition. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1964 98 $1,541
Good color. Like a distilled version of the 1971 bouquet-sweet cherry, strawberry and smoke-intense and piercing. This is even better in the palate, with an incredible sweetness, fat midpalate, licorice chewiness and vibrant acidity. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1999 97 $1,026
Very deep color. Huge aromas of jammy, candied black cherry, blackberry, boysenberry and spice, extremely charming. An opulent, full-bodied, full-throttle La Tâche, concentrated and packed with ripe tannins and bright acidity, with a long, lingering finish. —B.S.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI La Tâche 1978 97 $1,930
Good color. Stunning, sexy bouquet that delivers pungent sweet cherry, forest floor, truffle and Asian spices. It saturates the palate with flavors, shows great extract, yet remains elegant, ending in a long, intense finish. —B.S.

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