In Burgundy's superb 2002 vintage, the wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are benchmarks for the region. Embodying both the quality of the vintage and the character of their vineyards, they are superbly balanced, elegant and fresh. I find them very classically proportioned, with intensity of fruit and the finely woven structures that will allow them to age gracefully for a few decades, if not longer.
Comparing them in the broader context of more than 350 reds I have tasted from 2002, their best crus are at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, Romanée-Conti may be the wine of the vintage. The Montrachet ranks among the vintage's best, including those from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (98 points), Joseph Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche (97) and Ramonet (97).
The Domaine produces wines from seven Grand Cru vineyards in the Cote d'Or: Romanée-Conti, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Richebourg and La Tâche are the red wines, Montrachet the sole white. And in 2002, for only the second time, DRC also produced the Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet, made from a selection of grapes from all the crus and one cuvée of declassified Richebourg.
I had the opportunity to taste these wines twice in close succession—at the Domaine in January, then again last week at Per Se restaurant in New York for DRC's annual vintage tasting. Co-director Aubert de Villaine presented the wines, which were tasted non-blind, on both occasions. In New York, the wines were decanted about one and a half hours prior to tasting.
This double exposure allowed me to understand the wines better, and to see what, if any, changes occur in young wines over a short period of time and after traveling. In general, I found that the wines had tightened up after their transatlantic crossing, with the wood tannins more present on the finish. Yet their characters remained distinct and consistent. Only the Échézeaux was disappointing compared to the earlier tasting.
De Villaine described the character of the 2002 vintages as "…purity, elegance, finesse and transparency more than opulence and power… In 10 years we can start drinking them." He noted that the '02s reminded him of the 1962s, which were displaying their full charms about 15 years later in the mid to late '70s.
De Villaine explained that two harvests were made in 2002. The first was a selection of the finest grapes. Five days later, a selection of ripe, but "less fine" grapes was made. This second harvest was declassified as premier cru. Bottled for the first time since 1999, the wine is named after Jacques-Marie Duval-Blochet, a founder of the Domaine and great, great, great grandfather of Aubert de Villaine. Both my notes for the wine contain descriptors like pure, elegant and vibrant, along with cherry flavor. The bottle tasted at the Domaine showed more length. It should be delicious in a year or two. It retails for $145.
The Échézeaux ($235) showed more substance and richness than the Premier Cru. But in New York, I noted an herbaceous or green note. The wine seemed a little less integrated, and had not absorbed the oak as well as the bottle tasted at the Domaine.
The Grands-Échézeaux ($385) was a noticeable step up. On both occasions the wine was very refined, perfumed and silky, with red fruits and spice notes. In the New York setting, I notice a hint of cocoa powder in the aroma. A beautiful wine.
While the previous three wines will almost certainly be outstanding (rating 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), the four to follow are likely to be classic in quality (scoring 95-100 points) when rated in blind tastings.
DRC took over management of the parcels in Romanée-St.-Vivant in 1966, eventually purchasing them from the Marey-Monge family in 1988. They own a little more than half of the 22 acres there. It has been replanted bit by bit and the older vines have improved quality of this cru. The 2001, tasted a year ago, was superb, but the 2002 ($550) is even better in my opinion. Though backward and very tight, it builds in intensity and displays fine persistence of fruit. But the best is the finish, which is harmonious and expansive, an indication of its future.
The most forward of the DRC range in both tastings was the Richebourg ($575). It's floral- and cherry-scented, verging on opulence, yet fresh, pure and succulent. By contrast the La Tâche ($635) was closed and more structured, but with latent energy waiting to be unleashed. It showed more mineral character and great length. I give the edge to La Tâche for its intensity.
Romanée-Conti itself was majestic. It's always the earliest site to mature, explained de Villaine when we tasted in Burgundy, and it has a slightly vegetal note that develops and expresses itself as rose petals in older bottles. The 2002 hinted at flowers and morello cherries, with spices and herbaceous notes, showing purity and refinement. Based on my tastings, both blind and non-blind, this could very well be the wine of the vintage; not only for DRC, but for Burgundy. Greatness comes at a price though-$2,425 per bottle.
How do you follow this? By switching colors, without sacrificing quality, in the Domaine's Montrachet ($1,600). "Montrachet has this extraordinary talent," said de Villaine. "You can go to the extreme in maturity, yet it always keeps its freshness." And it demonstrated this tension, with explosive aromas of honey, pineapple and citronella, offset by its vibrant acidity and strong mineral note.
For a Burgundy lover to taste these young wines is a great pleasure. To taste them twice in a month was an opportunity to confirm initial impressions and grasp the sheer beauty and complexity of these wines. Now, if I can only taste them again in 10 years to see how they develop.