Aubert de Villaine

Jean-Louis Bernuy
Aubert de Villaine

Aubert de Villaine, the longtime co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, describes making wine from grands crus vineyards in Burgundy as both an agricultural endeavor and an almost mystical calling. These elite vineyards, which account for just 1 percent of the annual production of Burgundy, are considered the epitome of terroir. For many, these vineyards provide the proof that a particular site can give distinctive voice to a singular wine.

Belief in terroir is the reason de Villaine devoted himself to the successful campaign for UNESCO to declare Burgundy's climats a world cultural treasure. It's also the reason de Villaine, 76, has devoted 42 of his years to managing this estate, an unparalleled collection of eight grands crus, including the monopole Romanée-Conti, judged by many to be the finest site in Burgundy for Pinot Noir.

De Villaine's family has owned the domaine since 1911, and an ancestor bought the parcel known as Romanée-Conti in 1869. But de Villaine grew up on a cattle farm, the family's chief source of income until recently, 100 miles to the west in Moulins-sur-Alliers. As a young man, he spent a year in the United States, working for Frederick Wildman importers and Almaden Vineyards in California. He decided his future lay in wine and returned to France to study enology in Dijon.

In 1974, de Villaine became DRC co-director. The vineyards he took charge of had advantages over those of his neighbors. When his grandfather replanted most of the vines after WWII, he used clones long cultivated by DRC. Many other Burgundians opted for high-yielding clones that later proved to be poor choices. Still, DRC had adopted much of the modern technology of the post-war era, including chemical fungicides and fertilizers. De Villaine and his team quickly shifted toward organic viticulture. They began to plow some of their fields by horse. Eventually they adopted biodynamics.

In the cellar, de Villaine and longtime winemaker Bernard Noblet tried to combine the best of modernity and tradition. They bought a sorting table to eliminate poor fruit and invested in new oak barrels for aging. But as in the past, they rarely destem their grape bunches, employ ambient yeasts and leave the wines to age on the lees for long periods. The proof of success is in the bottles; DRC wines are among the finest and rarest in the world. Many of Burgundy's best winemakers today owe their philosophy to de Villaine's example.