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The White Club Burgundy 2012: Meeting Aubert de Villaine, Domaine Romanee Conti

 

See a 2 minute behind the scenes of me at the tasting. But read the blog too.

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As I’ve been mentioning every time I post something in 2013, I am behind in blogging. So do excuse my 6 month old news. However, I believe what I’ve been up to will stand the test of time. And I’ll be telling others about it for some time still.

In December 2012, I was asked by The White Club to go to Burgundy to document the mother of all wine tastings, the “There Can Only Be One" Domaine Romanee-Conti weekend, Mercurey, Burgundy, France. I’ll be posting bits and pieces of this weekend in the coming posts.

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Today, I’ll focus on the first part of this weekend, a visit to the iconic chateau of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, widely regarded as the most important, prestigious and iconic of all wineries. A bottle of the current vintage, if available, will set you back to the tune of 5000 Euros in a restaurant. If you can find one that actually sells it. Most sommeliers and wine fundies wax lyrically about the whiff they caught of it in an empty bottle, opened years ago by another privileged drinker. It’s the stuff people kind of go nuts about. The winemaker and cellar master, Aubert de Villaine, was described to me as the Jesus Christ of wine. Now, personally I don’t care for comparisons to the Creator, who by the way made wine out of water in stone pots (unwooded, obviously… white for a hot Israel climate?), but it did give me an idea of how highly regarded this gent is, by winos, at least. 

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The town of Vosne Romanee is a quaint little village in Burgundy, complete with stone buildings, a huge monastery/church and then this very low-key winery nestled in the bend of Rue Derriere le Four. The only way to get in here is by invitation. And meeting the winemaker is seldom a privilege you’ll have. We however, were afforded the amazing opportunity to taste 6 wines with him, selected from his private stash in a proper little dungeon cellar. Cobwebs and the works. And we’re not talking just the most recent. My first taste of Burgundy was a 1956 DRC, poured into my glass by Monsieur De Villaine himself. Eat that, wine snobs! Ok, I digress into smugness again.

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When you’re a hired hand at one of these events, you don’t say much, you don’t ask much, and you certainly don’t say no thank you to a 2000 Euro per glass wine.  So when he looked at me with a cocked eyebrow as if to say “No wine?”, I was quick to grab a glass from the little basket on the table, and do my best “Merci”. 56 years of waiting around in a bottle was thus poured into my glass. My father was was 9 years old when the grapes were harvested and he’s retired now. Not bad.

I quickly need to put this into perspective for those not familiar with the wine icons of our age.

For the musicians: Imagine Bob Dylan offering to play “Tambourine Man” for you on his porch, and then proceed to dig up some gems of his, and belt them out for you.

For the bookworms: Stephen King pulls out one of his short stories and reads it to you on his porch, then asks if he can show you some of his obscure stuff. You naturally don’t object.

For the jocks: Bakkies Botha offers to tackle you…ok, so maybe the jocks would need to take my word for it.

You catch my drift? Now, if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. This dude is a big deal in wine.

It was very special to see how he would quickly slip into the little gated alcove that is his own private stash, and come out with unlabelled wines, full of dust. He invited me in to come and take some pics. This is the Holiest of Holies of wine.  I went in with one of two other guests. A young gentleman, from Burgundy, no less, turned to me, and said with tears in his eyes: “This is the highlight of my life”. I didn’t know quite how to react, but each to his own, I guess. A sommelier described it to me as the “closest you’ll get to the blood of Christ”. Now again, it’s obvious he’s not heard of baptism, and it’s more likely to make you sin than take it away from you, but anyways, the point remains, people go silly for this wine.

I’m glad to report I realise that still it’s just old fermented grape juice.

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Inside the dusty alcove, the stone shelving was lined with bottles, with little hand-written notes keeping track of the stock. It’s scary to see someone remove a bottle from a list that says “1956 x6 blles” and then proceed to cross it out and write a “5” in its place.

Pinot Noir from the Grand Cru slopes of Burgundy, harvested almost 60 years ago, packs a delicate, but persistent punch. Flavour, fruit and structure like a steel bridge. Amazing stuff. You’ll notice in the picture above a note that says Romanee Conti 1914 1 blle. A 100 year old bottle of DRC. Imagine that. It was harvested before WW1.

 

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I can’t recall exactly all the wine we had there, so you might need to check the archives on www.thewhiteclub.com, on what was had at the cellar, but according to my pics there was a 2004, and some from the 80’s too. We also had a Montrachet, but I will never forget that my first glass was the 1956 DRC. The guests had 6 or 7 bottles of wine with him, whereas I only had some of the ‘56 and some of the Montrachet. Later on that weekend I would have La Tache, Montrachet… 24 DRC’s if I’m not mistaken.

20120214_117 Aubert de Villaine is a humble man. He is old. He has been involved in 45 vintages of DRC, making him the icon of Burgundy winemaking, the absolute authority on all things DRC and Burgundy, and he’s French, yet I was impressed by his modesty, down-to-earth manner and readiness to listen and ask questions of the guests. He is a farmer, winemaker and small town man in terms of personality. I would rate him a true ambassador to his country and region.

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After the tasting, I was able to grab a few moments with him, to extend my regards from a local wine personality who knows him personally, and to just say “hi”. When he heard I was from South Africa he was quick to point out “You have some interesting wines there”. To this day I don’t know for certain if he was being sarcastic or honest, but I judged him to be sincere, so there you have it. South Africa has interesting wines.

Oh, and as a side note to South Africans not familiar with foreign wine producing countries: we’re a small player in the international market. I met people there that didn’t even know we made wine. It was a bit of a wake-up for me as well, as someone being surrounded by amazing South African wines, one starts to think the wine world revolves around the Cape Winelands axis. Alas, it does not. We’re on the outer parts of the orbit. Yet, while I’m on the topic, I can say that in my experience, on a value, dollar to dollar comparison, South African wines beats their French counterparts hands-down. Cheap good French wine seems to be a misnomer. I saw wines in the supermarket there for R20. (E1.99). I tasted some R100 Pinot Noir from Mercurey, I got at the supermarket.To say that it would strip paint would be too kind. So in terms of value for money, South Africa is probably leading the pack with Argentine, Chile and some of the other New World guys. But read www.whatidranklastnight.co.za for a better idea of our wines.

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As per usual, I always try and get a group shot in special occasions, and so here I am with the White Club at DRC. I’m on the far right, trying to remember the word for “smile” in French. I couldn’t. It is “sourire”, it turns out. I said something along the lines of “Shoaaalha!” as the camera’s self-timer came to 1 second. Everyone seemed to understand though. Or they smiled because they were thinking “What a tool".” Anyways, only one or two of them actually spoke French. I hope.

So for all I know they now also say “shoaaalha” when they take pictures of French people, and then proceed to tell people they learned the word when they had their picture taken with their old buddy, Aubert de Villaine.

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