Like winemakers who reckon a difficult vintage is far more fun to make than an easy one, Adam Brett-Smith’s command of the written word rises to the challenge of a tough year. The famously difficult 2016 vintage in Burgundy, he writes in his annual overview of the wines of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, was “born out of tumult, even despair, at a terrible cost.”
The heavens conspired against Burgundy that year. Winter 2015-16 had been weirdly mild, with no frost or snow to rid the vineyards of pests and diseases. Spring was one of the wettest on record; mildew was rife. Then a window of warm weather in April cheered people up until three days of “savage frosts” wrecked everything.
“On the morning of April 27th, Brett-Smith – managing director of the domaine’s importer Corney & Barrow – writes, “it was discovered that virtually all the young shoots of Montrachet, Bâtard Montrachet, Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux had been literally burnt off.”
The other vineyards were spared the massacre. Corton, Romanée St Vivant, Richebourg, and the two monopoles(exclusively owned vineyards) La Tâche and Romanée-Conti were unscathed; as the year wore on, things began to look up. From 15 July (winemakers are always very precise in their dates) a glorious summer finally began, leavened by a couple of rainstorms, beneficial as they mitigated what were becoming worryingly dry conditions.
“It was a year of two sides,” Domaine de la Romanee Conti’s owner Aubert de Villaine said on a morning January in Corney’s tasting rooms, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London. “It was very difficult, and then it showed another face in the middle of July. The wounds were cured.”
The summer wasn’t enough to save Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux though, where 90 per cent of the crop was lost (de Villaine bottled 980 magnums of the first and 710 of the second).
“But the rest of the summer was perfect,” he said. “It erased the problems, except in terms of quantity. In our minds we were prepared for it to be hard, but when we saw how dark and intense the juice was, it was a divine surprise.”
The wines have met with acclaim. This isn’t unusual of course, for one of the half-dozen most famous estate in the world, whose wines sell for many thousands of pounds per bottle (the Romanee Conti 2016 is released, pre-tax, at £9,750 per case of three).
There’s something heroic about bottles bearing such price tags coming out of such desperation
But don’t forget this was a vintage born of despair. There’s something heroic about bottles bearing such price tags coming out of such desperation. And even more wonderful, that they should be so beguilingly delicious. When de Villaine describes this year as “this incredible scenario… which now places 2016 amongst the most perfect vintages of these past few years,” you may believe him or not, but there’s no doubt these wines will endure, and be remarkable, for years to come.