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‘Nature rules’ for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021

The struggles of the vintage and its ‘pathetic’ yield have been documented across Burgundy, but what are the results in the glass for its most prized terroir? Laura Richards reports from a tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021

Words by Laura Richards

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 2021 vintage
The Collection
The 2021 vintage was the first in Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's history that candles were used in the vineyards

Of course, even Burgundy’s most hallowed terroir is not immune to acts of god – and for the makers of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the 2021 vintage serves precisely as a reminder of the sheer power of nature. Indeed, 2021’s vintage and its harsh growing conditions seem to have provoked something of an existential crisis for DRC co-director Perrine Fenal: ‘We have to ponder our possibilities and also our limitations, our duties in our lives, knowing and accepting that our place is within nature.’

Fenal delivered this message alongside Bertrand de Villaine, nephew of Aubert de Villaine, at a masterclass held at Corney & Barrow’s head office in London this February. Before unveiling the wines, the co-directors offered a reminder of the conditions that provoked such a profound reaction. Dogged by spring frost from April 6 to 8, with temperatures reaching as low as -8C in the midst of budbreak, it was the first time in the estate’s history that it utilised candles in the vineyards to protect vines against the chill at such a delicate time in their annual cycle.

DRC harvest

It was a decision they seem to have agonised over as an estate practising biodynamic viticulture. As de Villaine puts it: ‘We don’t think we have the right to modify what happens – and whatever we do, in the end nature will always win.’ And what an onslaught Burgundy faced from Mother Nature that year: vineyards later came up against a wet growing season, with resultant disease, including mildew, another miserable factor for the already weakened vines to contend with.

Despite best efforts, yields were at their lowest in 50 years, down by 50% in Vosne and 90% in both Corton and Montrachet. It’s quite the contrast to the abundance just recently celebrated at 2022 en primeur tastings from across Burgundy’s other estates (DRC always releases one year behind the rest of the region). Ultimately, we’re talking about a vintage size that’s been labelled ‘pathetic’ by Corney’s otherwise buoyant managing director Adam Brett-Smith.

Energy and vigour are two of the prevailing qualities of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021 vintage

Nevertheless, the domaine benefitted from pleasant harvesting conditions before facing the rigours of what Brett-Smith stylishly describes as ‘haute couture’ grape selection in his notes that accompanied the tasting. The berries and stems were ripe enough for DRC to maintain 100% whole-cluster fermentation. Careful handling in the winery under the steer of maitre de chai Alexandre Bernier saw a shorter-than-usual maceration period allowing for gentle extraction, while time in barrel was also reduced in order to give the terroir the best chance of expression in a tough year.

It has resulted in wines that provoke the usual superlatives, but with the added metaphor of a fighter championing against the odds. Indeed, energy and vigour are two of the prevailing qualities of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021 vintage. Freshness and elegance are also present across the wines, something that seems to correlate with assertions that the wider Burgundy 2021 vintage harks back to a more classic style; less rich and more approachable than what has been seen in recent ‘solar’ vintages.

DRC vineyards

In the Vosne-Conti 1er Cru (prices currently unavailable), for example, there’s excellent expression, with the purist red- and black-fruit perfume on the nose. The Romanée-Conti (£12,750 for a case of three, in bond) is energetic yet elegant, a wine that de Villaine describes as ‘racy’ and ‘smooth’, in his view delivering an elegance a step up on the other wines from the 2021 vintage.

Above all, La Tâche (£4,400 for a case of three, in bond) stands out as a wine that could be enjoyed now thanks to its seductive plummy aromas, whose concentration continues long after on the palate. One commentor in the room described the wine as ‘complete and balanced’, and Fenal had to agree. ‘For me, La Tâche stands out a little bit because it gives this sense of serenity and accomplishment through the difficulties,’ she says, suggesting that the struggle of the vintage is more clear in other wines such as the Corton (‘you feel it’s a wine that’s been through things’).

La Tache
La Tâche stands out in the 2021 vintage as a wine that could be enjoyed now

When asked how they think these wines will develop, Fenal drolly quips, ‘there are not a lot of wines to wait for.’ Allocations of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are famously tight in a typical vintage; the 2021 vintage limited yet still by the circumstances. But there’s a sense that with many of these wines, buyers would be rewarded with their readiness for drinking. ‘They are quite approachable already,’ adds Fenal.

Naturally, Brett-Smith has a poetic way of summing up Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021. ‘What we notice at the domaine again and again is that vintages borne of truly difficult conditions have a beauty in direct proportion to the difficulties associated with them,’ he says.

But it’s Fenal’s phrasing that is perhaps the most poignant in such a turbulent year for the vineyard. ‘For me, the words to sum it up are: “nature rules”.’