The pours at the annual Domaine de la Romanée-Conti tasting at Corney & Barrow are always minuscule (naturally – these wines don’t come cheap). This year it mattered not a jot. The 2017 vintage is so concentrated, so layered, that you feel a thimbleful would be sufficient.
“The first truly generous vintage since 2009,” a bouyant Adam Brett-Smith, Corneys’ managing director, writes in his introduction to this year’s release. The domain’s owner Aubert de Villaine considers it “superb both in quantity and quality.”
They might well be pleased. Last year’s tasting of the 2016 vintage was like a wake in comparison. 2016 was a vintage “born out of tumult, even despair, at terrible cost” Brett-Smith wrote this time last year, of the terrible frosts at the end of April.
The first truly generous vintage since 2009
The weather in 2017 was much kinder, if not without its nail-biting moments. A glorious April prompted early budburst, which too was threatened by frost. For three days the domaine and its neighbours burnt straw in front of the vineyards – not to protect the vines from cold but from the sun’s rays, which might “by a process of magnification, have burnt the iced shoots.”
A warm May brought “early and fast” flowering; June temperatures reached 39C; July was wetter (with consequent fears of oidium and mildew). August was dry and warm with showers at the end of the month arriving with “impeccable timing…to allow for perfect ripening,” says Brett-Smith.
Everything seems to fall into place for this vintage: we tasted the wines at Corneys’ HQ, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London, on the sort of clear, bright January morning that makes the heart sing. I’ve no idea if it was a fruit day, a flower day or a root day, but it was a perfect tasting day.
Quantities are back to normal. Where 2016 had almost no Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux, in 2017 there are 1200 cases of each; Corton and Romanée-Conti come in at just over 600 cases. Allocation will be “as fair as possible,” Brett-Smith says, with the focus “on the private customer as a consumer rather than a speculator.” Both he and de Villaine try to keep the wines out of the secondary market, but such is their value that is all but impossible. Romanée Conti 2016 was released a year ago at just over £3000 a bottle: it is now changing hands for £18,452, six times its release price.
As for the wines, they will have critics reaching for the glorious metaphor. Above all they have weight (“I tried to get that across,” Brett Smith told me. “Everyone talks about juice in 2017, but weight is all”). In my notes I have the word in half a dozen variations, trying to transmit the idea of gravity-defying density. The Échézeaux, for example, is a symphony of mass and lightness, like medieval stained glass upheld by robust stone tracery; then there’s the the fine-boned delicacy of La Tâche, and the slatey austerity of Richebourg…
More than anything, the wines are serious and charming in equal measure. It’s very difficult to generalise with seven wines of such different character. That wonderful weight is one common factor, as is a persistent sweet length. They have restrained power bolstered by fine tannins and mouth-tingling acidity which will carry them to a tremendous age.