March 20 (Bloomberg) -- If you stand on the road next to Burgundy’s most famous property, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, you’ll see no discernible aura hovering over its collection of grands crus vineyards. Yet these plots are where the world’s benchmark chardonnay and pinot noir wines come from. (There are eight: one white, Montrachet, and seven reds: Corton, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Romanee-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tache and the crown jewel, Romanee-Conti, for which the estate is named.)
Even in a bountiful year, DRC produces well under 10,000 cases, the equivalent of spilling a few tantalizing drops into the maw of immense worldwide demand, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring issue.
I’ve sampled DRC on yachts in Florida, in cold Burgundian cellars, at Hong Kong auctions and in wood-paneled rooms at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. What strikes me always is what the wines share: perfect balance, layered flavors, silky textures and, despite their delicacy, tremendous aging potential.
More than any other estate’s portfolio, DRC’s wines have distinct personalities, each capturing its vineyard’s individual terroir, even in less-than-stellar years. They don’t come cheap. Bottles from 2009, the most recently released vintage, range from $700 to $15,000, and older years can cost from $1,000 to $2,000 an ounce.
Are they worth it? If you believe that the invisible hand of the market always gets it right, the answer is a resounding yes. London-based electronic wine exchange Liv-Ex’s DRC index rose 54.4 percent from August 2008 to January 2013, far outpacing the Liv-Ex 50, which tracks Bordeaux first growths like Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
Rarity, reputation and the current craze for Burgundy -- especially among Chinese collectors -- are the reasons DRC is the hottest label at auction today. Last year, its wines accounted for seven of the top 10 lots at Acker Merrall & Condit Co.’s auctions and 17 percent of its global dollar volume. (Not every DRC wine is fabulous. The estate had some rough patches in the 1970s and 1980s. The best recent years are 1990, 1999, 2005 and 2009.)
The wines’ taste and character come from a confluence of factors. The first is location. Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, a 30-mile-long (48-kilometer-long) strip of limestone-rich soil, is a mosaic of tiny plots -- only 33 of which are officially classified grand cru, the highest quality level.
The most legendary vineyard is Romanee-Conti, a 1.81-hectare (4.47-acre) patch on a gentle hillside in the commune of Vosne-Romanee that’s marked only by a low stone wall with a 17th-century cross on top.
Beyond are vines so prized that three years ago, an extortionist threatened to poison them unless DRC’s owners paid him 1 million euros ($1.4 million). Luckily, he was caught before he could commit the wine-world equivalent of regicide.
The second is a meticulous attention to winemaking. Co-owner Aubert de Villaine spares no expense in the careful coddling of DRC’s vineyards. All are farmed biodynamically, an uber-organic method that requires more workers, and are plowed by horse so as not to compact soil and damage roots.
Yields are purposefully lower than regulations permit in order to enhance the grapes’ intensity and concentration. And a long sorting table ensures only perfect fruit goes into fermenting vats; in not-so-good years such as 2007, de Villaine discards about half of the crop.
The resulting reds form a powerful hierarchy, from earthy Corton through sublime Romanee-Conti. Does that mean that if I had the requisite richesse, I’d invest in the best vintages of the deliriously expensive top label? Nope. Instead of splurging on 2009 Romanee-Conti’s $15,000-a-bottle ethereal perfection, I’d go for the slightly less exalted La Tache, with its notes of crushed rose petals, leather and licorice. At a “mere” $3,000 a bottle, that’s a price I can drink to.
(Elin McCoy writes about wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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