It’s getting close to spring in Naples, and that means one thing for us at Decanted…new releases. Yes, new releases in the spring! And not from the southern hemisphere. The spring brings about lots of excitement in the wine world, with some of the most sought after wineries releasing their newest vintages from California, Italy, and France. But one winery trumps all others…Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC for short) dates back to 1272 when the Abbey of Saint Vivant in Vosne acquired 1.8 hectares of vineyard in Burgundy, France. In 1631 it changed hands to the de Croonembourg family, who renamed it Romanée, they also acquired what was to be one of the most famous winery vineyards – La Tâche. After a bidding war in 1760 between the mistress of Louis XV of France and Louis Francois, prince of Conti (who won and changed the name to Romanee-Conti), the winery was seized during the revolution and auctioned off. The winning bidder sold it off again in 1869 to Jacques-Marie Duvault-Bloche who has built the Domaine into what it is today.
So what’s so special about DRC?
In France, everything is about the land and DRC is no different. Their vineyard holdings in Burgundy include some of the best: La Tache, Romanee-Conti, Richebourg, Romanee-St-Vivant, Grands Echezeaux, Echezeaux, and Montrachet. All of the vineyards are Grand Cru, the highest rank in Burgundy, indicating that they are among the best selections of land in the region for Pinot Noir growth. Of these, La Tache and Romanee-Conti are not only the most sought after from the winery, but some of the most coveted wines in the world. Both vineyards are monopoles.
A monopole is a designation given to a vineyard when the vineyard is controlled and all wine is produced by one winery. This is extremely rare in France, especially Burgundy, due to Napoleonic inheritance laws that have been in place for centuries. According to the law, all property inheritance must be split equally between heirs. As you can imagine, some modern-day properties have now been split hundreds of times resulting in some parties owning single rows in a vineyard…hardly enough to produce a significant amount of wine. Once the wine reaches the production facility, modern technology is mixed with traditional methods using the best oak from the Troncais forests (France) for their barrels.
How do I get a bottle of DRC?
There are a few obstacles to being able to actually drink a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. The first being price. The recently released 2009 vintage (one of the best on record), starts at $1,000….for one bottle. We get a lot of questions about whether the wine is worth the price or not. I usually answer with the explanation of how special the land is, that I addressed in the previous paragraph AND the fact that there is not much of it…at all. Which leads to the second problem, the wine is highly allocated. Allocated is a term used in the wine industry for wineries that hand select who receives the wine. Selection is based on a various number of factors including purchase history and support of other brands that a winery owns. In my experience as a retailer, DRC is one of the only wineries in the world that has survived (and thrived) the recession and emerged with not only a strong allocation list, but lengthy waiting list. As in any industry, price is affected by supply and demand.
But if you are looking to get a bottle of DRC on your hands, now is the time. The wine of all wines is now in pre-order and a know a number of retailers (ourselves included ) who are in the process of selling their allocation now. And if you do get a bottle, call me.
As I’m entering the world of wine education (I’m in the middle of my intermediate level course for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification), I’ve been pondering different styles of wine and exploring more so than I typically do. I’ve never been a fan of heavily oaked Chardonnay but as I learn more and more about the grape, its growing regions and high acidity levels I’ve come to discover I’m also not a fan of non-oaked versions. So what’s the answer, oak or no oak?
The argument for oak
I begin with the fact that chardonnay grapes from Napa Valley are worlds different from chardonnay grapes in Chablis and Burgundy. The warmer climate grapes like California, Burgundy and Australia can benefit from some oak fermentation and/or aging. Warm weather prompts higher yield levels and riper fruit. As chardonnay ripens, the sugar increases and forms strong flavors and aromas of tropical fruits like pineapple and banana. Oak fermentation balances the fruity characteristics and complements those flavors creating a well-balanced, complex wine. In this case, oak is a positive and delicious treatment for the wine…in moderation. Yes, I’m seen and tasted some very heavily oaked versions – many of which used either 100% new oak barrels (the flavors are stronger, the newer the barrels) or an inexpensive replacement to oak barrels, oak chips. The wines I have tasted that achieve the best demonstration of the grape in this style use a combination of new and used oak barrels or even a combination of oak and stainless steel batches.
The argument for no oak
There’s something special about a Chablis. The crispness, minerality, delicate peach flavors that just make you want to drink unoaked Chardonnay for the rest of your life. But I’m not sure if the style would work in a warmer climate. The cool growing region of Chablis and other new world regions – Washington, for example – restrict the yield and development of the grapes and the resulting fruit has higher acidity levels, a mineral characteristic and what reviewers refer to as ‘stone’ fruit (peaches for the layman). In this case, the use of oak in fermentation/aging could disrupt those delicate, yet strong fruit flavors and completely over power the wine. The result is something completely different and unique from its sister style in California & southern France.
I’m not sure there is one righteous path for winemakers in search of the perfect Chardonnay. What I’ve learned through my ‘research’ is Chardonnay is a much more complex variety than the big box brands demonstrate. It is highly reflective of the climate and terrior which it is grown which can also dictate a certain style of production. I found the key is balance in the wine, and achieving that – whether it requires oak or no oak – is the only important thing.
A few weeks ago we made the lengthy voyage up to Tampa (ok it was only a two hour drive) to dine at Bern’s Steak House. We’ve heard over and over and over about how wonderful this place is and how the wine list is just beyond comparison. So being the winos, that we are we just had to investigate.
Bern’s Steak House is located in one of the shoddier sections of Tampa and looks like nothing more than a pub house from the exterior. But once inside, you automatically feel like you are transformed to a retro castle that is surprisingly reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World.
Bern’s opened in 1956 and has been impressing customers since then with their unwavering devotion to customer service and quality. Each customer is offered a complimentary tour of both the wine room and kitchen. The kitchen is the most well oiled machine I have ever seen. There are separate stations (mini kitchens) for each menu item from a grill that can cook 200 steaks to an in-kitchen fish tank where rumor has it you can even pick your own fish from. The staff at Bern’s starts literally from the ground up, in the Bern’s farm field. Bern’s grows and produces 100% of the products they serve. Employees start by working in the fields then move up to the apprentices and finally servers. The servers at Bern’s have made a commitment (some working five years or more before gaining their current position) to have a career at the restaurant, not as a part time gig. They each have their own room (anywhere between 8 and 15 tables) and pride themselves on the equipment they have purchased for that room – salt and pepper grinders, knives, etc.
And then there is the wine room. Starting in 1956, Bern’s Steak House has made an investment in all kinds of wine – premium brands, cult brands, 1st growth Bordeaux’s down to California’s first cult Cabernet. The best part? Bern’s generates their markup on bottles of wine off of what they originally purchased it for. For example, if a bottle of Inglenook Cabernet cost $10 in 1968, the current markup is off that $10 cost. The cellar is a true work of art, made in the way cellars should be made – old school. The dust and must as soon as you enter may trigger some allergic reactions, but definitely alerts you to the fact that the wine is being stored in optimal conditions. With over 6,500 selections and 5o0,000 bottles; Bern’s has the most extensive restaurant wine list in the world and one of the largest cellars in the world next to a few others we’ve heard of in Canada and France. The wine apprentice even admitted to us, “We’re not even sure what’s in there…” after passing a room of properly stored bottles that were also pristinely wrapped in bubble wrap. He also said while he was doing inventory of the room he found a Burgundy worth over $10,000.
Below is a list of what we were able to drink, the prices we paid and what the bottle would cost in a retail location like ours. Bern’s is by far the most unique restaurant I have ever been to. The food is impeccable, the décor fun, and the wine is just unbelievable. If you haven’t been there, we urge you to go – whether from Naples or across the country – its worth the trip no matter the length. And don’t forget the dessert room!
Wine #1: Inglenook Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1968
Price paid: $70
Retail price: $218 (1 retailer in the U.S.)
Description: Inglenook was the original Napa Valley cult wine. Established in 1879, Inglenook was founded in the Rutherford area of Napa. After surviving both the death of its owner and Prohibition, the majority of the Inglenook land was sold to Francis Ford Coppola. The remainder of the land and the brand name was sold and resold to a number of large brand names that now produce low quality wines under the label. This wine is illusive and won’t be around for many more years.
Tasting notes: When we first opened it, the fruit seemed to be gone. But surprisingly got better and better as the night went on. Rank 2/4.
Wine #2: Chateau Ropiteau Le Clos des Chenes, Premier Cru Volnay, 1982
Price paid: $40
Retail price: Not available
Description: This is the wine I selected as my ‘birthday’ wine I selected because one I’m a huge Pinot Noir fan and have just been getting into Burgundy over the last year. I discovered a few other Volnays that I have loved and with the help of the Sommelier selected this smaller production gem. It was the wine of the night, with the perfect balance of fruit and terrior at what I believe was the perfect time to pop this bottle.
Wine #3: Joseph Jamet Cote Rotie, 1982
Price paid: $40
Retail price: Not available
Description: A typical Cote Rotie, mainly Syrah, this wine was large with enormous notes of leather. This wine was perfect to pair with the amazing steaks we had for dinner but still need at least another five years.
Wine #4: Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva, 1978
Price paid: $40
Retail price: $75+
Description: To be honest there was so much wine that night I don’t know clearly remember this wine. But I do remember that it was soft and smooth, great with the steak and wonderful!
Boeuf Bourguinon, aka Beef Burgundy, is a traditional French peasant dish that has worked its way up the culinary ladder and is finding its way into the hearts of Americans. Unfortunately imported Burgundies, although excellent, can at times be pricey and not something you necessarily want to dump liberally into your stew. Typically, chefs recommend that you cook with the same wine you are serving, which works well in the countryside of Burgundy, but how about here in the USA? A price conscious alternative is the domestic Oregon Pinot Noir. Julia Child made the recipe for Beef Burgundy more accessible to Americans by printing an English version in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Oregon wineries have been making Pinot Noirs more accessible as well. Oregon is at the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France and has a similar climate, particularly the Willamette Valley. Pinot Noir grapes thrive in the cooler coastal climate of Oregon and have been gaining popularity and recognition in recent years. In a 1980 Paris competition, an Oregon Pinot received second place among French wines, establishing it as a world class Pinot Noir producing region.
There still may be some cool days of spring to contend with, and what better meal for those brisk spring winds then a hearty Beef Burgundy paired with the warm fruit and spice flavors of a Pinot Noir?
Viridian Pinot Noir Willamette Valley - $16
Try this great recipe and substitute your favorite Oregon Pinot for the suggested Burgundy wine. It takes a bit of time to simmer, so plan on three hours or so. It’s time consuming, but worth it!