Burgundies that are the stuff of legend

The wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti have near mythical status – but a visit to its hallowed vineyard reveals an estate that’s thoroughly down to earth

Image: Chris Burke

Back in October, a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti became the most expensive wine in history when it sold to an anonymous bidder for $558,000 at Sotheby’s, New York. The star lot in a sale of rare burgundies from Robert Drouhin’s cellar, it smashed the previous record of $233,000 for an 1869 Château Lafite, which had stood since 2010. And it dwarfed the record for a jeroboam too. 

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – or “La Domaine” as it’s known in Burgundy – is no stranger to the record books: it produces some of the most scarce and sought-after wines in the world. But what made this bottle so special? 

“1945 was a legendary wartime vintage,” says Sotheby’s worldwide head of wine Jamie Ritchie. “It was a very small harvest; Romanée-Conti only produced 600 bottles. And it was the last vintage the Domaine did before it grubbed up [pulled out] the pre-phylloxera vines. These bottles also had unique provenance because they had literally just gone from the Domaine to the cellars of Drouhin next door. They had always rested in Burgundy. So you’ve got a wine that’s almost as perfect as you can make it, in tiny quantities, with outstanding provenance. I don’t know what beats it. I have a feeling this record may stand for a significant amount of time.” 

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In an auction like this, the tiniest details matter. A difference of just 0.5cm in the wine level was one of the reasons a second bottle of 1945 DRC in the same auction achieved the slightly lower price of $496,000 (which still equates roughly to a pretty impressive $11,000 a sip). 

I can’t tell you what either of these wines tastes like. Nor can Ritchie, or virtually anyone else for that matter. Because wines like these are the unicorns of the drinks world, seldom seen and rarely opened, destined to languish in private super-cellars in New York and Hong Kong. I can tell you, though, about the vineyard that made them. Because this hallowed 1.81 hectares in the enchanting commune of Vosne-Romanée is, in many respects, just a vineyard like any other. There are no electric fences or walls or security guards to remind you that you’re approaching the home of “the world’s most expensive wine”. No one comes charging out of the limestone village to ask if you’ve made an appointment. When I go to pay my respects to Romanée-Conti on a luminous morning in July, the only sign of life is a vigneron ploughing the vineyard with a handsome palomino. For a while I watch the pair working, soundtracked by nothing but birdsong and the soft thud of horse’s hooves.  

DRC’s sole agent in the UK is Corney & Barrow, which releases a tiny allocation of the latest vintage during en primeur each February. If you’re not one for waiting lists, the two-Michelin-star Greenhouse has a magnificent selection of DRC to enjoy now. It might not have the 1945 Romanée-Conti on the list, but it does have the 1945 from the Domaine’s other famous monopole, La Tâche. It’s £45,000 for the bottle, but under the circs that sounds like quite a snip.

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