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2002 Red Burgundy - Rousseau, Leroy, DRC - Worth all the Fuss?

The world seems to be ever more full of mega-egos, just look at our politicians. Social media undoubtedly facilitates the trait and I see regular posts on Instagram of hyper expensive bottles with almost no comment, so I rather wonder what the point of posting was other than to say ‘look at me’. Which is why when I do have the odd superstar label which was bought at a price from another, sadly past, world, I prefer to do it discretely.

But sometimes you think a wine has something interesting to say, and just because it hails from a famous domaine shouldn’t condemn it to silence. Do these bottles that cost a month’s wages for much of the world ever live up to the hype? I can’t really believe any fermented grape juice drink can honestly be ‘worth’ thousands of euros, but that they can taste sublime, well, let’s see…

We finally manged to get four just about new 60 year olds together after all the transport hurdles flung in the way by covid. Surely an excuse to (over)indulge in celebration? But also to examine the 2002 vintage in burgundy and three of the most feted producers, King Rousseau of Gevrey, Emperor Romanee-Conti of Vosne and The Queen of All, Domaine Leroy.

Burgundy sells its monastic history, its walled vineyards, its sloping undulations and that blessed clay-limestone soil in a unique package of terroir. You might say the region encapsulates the very notion of place, all be it with human intervention. Nowhere in the world is a gentle slope and a few metres of elevation worth so much. Literally. The wrong side of the road here is akin to the wrong side of the bed. You may have the noblest parents, but I fear nobility will never come your way. A village peasant is not to aspire to a grandee status.

And this is where the comparison becomes such fun, because a village wine is either hiding in the shade of the trees at the very top of the slope, a little too cool, a little too steep, the soil eroded away by eons of rain; or it’s down below, at the bottom where the slope flattens out and the soil is heavier and more inundated by rain. In betwixt sit the premier crus and in the prime mid-slope the grandest of all. And to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling ‘never the twain shall meet’.

So I thought it might be illuminating to defy gravity and mix it up, the lowest of the grand crus from DRC (lowest in terms of expected price and quality that is), a mid-range grand cru from Rousseau and a couple of mere village wines from the magician Mme Bize-Leroy. And with the benefit of hindsight, I’m going to shift the actual order we drank them a bit, you’ll see why.

Ruchottes-Chambertin sits upslope as you walk out of Gevrey along the route des grands crus towards Morey. The upper part is the clos, owned by Rousseau, with very thin soil and, as the name would suggest, a lot of rocks. The vineyard and the winemaking is known for elegance and nuance, with no new oak (that’s reserved for the big brothers Chambertin/Clos de Beze and maybe some in Clos St. Jacques), but unlike the two domaines to come, they do not practice biodynamic farming nor the inclusion of stems/whole cluster fermentation.

And the 2002? One thing you notice about all these wines is that the colour is relatively pale and bricky on the edge as you nudge 20 years old, which just proves that the critics who appreciate dark colour and think it equals flavour, have no clue about burgundy. The wine was floral, earthy, ripe and spicey, with good creamy texture and lifting, orangey acidity. All in all, delicious, and with a lot of life yet (unlike the 2000 which was much more ‘sauvage’ or gamey and definitely very much mature). You could feel the ripeness and the elegant weight that should come with grand cru status. Lovely.

A few days later we embarked on the real overindulgence, a moment when you simply have to block your mind to any thought of opportunity cost or whether you should simply have sold the wines and bought the family a week’s luxury holiday…

And here the real fun begins as Madame Leroy was pushed out of the management of DRC, but still retains the family share. Both domaines practice biodynamics and whole cluster winemaking. Both sell for simply irrational prices, and I have online auction houses sending me emails begging me to sell anything that I might have. The demand is crazy and in Asia the frenzy for Madame Leroy’s wines is simply off the scale.

But, a village is a village and, in theory at least, a grand cru is a grand cru. At least in Burgundy it is.

So let’s look at the Vosnes. There’s not that much that is informative that is written about what happens at Domaine Leroy, but the method of training the vines is different, higher and with no lopping off of the top shoots. Rather they are looped back which apparently causes less stress than cutting them off. And there is no green harvest, but miniscule yields caused by severe pruning.

I wish I could talk about ‘typical DRC stems’ or ‘the Leroy style’ (as some of the pundits do) but tragically I don’t drink enough of it to know. But I do recognize in Domaine Leroy a pale bricky colour, amazing longevity and lifted floral aromatics, often underpinned by a whiff of game. Floral, sauvage and concentrated would be my expectation, and the village Vosne did not disappoint. Throw in some spice and a sort of ethereal weight – these village wines do not have the core of a grand cru, but though they seem weightless, their flavour persists. It was remarkable at 19 years old for a village wine, but of course the price would make the Ruchottes wince…

And thus I am going to jump across the village and up the slope to Echezeaux and the most famous domaine in Burgundy. If the Leroy was all about ephemeral beauty, the DRC was sterner and I guess more serious. Yes, we had ripe fruit, creamy texture, lovely aromatics and a hint of game, but we added a tighter core of mineral density. Though I think Echezeaux is the reputed as the most approachable of the DRC grand crus, this was probably just getting on to its plateau of peak maturity.

Which leaves us with the Chambolle, a village that has become so sought after that anything with the word on a label now sells for a silly price. I am not quite sure why, but everyone nowadays loves Chambolle, perhaps aided by the plethora of star winemakers such as Roumier and Mugnier, plus de Vogue close behind. Throw in the second half of the name and some would argue that Musigny is the greatest vineyard in France.

To stir in some cliches, Chambolle is renowned for the beauty of its nose, a flowerbed of roses, and supreme elegance, the supposed ‘feminine’ side of pinot at its most seductive. After all, where else could Les Amoureuses come from? Couple that with the most famed wine heroine of all, and you have quite a compelling story.

One reason these wines are so impossibly priced is their rarity. When I looked at the back label I discovered that there were only 599 bottles made. Less than 50 cases! When do you polish off 0,17% of a whole production in an hour? Insane…

So why am I finishing this little tasting with the Chambolle? It started, yes, with all those Leroy nuances, but indeed a bit more on the ethereal perfume and ripe red fruit and less on the spice and texture. But what will forever stay with me about this glass of 19 year old village wine was, oddly, its after taste. Yes, you really didn’t get it until you’d swallowed it. I kid you not – you sniffed, slurped, swilled it round your mouth, thought ‘yes this lovely, but I’m not on my knees’ and then swallowed. Only at that moment did a sort of explosion of fruit come through. I’ve never had a wine do that before, and I was not the only one. I’ve read Parker count how many seconds an aftertaste lasted and always thought it frankly rather ridiculous and nerdy. But here, well, maybe I should have.

If the grand crus had the more power and depth, well, the wine that took your breath away was the Chambolle.

Now if anyone has a spare bottle of her Musigny that they’d like to share…

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