In 1760 a bidding war broke out in Burgundy. The object of the intense interest was La Romanée, acclaimed even then as the region’s best vineyard. It pitted the Marquise de Pompadour, the former chief mistress of Louis XV, against Louis-François de Bourbon, the Prince of Conti. Conti prevailed, paying top livre, six times more than the cost of other grand cru vineyards at the time. The prince was so enamored of the vinous nectar from the vineyard that he added his name, dubbing it La Romanée-Conti. The Burgundy specialist Clive Coates, MW, writes in My Favorite Burgundies that Conti, who was known for lavish parties for the nobility back in Paris, kept all of the product for himself: “Not even his friends, who according to Beaumarchais, would go down on their knees in front of him and mockingly plead for an indulgence of one single bottle, would move him from his avarice.”
Plus ça change … Despite revolution, restoration, and republics, the wine that was coveted in 1760 remains as highly sought after today. Sotheby’s reported that the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti fetched a total of $11.6 million at auction last year, making DRC, as it’s often called, far and away the top wine sold. (The top lot—six bottles of 1996 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti—fetched $134,750, or more than $22,000 a bottle.) DRC sold more at Sotheby’s than Lafite, Pétrus, and Mouton—the next three highest-priced wines—combined. And global demand is such that it has held the top spot at Sotheby’s for five consecutive years.
Which compels one to ask: What is it about Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that makes it so coveted?
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For one, it’s the history. Being the object of desire since the 13th century creates a certain built-in demand. But it’s not self-fulfilling: Reputations earned over centuries still need burnishing. Stability has been ensured because just two families have controlled the estate since the Second World War—the de Villaines and the Leroy/Roch clans. Aubert de Villaine, the current public face of the domaine, is an affable, humble, well-regarded elder statesman for all of Burgundy. Among other things, he recently shepherded Burgundy’s successful bid for UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site. The domaine just got its third winemaker since the 1940s last year when Alexandre Bernier replaced the retiring Bernard Noblet who had been the winemaker since 1985, who succeeded his father in the role. Bertrand de Villaine, 48, the nephew of Aubert, is the current director of the domaine.
DRC boasts a lineup of exclusively grand cru vineyards. In Vosne-Romanée, the domaine owns 61.45 acres of grand cru vineyards, including Richebourg, Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux, and Romanée-Saint-Vivant. At the apogee of the lineup lie La Tâche (14.9 acres) and nearby La Romanée-Conti (4.47 acres), two wholly owned monopoles. These sites occupy the filet mignon of the golden slopes of Burgundy here: the right exposure, the right position on the hill, and a well-drained soil over limestone. Throw in high vine density and biodynamic farming across the domaine (since 2007) and you have some of the finest raw material in the wine world ready for minimal intervention in the cellar. (DRC also has holdings in Montrachet and Corton.)
But beyond tradition, stability, and vineyard sites, there’s the quality of the wines in the glass. The juice inside has been described as the Holy Grail of the wine world, sending consumers into a state of vinous rapture should a DRC cork be eased out of the bottle. There’s a saying that “all roads lead to Burgundy,” and if that’s the case, then all roads lead to DRC—for the few who can afford or find it.
This mystique means that there is a singular market for DRC. Demand vastly outstrips supply.
“It’s inevitable that people with money want the best,” says Dustin Wilson, the former wine director at Eleven Madison Park and current partner at Verve Wine, a retailer with stores in New York City and San Francisco. “And since DRC sits atop that pyramid, everybody wants it. I don’t see that changing.”
Unlike Bordeaux, for which a system of futures allows consumers to preorder quantities and choose the size of bottling desired (such as half bottles or magnums), customers have no choices with DRC. Instead, they plead for it, perhaps even getting down on their knees, as the Prince of Conti’s friends did centuries ago.
According to Wilson, a shop might be allowed to buy only two bottles of DRC a year. The shop might then offer these to top customers. Current-release DRC almost never goes on the shelf. Nor does it go out in email offerings. For the most part, consumers do not choose it; rather, they are chosen. “The new-release wines are very hard to get—the secondary market is actually easier,” says Wilson, though he cautions, “The wines are not cheap!” The general lack of availability through primary markets (shops) drives interest in the secondary market (auctions).
The other option—finding DRC at a restaurant—presents challenges of its own. For starters, the wine is so expensive and hard to find at wholesale that it’s rarely found on a wine list and incredibly expensive.
Hristo Zisovski is one of the few mortals who’s had deep experience with the wine. The beverage director at the Altamarea Group of 15 restaurants, including Ai Fiori and Marea, Zisovski has worked at 12 La Paulée dinners, the annual celebration of Burgundy at which some of the finest and rarest wines come tumbling out of collectors’ cellars. At La Paulée, collectors and people in the trade “pay homage to one of the domaines that made Burgundy what it is,” Zisovski says, adding more colloquially that that the domaine is “one of the OGs.” He admires the consistency of the domaine over such a long period and points out the difficulty of maintaining such consistency.
Zisovski notes that a major difference between retail and restaurants for DRC (and rare wines in general) is that shops can sell (or presell) wines much faster and in greater quantities. “It’s easier for retailers to sell it,” he says. “It’s one thing for a consumer to buy it and put it in a private cellar and drink it years later.” Citing the capital outlay for a restaurant, he adds, “It’s another thing for us to store it and age it.”
Is DRC one of a kind? In a word, yes. No other vineyard has those precise grand cru vineyards, centuries of tradition, and stability at the helm. Certainly, other wine estates around the world have taken some pages from the DRC playbook, notably top vineyards with scant production and high price tags.
But demand for top wines from Burgundy is raising prices across the board: The domaines of Georges Roumier and Armand Rousseau also featured in the top ten sellers at Sotheby’s last year. “Greater demand for top Burgundy originated from the U.S. and is now strongest in Asia, though Asian buyers are primarily focused on only the very top growers,” says Jamie Ritchie, the worldwide head of wine for Sotheby’s, citing several domaines, including Coche-Dury, Armand Rousseau, Georges Roumier, and Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier.
While there’s plenty of pixie dust being sprinkled on the region, there’s still too little of some of the world’s top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to go around.
Tyler Colman writes, talks, and teaches about wine. He is the author of two wine books, Wine Politics and A Year of Wine. He also writes the wine blog DrVino.com, which was nominated for a James Beard Award. Colman is a real doctor—he doesn’t just play one on the web. He holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has taught wine classes at New York University, the New School, and the University of Chicago. His wine writing has appeared in the New York Times and the World of Fine Wine, among other media.