Compare & Contrast - DRC & Leroy


Dear reader, you are cordially invited to compare and contrast...

Case example 1: Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles; you may have heard of them. The latter broke more rules and captured the zeitgeist better than any other album before or after. From its iconic Peter Blake cover art to the thunderous E-major that climaxes “A Day In The Life,” this is the Fab Four’s masterpiece. Or is it? Surely Revolver has aged better. It sounds more relevant than its patchouli-scented, psychedelic follow-up, and nothing on Sgt. Pepper’s can match the pathos or lyricism of “Eleanor Rigby,” nor is there anything as sonically groundbreaking as “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Give me the affecting “Here, There and Everywhere” over the saccharine “When I’m Sixty-Four” any day of the year. But I’ll leave this for musos to discuss. Let’s get on to wine

Few wine regions encourage and oblige comparisons like Burgundy. The abolition of primogeniture by the Code Napoléon fragmented the landscape into a mosaic of lieux-dits each baptized with individual names and quirky etymological origins: an inexhaustible source of fascination or frustration, depending on how convoluted you like your wine regions. For this writer and most Burgundy lovers, we revel in comparing the infinite conjugations of vineyard, grower and season, though current exorbitant prices restrict this to professionals or a tiny affluent minority. Music streaming allows anyone to compare two Beatles albums an unlimited number of times, free of charge, whereas two bottles of Burgundy wine are prohibitively expensive and can only be used once. So I cherished an opportunity to juxtapose two terroirs and two formidable winemakers at a dinner in Hong Kong, in a comparative tasting that attempted to answer one question: Why does Domaine de la Romanée-Conti taste different from Domaine Leroy?

Aubert de Villaine in June 2008. One of my favorite photographs, because it captures de Villaine’s solemnity.

Here are two intertwined iconic domaines, not least because Lalou Bize-Leroy was a shareholder and board member of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti alongside Aubert de Villaine until the early 1990s. Both are led by mononymous figureheads: Lalou and Aubert. Mention either, and anyone with an ounce of Burgundy knowledge will know exactly who you’re talking about. Both are based in Vosne-Romanée, though neither Lalou or Aubert would call that village their actual home. Both their wines rank among the most coveted and most expensive in the world.

Domaine Leroy has a geographically and hierarchically wide portfolio that encompasses Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, from Village up to Grand Cru, whereas Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s vineyards mostly orbit Vosne-Romanée. There are only two vineyards farmed by both producers that allow us to make a direct comparison: Romanée-Saint-Vivant and Richebourg. (Technically, we could include Corton-Renardes, which Domaine de la Romanée-Conti currently rents from Prince Florent de Mérode; and from November 2018 onward, we might also include the three hectares of Corton-Charlemagne en fermage from Bonneau du Martray.)

Would the two domaines’ Romanée-Saint-Vivant and Richebourg be easy to distinguish? What might account for any differences? Is there a common thread between each grower’s wines?

The Vineyards

Case example 2: Manet and Monet. While Edouard Manet was instrumental in moving art from Realism to Impressionism in the 1860s, it was surely Claude Monet’s brushstrokes that took Impressionism to its heights. Meet at Café Guerbois and discuss.

Let us take a look at Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s respective holdings, commencing with Richebourg. Here there are 11 owners, the largest by some margin being Domaine de la Romanée-Conti with 3.51 hectares, 2.57 hectares in the lieu-dit of Les Richebourgs and 0.94 hectares in Les Verroilles. The second largest is Domaine Leroy with 0.78 hectares. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s proprietorship stretches back to the 19th century and the tenure of Duvault-Blochet, who acquired the domaine in 1869 and bought parcels in Richebourg to augment Romanée-Conti and La Tâche. Domaine Leroy’s acquisition is much more recent, dating to 1988, when Lalou bought 0.78 hectares from Domaine Charles Noëllat, along with several other parcels. Though Noëllat’s wines had not been revered, Lalou recognized that the vines had been well maintained through sélection massale, a practice that she continues to this day, replacing vines one by one. Examining the map of Richebourg, it is interesting to note that Leroy’s holding in Les Verroilles is flanked by those of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti on either side, and that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owns three parcels within Les Richebourgs.

Now let’s look at Romanée-Saint-Vivant. I was surprised to discover that there are fewer proprietors here than in Richebourg – 10 in total. The largest is, again, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, with the lion’s share of 5.29 hectares, more than half the total area. Leroy is the second largest owner with 0.99 hectares. The origins of both domaines’ holdings lie with the Marey-Monge family; Nicolas-Joseph Marey bought a large swath of land during the Revolution. In 1898, part of Romanée-Saint-Vivant was sold to Louis Latour and Charles Noëllat, the latter ultimately passing into the hands of Lalou Bize-Leroy when, as already noted, she acquired the estate in 1988.

Lalou Bize-Leroy in her cellars in Vosne-Romanée.

Marey-Monge retained the remainder of Romanée-Saint-Vivant until 1966, when the family leased their holding to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, selling the parcel back to the de Villaine family in September 1988, since they had first refusal if Marey-Monge was sold. Its considerable size means their holding is split into four parcels. Two parcels consistently form the heart of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s blend of Romanée-Saint-Vivant, courtesy of vines planted in 1957 and the early 1960s. The holding has undergone long-term replanting parcel by parcel since 2000 in order to replace some higher-yielding clones via sélection massale, the fruit only being considered for the final blend once vines reach an appropriate age. Apparently, the sector over the road from Richebourg is never used due to impenetrable clay subsoil that stymies oxygen ingress and inhibits roots from tunneling deep into the ground. The fourth parcel is only occasionally used due to poor plant material rather than terroir, although replanting has begun to rectify this. Pruning is mainly single-Guyot with some Cordon Royat.

Nowadays both domaines manage their vines biodynamically, although Lalou embraced Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy with more alacrity than Aubert did. Having read about biodynamics in a Swiss newspaper, and following an epiphanic visit to Nicolas Joly in Savennières, Lalou became a convert in September 1988, almost contemporaneous with establishing Domaine Leroy. To quote her in Monty Waldin’s book Biodynamic Wines: “I had a sense that, for a long time, we had been farming badly, and that it was impossible to continue like that.” Biodynamics was immediately instituted across all her vineyards, the chemicals and herbicides thrown out with the garbage, never to return. Alas, in 1993 Lalou’s vines were plagued by rot during the sodden vintage, and remedial sprays were rendered powerless by persistent rain. She even resorted to using a helicopter (which she presumably did not fly herself, though I would not raise an eyebrow if she had). In retrospect, Lalou seems to have been sanguine about the misfortune and now credits that catastrophic vintage for teaching her the importance of vigilance in the vineyard at all times.

One point that should be mentioned is that Lalou does not strip back excess foliage, since she believes it stresses the vines; she prefers to loop the vine shoots together instead of practicing rognage or pruning them back. This is illustrated by the images below:

Lalou Bize-Leroy ties the vines' tendrils at Romanée-Saint-Vivant together to form a row of arches.

In Richebourg, the stark contrast is visible between Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s neatly pruned vines on the left and Leroy’s mass of foliage on the right.

I took these photographs during the first week of September, days before the 2018 harvest. The top image of Romanée-Saint-Vivant shows how Lalou ties the vines’ tendrils together to form a row of arches. The bottom photograph was taken on the same day in Richebourg in order to show the stark contrast between Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s neatly pruned vines on the left, next to Leroy’s mass of foliage on the right. (Details of Domaine Leroy’s viticultural tenets can be found on the domaine’s website.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s acceptance of biodynamics came later and more gradually, in some ways mirroring Lalou and Aubert’s respective personalities. De Villaine was intrigued by Steiner’s practices and attracted by its reported benefits, albeit circumspect toward its more religious aspects. The domaine had been organic since 1986; subsequently, having trialed biodynamics within selected parcels for many years, it was extended throughout all their holdings from 2007, under the watchful eye of vineyard manager Nicolas Jacob.

The Winemaking

Case example 3: Manchester United and Manchester City. Both soccer clubs have almost unlimited wealth, but City’s manager Pep Guardiola has created a more cohesive team than grumpy José Mourinho. It’s early in the season, but is the Premier League already decided? [Postscript: This was written before Mourinho’s axing, Liverpool’s triumph in the European Cup and Manchester City pipping Liverpool to win the Premiership. It’s a funny old game.]

Now let us examine exactly how Lalou Bize-Leroy and Aubert de Villaine (together with recently retired cellarmaster Bernard Noblet) turn those precious grapes into precious wine. While the mantra that “great wines are made in the vineyard” rings true, divergence in winemaking technique inevitably leads to stylistic bifurcation in the glass.

In terms of picking dates, it is difficult to compare. While Domaine de la Romanée-Conti habitually specifies exact dates of picking, Domaine Leroy is more vague in terms of when pruners begin snipping. One could argue that logistically, Lalou has a more challenging task, given not only her diaspora of holdings across Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, but also those of Domaine d’Auvenay. Personally, I think it is a moot point, since both domaines have access to a large number of experienced pickers who are instructed to pick at precisely the right moment. Domaine Leroy practices fastidious sorting of bunches upon entering the winery, and this can lower yields down into single figures. Likewise, at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti there is rigorous sorting both in the vineyard and at the sorting table.

Unlike another Burgundy icon, the late Henri Jayer, both domaines utilize stems. During my previous visit, I asked Aubert’s nephew, Bertrand de Villaine, to enlighten me about their approach. Yes, there is a high percentage of stems used at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; however, it is not 100% by rote, even though there are occasions, especially solar vintages such as 1999 and 2005, where 100% has been used. Generally, the amount of whole bunch is around 75% to 80%. During a recent visit, Bertrand explained that they have a good idea of which sections of the vineyard tend to produce fully lignified stems that deserve to enter the vat, and those where they must be cautious. This is subject to the conditions of each growing season, and bunches are assessed as they are picked and sorted. Bertrand pointed out the benefits of whole bunch fruit: the stems enhance flow of the juice inside the vat, encourage indigenous yeasts and improve aromatics. Lalou’s approach is similar.

However, there are two crucial differences. Domaine Leroy employs 100% whole bunch across all the crus, and unlike Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Lalou’s team cuts out the main axis of each bunch, known as a rachis. What enters the vat is just the miniature clusters and their pedicels, the narrow stems that connect them with the main axis. Imagine what a laborious task it must be, dismembering each bunch before it enters the vat. It is no wonder that not many winemakers have followed her lead, although there are a few, such as Charles Lachaux and Arnaud Mortet; the latter informed me that it takes four people one hour to fill a single barrel using this method.

The maceration is similar at both. Chez Leroy, the cuvaison is around 21 days, with remontage at the beginning and then moving to pigeages. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is similar, with the grapes initially cooled to around 15° Celsius. Temperatures for both domaines are permitted to reach up to 33° Celsius in order to guarantee complete extraction. The wine is then transferred into barrels with lees intact, although Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, unlike Leroy, undertakes a perfunctory debourbage. At Leroy, the wine is then matured entirely in new oak from François Frères and more recently with some from Cadus, sourced from the Tronçais forest, where the oak is air-dried for 30 months. At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti there is also 100% new oak from François Frères, sourced from Tronçais and Bertranges, with just a handful from Taransaud and Cadus. At Leroy, after malolactic the wines are racked off the lees and taken down to the second-year cellar. The domaine bottles relatively early, usually between December and March, although Lalou is not averse to bottling after just 12 months, including one vintage in this tasting. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is often bottled a little later, in spring or early summer, subject to the season. Filtration is anathema to both domaines.

The Wines

Case example 4: Black and white truffles. Who can resist the earthy scents of freshly shaved black truffle? Then again, what about the delicacy and subtle nuttiness of white truffle? Ah, but do you really want to shave your children’s college fund over a risotto?

Before I discuss the wines, I must emphasize that the motive of this tasting was not to pit one domaine or one winemaker against the other. (The acrimonious ousting of Lalou from the board of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti implies rivalry, though I have it on good authority that her relationship with Aubert is cordial. In any case, Vosne is a rather somnolent village where winemakers keep to themselves. There is no chance of the two bumping into each other at the local corner shop because the village has no shop. I suspect their paths cross infrequently, apart from business affairs.) We wanted to see how terroir affects the wines, rather than the winemaking, and therefore younger vintages were excluded.

The youngest pair was 2001 Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Interestingly, this was a short élevage for Leroy; by September 2002 the entire vintage was in bottle. For this comparison, it paid to monitor evolution in the glass. With aeration, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was initially more compelling, but ultimately the Leroy nudged ahead. Comparing the 2001 Richebourg from each grower, the Leroy was seductive and offered expressive fruit and even a touch of glycerin, while the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti delivered the backbone and structure one seeks from this specific Grand Cru. It was much better than the bottle I tasted in 2006, so perhaps it is only just getting into its stride.

As good as that first quartet was, there is no question that we moved up a couple of gears with the same quartet born two years earlier, in the outstanding 1999 vintage. Comparing the two 1999 Romanée-Saint-Vivants, it was almost impossible to choose a “winner” – though, to reiterate, that was not the intention. Both wines express the decadence of the 1999 vintage, though Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s initial exuberance seemed to ebb with aeration, and it developed beguiling estuarine aromas that I have not noticed in previous bottles. The same wine from Leroy is beautifully chiseled, with an edginess that avoids being smothered by the precocity of the warm growing season. The 1999 Richebourgs were even better. The example from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is one that I have tasted three or four times, and it is never short of astonishing. It possesses a sense of grandeur that distinguishes it from Romanée-Saint-Vivant. My analogy to the Forth Bridge probably describes this wine better than any aroma or flavor descriptors. It just edges out the Richebourg from Leroy. This is a pulsating, raucous, multifaceted wine with a glossier veneer than the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and it is one of Leroy’s greatest achievements from this vineyard, even if the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has a scintilla more intellect.

That completed the square dance of 1999 and 2001. We now moved back to the early 1990s, when Domaine Leroy was only three years old. The 1991 Romanée-Saint-Vivant from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti surprisingly lacked a little refinement on the nose, and the tannins were slightly coarser when juxtaposed with its 1999 and 2001 counterparts. It is not a wine that I have encountered before, but it seemed to vindicate its lukewarm reception upon release. To put that in context, the 1991 Romanée-Saint-Vivant from Leroy was in a class of its own. It is unequivocally a sensational, kaleidoscopic wine, a Pandora’s box of delights. (This is the one and only pairing that I mixed up. Perhaps I had higher expectations of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, given my experience of the fabulous 1991 La Tâche.) The Leroy is a wine that I think must have emboldened Lalou as she embarked upon her biodynamic journey, and it stands as one of the pinnacles from the domaine.

We finished with the pair of 1990 Richebourgs. Here it was the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that has more luminosity, reveling in its “spherical” nose, laden with precocious red berry fruit, ferrous aromas and scents of undergrowth and Japanese green tea. It is powerful, lavish and velvety-smooth, offering a crescendo of flavors that finish like the aforementioned E-major chord at the end of “A Day In The Life.” The Richebourg from Leroy is not dissimilar; though it did not quite achieve the same harmony and flow as the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, it does possess satisfying density. It is a very good wine, although it is easily surpassed by Leroy’s 1991 Romanée-Saint-Vivant.

Final Thoughts

Case example 5: James Bond: Sean Connery or Roger Moore? As the first 007, Connery set the template in terms of style, wit, one-liners and a way with the ladies that was more acceptable in the Sixties. But didn’t Moore make it more fun? Maybe the answer is Daniel Craig.

Researching the respective domaines’ vineyards and viticulture, I discovered more similarities than expected, which begs the question: Why was it easy to identify which was Domaine Leroy and which was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti? This comparative tasting reinforced the traits that I associated with each grower: the fruit intensity and sheen of Domaine Leroy, the earthiness and transparency of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Ceteris paribus, what causes the differences? The truth is that there must be a myriad of factors. I do think that Leroy’s extraction of the main axis of the bunch creates a different texture to the wine. This practice, coupled with their notoriously low yields, means that I cannot recall a wine from Leroy where I could detect a single stem. Any stem influence is perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of fruit and concentration. Some critics argue that this erases the nuances of terroir insofar as the style of the domaine can overlay the vicissitudes of the vineyards; I have attended a few dinners where that has become the topic of conversation. Some adore it and others do not. I certainly find it beguiling. Maybe with respect to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti I can “feel” the personality and DNA of the vineyard more easily, both its strengths and weaknesses depending on the growing season. One improvement at the domaine is their use of whole bunches. Bottles from the 1980s and in particular the early 1990s often come across too stemmy for my liking, whereas in the last decade they seem far better assimilated. One other point is that Lalou has long favored her Romanée-Saint-Vivant over Richebourg. Generally I find that Romanée-Saint-Vivant is a perfect marriage with her vineyard husbandry and winemaking, whereas perhaps her Richebourg obliges a warm vintage like 1999.

Sgt. Pepper's or Revolver? Monet or Manet? Manchester United or Manchester City? Black or white truffles? Connery or Moore? DRC or Leroy? If money were no object, then we could choose both, much as we can listen to both Beatles albums, or admire both Impressionists’ artworks, or watch the Manchester derby, or shave both kinds of truffle onto our risotto, or watch Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me. Both Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti share an uncompromising aspiration toward greatness that has been an inspiration for other Burgundy winemakers, as testified in my “Bottles Never Forgotten” article. The ability to directly compare two winemakers’ expression of the same vineyard lends an intellectual slant to our appreciation, and satiates our desire to compare and argue for one or the other.

And now that I’ve finished writing this article, I’ve decided to watch a film. Godfather Part I or Godfather Part II? Which one is better? Which one do you think I should watch?

(My thanks to friends in Hong Kong for assembling these extraordinary wines and serving them in such a fascinating and enlightening manner.)

See the Wines in Order Tasted

You Might Also Enjoy

Fermented Grape Juice: Romanée-Conti 1953-2005, Neal Martin, April 2019

Bottles Never Forgotten - Burgundy Edition, Neal Martin, March 2019

The Picardy Third: 2016 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti In Bottle, Neal Martin, February 2019

Cellar Favorite: 1942 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg “Vigne Originelle Française”, Neal Martin, November 2018

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, Neal Martin, June 2018

Life Is Funny Like That: 1999 & 2015 DRC, Neal Martin, April 2018