Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2020 & The New Burgundy


This year’s presentation of the new releases from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti marked the beginning of a new chapter. It was the first time new Co-Managers Perrine Fenal and Bertrand de Villaine presented the wines following the retirement of Aubert de Villaine.

As I sat down to taste the wines, I thought it was probably a very good time for a transition because that is what Burgundy is all about right now. Transition. The first thing evident in the 2020 reds is their intense red/purplish color. I guess this is present-day Burgundy. These are not your parents’ wines; that much is clear. We are in another era, figuratively and literally.

Two thousand-twenty is the third in a cycle of historically warm and dry years spanning vintages 2018 through 2020. And yet it is also the most surprising of the three years. As much as the wines are dark, deep and richly flavored, they are also remarkably fresh and vibrant. Are the vines adapting to current conditions, or are vineyard managers and winemakers becoming more skilled at dealing with the New Burgundy, or are other factors at play? I suspect the answer to that question, if there indeed is an answer, is pretty complex.

As I wrote in my report on the 2020 Bordeaux from bottle, the 2020 vintage has a certain mystery to it because harvest took place during the COVID-19 lockdown, which meant, among other things, that there were no outside visitors in Burgundy who could report back on events as they unfolded. For their part, vineyard managers, winemakers and their crews worked under very calm conditions, save the constant threat of COVID. There was no early buzz, good or bad, about the 2020s. We were all worried about much more immediate and pressing matters as the pandemic unfolded.

Fenal and de Villaine describe 2020 as a year with an early budbreak, early flowering, well-timed rains and favorable winds through the first part of the season. Elevated temperatures beginning in late July through mid-August pushed vines to the edge, as witnessed by veraison, that was slow and uneven in some places as vines prioritized their survival over ripening the crop. Mid-slope parcels, traditionally considered the most favored because they have an ideal mix of soils, did best. Parcels at higher elevations (where soils are poorest) and those at lower elevations (where soils are heaviest) struggled more.

The final phase of ripening took place at an accelerated pace, which has become the norm in recent years. Among other things, this means that everything ripened within a fairly narrow window. Harvest for the reds started on August 18 for the young vine parcels, unthinkably early compared with the past, then started in earnest on the 23rd for older parcels.

Spells of rain from August 29 through the 31st brought about a brief pause in the vineyard. The last reds were picked on September 3 (La Tâche), while the whites were picked on September 5 for the Montrachet and September 7-9 for the Corton-Charlemagne. The reds were done with close to 100% whole clusters. Time on the skins was 18 to 21 days, depending on the wine.

Climate change is real, and it is here to stay. The implications are many, starting with rethinking everything in the vineyard, from rootstock choices, to canopy management to tilling regimes and everything in between. In the cellar, the domaine is working with slightly larger barrels for the Corton-Charlemagne and moving towards shorter élevage in wood.

In tasting, the reds surprise for their vivacity and freshness. Whether this is a result of a slight lack of phenolic maturity or just an expression of the balance of the year, the 2020s are very different from wines from other warm years, most notably the 2019s, which have always been far more opulent and flamboyant. The whites are an even greater surprise, as they are both magnificent and superior to the 2019s. Experimentation with larger format oak in the Corton-Charlemagne as a tool for preserving freshness paid off handsomely.

In short, this is a vintage I like very much. The highlights include an overachieving Echézeaux, a Richebourg of rare and uncommon finesse and a magnificent Romanée St. Vivant that really captures all of the various facets of this highly intriguing vintage. The whites are perhaps even more surprising, as both the Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne are superb. That’s not to say the other wines aren’t notable, they most certainly are, but they won’t reserve too many surprises for readers who know these wines. What stands out most is the captivating mix of intense ripeness and energy. Is this the New Burgundy?

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