Burgundy with Aubert de Villaine and Remington Norman
05 May 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams , a magazine editor, bless her, phoned me and asked me to interview somebody from Burgundy but only when I began my research did I realise I’d be chatting to Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner and joint director the Domain de la Romanée-Conti. Now this is paradise for wine drinkers and the interview was absorbing.
You hear a little more from Aubert de Villaine a little later on but first I chatted to Remington Norman who was my guest at the inaugural Total Melrose Arch French Street Festival. Now he’s a Burgundy buff and his books on the wines of Burgundy have become classics. He was an Oxford don, a fine wine retailer in Oxford and he spends huge amounts of time in South Africa. By the time I chatted to him, I had become fascinated by the Romanée-Conti story, by its rarity. There are only about 4000 bottles a year and the prices individual bottles reach, those more or less 4000 bottles are now sold on what amounts to a rationing system per country.
South Africa’s ration is seven bottles, yes you heard me, seven bottles that have retailed at around R50 000 per bottle and they were snapped up before you and I had breakfast. There is one, yes one bottle of Romanée-Conti on the award-winning wine list of the Twelve Apostles Hotel, I discovered. Someone some time will order it and drink what has been described as ‘liquid silk’ at, stand back, R250 000 per bottle and yes, there is only one in South Africa. Could it be yours?
Here’s Remington. When I was asked to chat to you I was told that yours was the only book on Burgundy that I needed to look at and it is nowhere to be found in South Africa at the moment. So you’ll understand a slight agitation on my part but I did fairly recently and by mistake almost interview Aubert de Villaine and I had a good hour with him and that was revelatory, I have to say because I don’t know much about Burgundy or about the wines of Burgundy but I can remember some of them and it was a fascinating discussion in humility, in craftsmanship and in never letting go of what you wanted to achieve.
Even down to… the thing that entranced me was in order not to compact the soil, he brought in these wonderful, almost shy horses and because otherwise the soil will get too compacted if it was attractive and I’m just thinking why we’re not doing that in South Africa because we’ve got the labour who need the jobs and everything and we are moving slowly but surely into that kind of organic world. Talk to me a little bit about that.
Remington Norman: Well I can tell you I took a group from South Africa to Burgundy a couple of years ago and so entranced were they with the Percheron horses. One of the ladies who has a wine farm came back and the first thing she bought herself was a Percheron horse, which is now ploughing her vineyards.
JCW: I was going to say, is she riding it or is she using it to plough vineyards?
RN: Oh no, you don’t ride those things you stand behind with a halter on your back and if you get it wrong it’ll break your neck.
JCW: Because the horses are so huge.
RN: They’re very powerful animals but they gently plough the soil and they’re used a lot in the fine vineyards in Burgundy now. It’s wonderful to watch these guys working them. They have this gradual, gradual progress and if you stop and talk to them they won’t talk to you because the horse then stops and turns round and it will probably damage a vine, so you would be very careful how you use them.
JCW: Why the appeal today of Burgundy? Is it because of the rareness of just some of those wines, say in the Romanée-Conti Domaine?
RN: I think the appeal is that people know a lot about Bordeaux. We know the colour of the winemakers socks in every chateau and Bordeaux or whether he changes his socks and the worlds knows it in two minutes on the internet but Burgundy is a very confidential place, it’s small little estates with individual characters and the elegance of Burgundy is what really drives people’s passion.
I mean these wines are supremely elegant if you talk of Romanée-Conti and those wines are just unbelievably seamless and people are fascinated. They can sit down and compare four bottles from different plots, same grower, same vintage, same grape variety and they can see differences and they can look at the tiny differences that a terroir, a little bit of soil and it brings to wine, so it’s a huge, it’s almost an addiction for people and once I said this morning, once you get the Burgundy bug the Bordeaux goes out of your cellar and you start filling it with Burgundy.
JCW: The thing with Bordeaux is that for so long, and you remember Nico Myburgh and Nico Myburgh smelt of tobacco and wine wherever he moved, when he scratched his head, you could smell the tobacco, you could smell the wine and his passion was actually to make the first decent Bordeaux light wine in South Africa and of course that was Meerlust and his son continues as you know, with that quest. So I think South Africa is more familiar with Bordeaux type wines than Burgundy. I think Burgundy is yet to hit South Africa.
Interviewee: No, no I think we’re getting there. As Remington will tell you, there’s some, I think we’re a good dozen now that are sort of hinting toward the quality that would justify a Burgundy comparison but let him explain a bit more. I think we have just, it’s much easier to grow Cabernet, it’s a much easier grape, it’s not as fussy and Pinot Noir is an incredibly fussy grape, it needs lots of care in the vineyard and the cellar and is that much more magical because when it does come right it is phenomenal.
RN: Well I think the problem with Burgundy, the Pinot, and Chardonnay are the two Burgundy grapes in South Africa. First of all they didn’t have good plant material so they started with a disadvantage and also, people here, the guys here haven’t tasted really top class Burgundy and now that these are being imported and we did these Romanée-Conti tastings a little while ago, people had the chance to taste top level and so they know. If you don’t know where you’re going you’re not very likely to get there. The answer is that they haven’t had the experience of top class Burgundy so it was more difficult to know where they were going with it and Pinot is difficult.
It’s not an easy grape to grow. It’s not an easy grape to vinify successfully. Cabernet, fine, if you get Cabernet wrong you chuck in a bit of Merlot or something or else off you go and call it, give it a funny name and a whacky label and you sell it at a premium price. You can’t do that with Pinot. It’s all like Mozart. If you take a note or two out of Mozart, everybody notices, if you take a note or two out of Stockhausen nobody cares a damn, I mean take whole paragraphs out, and nobody misses a thing. There’s that musical analogy, the purity and linear narrative of Pinot and Chardonnay which isn’t there with Cabernet.
JCW: My impression of Burgundy is that it is so expensive that the majority of people can’t taste it even if they wanted to.
RN: Yes and no. I mean you can buy entry level Burgundies at a lovely well-made, nice wines for not too much money. Yes, if you want to go for the glitz and the top and you’ve got a deep pocket you do that but you don’t need to buy the great ones to taste what Burgundy is all about. You go to tasting a Santos [ao white this morning from a small village from a good producer. You can buy that from, I don’t know, R400/R500. It’s a lot of money but not totally out of the price question for people who really want to learn about it.
JCW: If you had to describe the taste of a Burgundy in your mouth, an average Burgundy and the taste of an average Bordeaux, highlight the differences for people who’ve tasted neither.
RN: Oh, dear oh dear, what a terrible question.
JCW: I’m sorry.
RN: Well, Bordeaux’s a blend so there’s no average, typical in Bordeaux. It’s difficult. Certainly the left back one’s are Cabernet based, the right back one’s a Merlot base. We know what Cabernet is like a Merlot based. You can imagine most Cabernet is tobacco and seed and are those sorts of flavours.
Merlot is rather more sumptuous, more obviously fruity sort of style, but Pinot has also nuances of expression in Pinot are quite extraordinary. You can smell violets, you can smell Sherries, you can smell all sorts of different things, and when they get older which is the real joy of these great wines, after five, ten years in a bottle, you lose all the varietal character and you get something that’s totally different and quite sublime, so they’re indescribable. If I start getting into descriptors it’s a meaningless game. You actually have to go and experience these things and you just make your own view of what they taste like.
JCW: What drew you into wine in the first place? I mean because you spend most of the year in the United Kingdom or in Europe it’s somehow more accessible and I think you probably started drinking them earlier than many, many South Africans would but what drew you into doing it almost as a living?
RN: Well actually it was Bark that was responsible because I had a music master at school and I was learning music with a friend. We both played the organ and we used to go out to his rooms to do some more theory and he used to say, “Would you like a glass of sherry?” and we being young and untutored said of course we’d like a glass of sherry.
So you pour a great big beaker full of sherry and we start drinking sherry and so that was sweet and so the taste when you’re young, you like things that are sweet and then I spent nine years at Oxford and at Oxford the colleges there have their own cellars and certainly in the sixties there were wonderful wines to be had for not a lot of money and no great inflation in wines as there is today. So I started collecting wine, so that’s what got me onto wine and there you are.
JCW: That was Remington Norman. Now let’s hear the tireless Aubert de Villaine talking about his wine, Romanée-Conti and what perfection is to him.
If you had to try and get the message of the Romanée-Conti Domaine across to people who do not know about Burgundy or want to be enticed to buy something from the Romanée-Conti Domaine, what would be the five things you would say they need to look for?
Aubert De Villaine: If I was speaking to people who look for making wine, I would say that the first quality of vigogne is and all the others come from the… it’s humility really to be, realise that you are very important but everything you do must be dictated not by your ego or by your… but by what the vineyards need. This will lead my first for people who are winemakers, who want to make Burgundy style wines that a resemblance to that.
For the customers, well I would say firstly don’t ask too much to Romanée-Conti. It’s a wine, it’s not something else than wine and be also… and be demanding with Romanée-Conti, be both indulgent and demanding. Demanding because it has to carry a message, it’s a message of transparency, of the terroir, and with me, but it is… be indulgent also because it’s a wine that is very feminine in its character and nothing is more capricious. I think if no, I will say women are sometimes capricious.
JCW: Never, never.
ADV: I think the wine, the Romanée-Conti is a little like that and hides itself and is the conditions in which it’s being drunk are very important, conditions, the people who drink it with, so be very careful with the people you drink it with, the [breaker?] for the conditions, with what kind of food you drink it, no food perhaps and so this will be some of my advice.
JCW: My final question and I’ve loved speaking to you, is what makes you personally, what is your moment of happiness?
ADV: I think, you know when you’re speaking of mention to the wine, two things that are very important to me, the wine and the music and I must say, to have successively, I wouldn’t say together, but when you successively a wine that is totally open and satisfactory and music like a quartet of Schubert or Deton or… would be for me as real Aquarian, happiness. By using those two words, I think you have named what is happiness for me, yes.
JCW: Here are some details of Remington Norman’s books. Try South African Outlets but when I looked there was only one copy of Grand Crux, the Great Wines of Burgundy through the Perspective of its Finest Vineyards in South Africa. There’s also the acclaimed, The Great Domaines of Burgundy. I found his books on amazon.co.za but if you would like to know a little more about Domaine Romanée-Conti why don’t you drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org and perhaps we can use your suggestion for a future show. Thank you for listening to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show on iTunes, just search Old Mutual.