The best and rarest Burgundy — 10 cases to die for
Wine specialist Charles Foley explains why these cases — including a ‘mythic beast’ offered in London on 17 October — have excited connoisseurs and collectors in recent years
The tobacco heiress, philanthropist and art collector Doris Duke was perhaps the most famous collector of ‘unicorn’ wines — the hard-to-find, once-in-a-lifetime wines of which sommeliers dream. She kept meticulous records of the rare vintages in her collection, and it was all excellently stored in a meat locker at the Duke Farms estate in new Jersey, or in the cellar of her home on Honolulu, named Shangri La.
One of the rarest wines she owned was Les Gaudichots 1929 from DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti). Now extinct, this wine was harvested in a sensationally ripe year from a plot of land in Burgundy that became subject to a court battle. In 1932, after much legal wrangling, the best part of Les Gaudichots was incorporated into the Grand Cru La Tâche. The last vintages in the late 1920s and early ’30s bearing the DRC label are thus treasured wines which command high prices.
In 2004 the wine cellar of Doris Duke, described as ‘a time capsule of vintage treasures from the 1920s and 1930s’, sold for $3,775,711 — more than triple the high estimate — and was 100 per cent sold.
From the cellar of Henry Tang, one of the world’s foremost collectors, this exceptional case of wine was matched by a stunning hammer price. Henri Jayer was known as the ‘Godfather of Burgundy’, and his wines have been passed into the realm of myth by the lucky few who have imbibed his pinot noir.
Cros Parantoux is premier cru, but in Jayer’s hands the wine is extraordinarily complex, harmonious and seductive. He regarded his role as being something akin to a shepherd of the vines, with a duty to craft and coax nature with the greatest sensitivity to produce liquids that expressed their surroundings in the most elegant way.
This sublime case of Grand Cru Burgundy was one Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourites, and the illustrious former manager of Manchester United enjoyed many dinners with this fantastic pinot noir. From the French for ‘stain’, La Tâche is a monopole (an area owned by a single winery) of the great Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It is renowned for power and precision, layered by perfume: Asiatic spices and lavender notes found over a ripe base of red fruits.
Sir Alex famously shared his wines with other football managers after a match in order to take some of the tension out of the competitive nature of their relationships. As they chinked glasses he would say, ‘It’s only a game after all’.
Straddling the Puligny and Chassagne communes, Domaine Leflaive’s plot of the famed Grand Cru is in the more masculine Puligny side with its scree-like soil. Until her untimely death in 2015, the estate was run by the ‘Grande Dame of Burgundy’, Anne-Claude Leflaive, who pioneered biodynamic viticulture, and in 2014 was named Winemaker’s Winemaker by the Institute of Masters of Wine.
The 2005 is a titan of a wine — a pulsating sinew of acid around which lemon peel, apricot, peaches and verbena revolve. Montrachet achieves the most incredible prices at auction, and it is the Chardonnay’s ability to age that excites the hearts of connoisseurs most. After time in a bottle it evolves into a liquid that tastes like an ambrosial nectar.
Lalou-Bize Leroy is a force of nature. She took over the reins of Maison Leroy in 1955 and maintained the high standards of her father, Henri, who had been buying the best wines from up and down the Côte d’Or for production under his own label. The family were heavily tied to the other great name in Burgundy, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, as part owners, and the quality of winemaking at both estates was so high that today the wines are among the most collectable in the world.
In the late 1980s Lalou bought vineyards, rather than just barrels as her father had, and started crafting handsome wines from plots such as Richebourg and Romanée St Vivant. She maintains that 90 per cent of the work of the estate is in the vineyard and she is an innovator, allowing the vines to flourish without cutting and overseeing a savage selection process. Production is tiny — in great years, such as 2010, only two barrels of Chambertin might be produced. Sublime vintages of Domaine and Maison Leroy’s Grand Crus are lushly textured and rich with great ageing potential.
The apex of the portfolio of vines at Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé is the seven hectares of Musigny Grand Cru. For Francois Millet, the winemaker, these stately old vines are ‘patrician’, and certainly the Musigny is as sophisticated and serious as this notion insinuates: strong vintages suggesting a robe of rich cherry and raspberry fruit billowing over warm chocolate and a crème brûlée texture. The 1990 is a stellar vintage with an oriental spice element, a spray of sumac, paprika and black pepper.
Great care is taken with the production of the Musigny: only 3.8 hectares of the vines are used, since these are the oldest vines, offering the most consistency and depth of character. The remaining vines in the parcel are used to produce a Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru. In most vintages, therefore, only 900 or so cases of the Musigny come to market. The result is a wine to be sought out and treasured.
The world’s most lauded wine white is Montrachet (‘the scabby hill’). So named for the flat, rocky soils of the Grand Cru plot in the Côte de Beaune, it is the best vineyard in a sequence of Grand Cru plots that include Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet and the 1er cru Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles.
A legend of medieval origin tells of an aged Lord of Montrachet riding past the Convent of Clos des Pucelles, from within which he heard a beautiful singing voice. A son was born of his liaison with the beautiful young virgin it belonged to — a bastard, or bâtard. When the Lord’s legitimate heir, the Chevalier, died in battle, it was decided the illegitimate son should replace him. The villagers welcomed the arrival of the son to the Chateau with cries of ‘Bienvenue bâtard’.
This legend has become intertwined with vinous history, and these exceptional plots of chardonnay grapes now carry names cropped from the local folklore of Burgundy. The 1986 vintage from the foremost producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, is a sublime expression of chardonnay, ripe and powerful with an ability to mature in bottle to gain complex butterscotch, mushroom and toffee notes.
In 1924 Georges Roumier stood at the altar next to Genevieve Quanquin in the little town of Chambolle-Musigny. The marriage would not only bring happiness, love and a brood of children, but also a dowry which included some of the most revered vineyards in Burgundy. Georges would go on to turn his hand to winemaking, and craft from these vineyards exquisite pinot noirs.
Bonnes-Mares, Les Amoureuses and Musigny are among the domaine’s best wines, showing more structure and substance than other domaines. The muscular nature of the wines is Roumier’s signature, especially in the Grand Cru Bonnes-Mares, despite the use of only 30 per cent of new-oak barrels for ageing. These are wines made in the vineyard, and the terroir-focused domaine maintains this style today under the aegis of Georges’ grandson, Christophe.
In the early 7th century, the Duke of Southern Burgundy gifted lands to the Abbey of Bèze for agricultural use. The monks, being partial to a sip of wine after prayers, opted to continue the Roman practice of plantings vines. They sectioned off a field for this purpose, and named it the Clos de Bèze.
Some six centuries later, a man named Bertin was fortunate enough to enjoy a taste of the monks’ delicately crafted wine, and was suitably impressed. He purchased the field (champ in French) next to the abbey, and planted his own vines. His vineyard became known as Champs de Bertin (Bertin’s field), which the locals quickly shortened to Chambertin. Domaine Armand Rousseau is the pre-eminent producer and was also the best-performing Burgundy producer at Christie’s last year. The Grand Cru wines from this estate show incredible power, poise and precision.
The jewel in the crown of the Côte d’Or, this peerless estate commands a roll call of the greatest Grand Cru vineyards: Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Romanée-Saint-Vivant, Richebourg, Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux, among others.
Very few people are able to taste the magnificent wines that emanate from the old cuverie of the monks of Saint Vivant. Those who do are imbibing mythic beasts, pinot noir that displays aromatic fireworks, spherical structure and luscious texture.
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The colourful nature of the wines is matched by the intriguing history of the estate: in 1760 it was the subject of a bidding war between Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and the king’s cousin, the Prince de Conti. The mistress’s pockets were not as deep as the prince’s, and he handed over 8,000 livres for the estate, appending the best vineyard with his title. This regal pedigree is felt, even today, in the sumptuous and evolved nature of the wines, such as the 1999 vintage of the estate’s top wine, Romanée-Conti.