Fifth Floor, San Francisco, CA

(A night of extraordinarily profound as well as extraordinarily disappointing wines from Domaine de la Romanée Conti)

This was not a blind tasting, but rather flights of DRC wines paired around the exquisite cooking of Chef Laurent Gras at San Francisco's Fifth Floor restaurant (in the Palomar Hotel). After some sulphur blew off the 2000 Le Montrachet, one could smell aromas of honeysuckle, tropical fruit, butter, and citrus. This medium-bodied, stylish yet extremely youthful 2000 should hit its prime in 5-6 years, and last for a decade. The underripe 1999 Le Montrachet revealed high acidity, medium body, and good crispness, but its true value is for those who drink labels, not wine.

The controversial 2000 vintage was put forward with the 2000 La Tâche. A light rosé color with pink and ruby hues was followed by a pleasant, pure, clean, but one dimensional nose of strawberries and cherries. The wine was light-bodied and pretty, but diluted and insignificant. Pushed in a corner, the Burgundy hounds with whom I was tasting would only say, "well, you've got to taste the bad ones to appreciate the great vintages." I shall never understand how highly intelligent people can lose their objectivity when they see a renowned grand cru Burgundy label in front of them. They rarely seem capable of tasting what's in the bottle ... at least when it comes to Burgundy. The 1997 La Tâche was a herbaceous, vegetal, medium-bodied effort revealing notes of ashtray, stems, and herbs as well as an austere finish. This wine, which is going nowhere, appears to be a candidate for an early demise, although it should last longer than the 2000. An excellent effort, but shockingly short as well as narrowly constructed, was the 1996 La Tâche. The finest of these three vintages, it possesses a medium ruby color already revealing lightening at the edge, along with notes of new saddle leather, spice box, cedar, and tart acids. So many Burgundy domaines acidulate when they don't have to, which makes a mockery of terroir debates. I can't imagine DRC acidulating a high acid vintage, but the 1996 is very high in acidity. If you like grapefruit juice mixed with grapes, no doubt you'll find this far more interesting than I did.

As disappointing as many of these DRC offerings were, the 1999s are prodigious. They are as glorious as red Burgundy can be, and represent tremendous triumphs for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. To put things in context, the 1999 Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru blew away the 1996, 1997, and 2000 La Tâche. It is a deeper, more voluminous effort boasting an extraordinary fragrance of forest floor intermixed with sweet and sour cherries, white flowers, earth, and spice. This dark ruby-colored 1999 cuts a broad swath across the palate, and lively, vibrant acidity provides uplift to the medium to full-bodied flavors. The impressive, still youthful finish is moderately tannic. The spectacular 1999 Echézeaux may be the finest vintage I have tasted of this offering. A tremendously fragrant nose of raspberries, cherries, strawberries, new oak, and gamy scents led to a medium to full-bodied, broadly flavored wine with stunning suppleness, a kiss of sweet oak, and enough acidity to provide definition as well as length. This terrific, still youthful 1999 should hit its prime in 4-5 years, and last until 2015+. Far more tannic, backward, and closed, but extremely promising is the 1999 Grands-Echézeaux. Great stuff, with additional layers, this full-bodied, powerful red needs 3-4 years of cellaring; it should keep for 15-18 years. It's amazing how much more powerful yet less charming it was than the 1999 Echézeaux. Ultimately, the Grands-Echézeaux should be the better wine ... purchasers will just have to wait a lot longer. I was blown away by the 1999 Richebourg, an extraordinary, dense ruby/purple-colored offering. It boasts a magnificent perfume of framboise, blackberries, and currants as well as a sweet, buttery woody component underlying black and red fruit flavors kissed by toasty oak. In the mouth, gamy, fleshy characteristics intertwined with violets, licorice, and black fruits is liqueur-like. Ripe, rich, and dense, with spectacular purity and equilibrium, this mind-boggling effort should be at its peak in 2-4 years, and last for 15-20. Never my favorite cru because it's always dominated by its spicy, cinnamon, clove character, the 1999 Romanée-St.-Vivantreveals the leanest, hardest, stemmiest flavors as well as the toughest tannin. However, packed in the wine are layers of fruit in addition to plenty of body, muscle, and depth, and a tenseness and tartness. I do not believe it will ever provide the sumptuous joys of the other 1999 cuvées, but there is a lot here. If you like spice, sassafras, and beet root characteristics, this is your baby. Don't touch a bottle for 3-5 years, and drink it over the following 15-20. The enormously backward, dense, concentrated 1999 La Tâche is a candidate for perfection in about 7-10 years. Very backward, with a deep ruby/purple color, it offers a tight but promising nose of root beer, spice, black cherries, violets, and a hint of blackberries. Full-bodied and loaded with tannin, but sweet and pure, this colossal wine needs a minimum of 5-8 years of cellaring. It should keep for 2-3 decades. I rarely get excited over a Romanée-Conti (label drinkers always rate it high, but it rarely delivers as much as La Tâche, Richebourg, or Grands-Echézeaux), but the 1999is the real deal. Although lighter in color than La Tâche, it exhibits notes of earth, spice, beet roots, forest floor, mint, smoked game, and sweet strawberry as well as black cherry fruit. Medium-bodied and concentrated, with high tannin, it requires 7-8 years of cellaring, and should last for 2-3 decades.

Once past the 1999 flight, we moved into a tasty flight of fully mature 1990s. I can't speak for the provenance of the bottles (they seemed generally sound), but my instincts suggested that some of them may have seen some heat along with way, particularly the 1990 Grands-Echézeaux, which started off strong, but quickly became maderized in the bottle. It was a brilliant wine for about five minutes, and then seemingly fell apart in an instant. The 1990 Echézeaux exhibited beautiful, younger, more vigorous fruit, a deeper color, and less orange and brown at the rim compared to the 1990 Grands-Echézeaux.

The 1989 Grands-Echézeaux was filled with stemmy, earthy, root beer like notes. Although slightly disjointed, it exhibited a gorgeous perfume as well as sweetness. The 1989 La Tâchereveals plenty of brown at the edge along with a nose of dried herbs, ashtray, and a charcuterie shop, with hints of mints, black cherries, and earth.

One of the most stunning wines of the entire flight was the 1991 Romanée-St.-Vivant, an underrated vintage that I had been relatively high on for years. Notes of herbs, underbrush, meat, and sweet red and black fruits jump from the glass of this full-bodied, rich, fully mature Burgundy. It should drink well for 7-8 years. The 1988 Romanée-St.-Vivant was virtually undrinkable. The light pink color revealed plenty of amber at the edge. The wine tasted like grapefruit juice with hints of strawberries and cherries thrown in. Like many 1988s, it's lean, austere, sharp, and unpalatable. A few defenders of the vintage meekly argued that it needed more time, but this wine is in full decline. There never was much depth or fruit in many 1988 red Burgundies because of over-cropping as well as over-acidulation. In this case, the Emperor was clearly fully exposed.

We finished with a fully mature, teetering on the brink of death, but still super-complex, earthy, composty 1978 Romanée-St.-Vivant. It exhibited some wonderful sweetness along with abundant quantities of spice, earth, tea, and sweet cow turd droppings in a beautifully complex bouquet. While it faded quickly, it was magical for three or four minutes. The same could not be said for the 1976 Richebourg, which is DOA.

As for the food, I did not take notes since I was focusing so intensely on an unprecedented tasting of DRC wines (at least for me). But the cooking of Laurent Gras is top-flight, and, if he were in France, he would merit at least two stars in the Guide Michelin.

In any event, in many ways this tasting of DRCs symbolized Burgundy, and why I believe that when it's great, it has the potential to be the single most compelling wine one could ever taste. But, the few great wines are outnumbered by an ocean of mediocrity that requires a Burgundy lover to be a full time masochist.

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