Fine wine in focus: ‘overlooked’ DRC

With the titular wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti hogging the limelight, it’s worth remembering the other labels the famous estate produces and the relative value they offer within the DRC stable – not that they have gone entirely unnoticed by collectors.

Speaking to the drinks business last week at the annual presentation of the new vintage, the domaine’s co-owner, Aubert de Villaine, noted that he was particularly pleased with the Romanée-St-Vivant and suggested that of all the wines made by the property it was the most improved.

Full of what he termed a “nervous femininity” – using the term “nervous” in its French sense which is “full of energy and zip” or “exciting” – he said it made the wine a good counterpoint to the “more masculine” Romanée-Conti.

As then suggested by db, it highlighted a particular point about the domaine that while it produces a number of grand cru wines, few seem to garner the attention lavished on Romanée-Conti and, to a somewhat lesser extent, La Tâche.

This was picked up on by Corney & Barrow’s managing director, Adam Brett-Smith, who said: “I made this point recently about Echézeaux. In any other domaine it would be the summit – the peak.

“They’re all [the domaine’s wines], in the eyes of God, equal. They’re all grand crus. Yet somehow they’re seen as junior, the cadet.”

De Villaine added that this had been part of the motivation to do away with the old mixed case system, which had marked the way the domaine sorted its allocations; for one bottle of Romanée-Conti one had to buy a bottle of each of the other as well.

“The mixed case is the way to say Romanée-Conti is important and the others are not,” he said.

Brett-Smith agreed: “Traders would pluck out the Romanée-Conti and just sell off the rest. It set in stone the idea that the others aren’t important.”

From the very earliest times Romanée-Conti has been regarded as truly special in what is already a quite remarkable winemaking village. A clever myth maintains that it was the subject of a bidding war between Madame de Pompadour and the Prince de Conti in 1760. The prince won and that was how the vineyard got its name. Sadly, it was all cooked up by the locals and Madame de Pompadour was never involved in the purchase. On the other hand, the 8,000 livres the prince paid (plus a little extra to grease the wheels) was an extraordinary sum for the time.

Their uniqueness to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as well as their undoubted excellence and rarity clearly go a long way to explaining this heavy slant in favour of the two ‘monopoles’.

Romanée-St-Vivant is perhaps a case in point when it comes to overlooked wines from the domaine. Not as famous and rare as Romanée-Conti; not as famous, available and accessible as La Tâche; not as famous and yet more expensive than Echézeaux and Grands Echézeaux and with, historically, some of the weaker critical scores.

“People have always had a personal favourite,” continued Brett-Smith. “And the least favourite, traditionally, has been Romanée-St-Vivant.”

“Romanée-St-Vivant was rightly under-scored,” announced de Villaine who then explained. “it had an austere side that took 10 years for us to correct. Now it speaks for Romanée-St-Vivant.”

Aside from Le Montrachet, which is produced in truly tiny quantities, Romanée-Conti only produces 450 cases on average (though 657 in 2014). The next smallest average is from Richebourg where 1,000 cases is the norm.

Romanée-Conti is always the most expensive wine from the domaine, this year being offered for £6,975 per case of three from agents Corney & Barrow, but in the secondary market it regularly climbs to quite extraordinary heights.

According to Liv-ex, every vintage of Romanée-Conti from 2000-2013 now has a market price of over £100,000 for a case of 12; with the most expensive being the 2001 which costs £160,188.

La Tâche meanwhile is the next famous but only manages to achieve a fraction of the asking price its sister wine can in the wider market – £20,000 per dozen being a general rule of thumb (the most expensive is the 2005 with a market price of £37,200 per dozen).

Yet Romanée-Conti’s fabulous prices, while impressive, are unlikely to get much more expensive – at least for a while. When Liv-ex looks at the best-performing wines from month to month on its Exchange, if a particular Romanée-Conti or a La Tâche rises 10% over the course of March to a new high then one can be sure that by the end of April that same wine will have seen a 6-8% regression in price because it’s risen to a point that’s unsustainable.

Although the point of this analysis has been to point out the disproportionate emphasis placed upon Romanée-Conti and La Tâche at the expense of other wines within the domaine portfolio such as Richebourg and Echézeaux, it would be wrong to say that these wines are languishing unloved and unnoticed on merchant lists.

Data supplied by Liv-ex shows quite extraordinary year-on-year growth for each of the ‘other’ grand cru wines (excluding Romanée-Conti and La Tâche). Over the span of January 2016 to January of this year and the 2000-2012 vintages, there are just three wines that have not appreciated in excess of 20%.

Grands Echézeaux in particular only has one wine between 2000 and 2012 (the 2003) which has seen returns of below 30% and the 2004 actually saw its market price increase 93% from January 2016 to January 2017. On the other hand, in that particular case it should be noted how bad the 2004 vintage was in Burgundy. In January 2016 the 2004 Grands Echézeaux had the lowest case price of the post-2000 vintages (£6,672) and one often sees aberrations of this sort where buyers leap on a wine because of its relatively low price (because it’s not considered as good as other vintages) and drive it up over a very short period and give it a fantastic looking rate of return compared to its contemporaries.

In fact, the 2004 now costs £12,900 per dozen which is roughly the same as and even still below that of other vintages of Grands Echézeaux. A similar example would be the preference for 2007 Lafite in Asia, where people keen to be seen buying and or drinking Lafite and so made a bead for that less expensive wine, which laboured in the indices because of the critical slating the vintage had received.

The performance of the ’04 Grands Echézeaux, however, is perhaps suggestive of this element of ‘trophy’ buying and ties into a point about these wines that will be made shortly below.

Burgundy as a category bounced back on the secondary market in 2016, its Liv-ex index rising 22.8% and its share of trade growing from 5.9% to 7.7%. Demand for the wines remains incredibly high, and a series of recent small vintages has conspired to leave collectors scrabbling for whatever they can get their hands on. This is helping fuel rising Burgundy prices on the secondary market and buyers priced out of certain labels are now moving down to other less expensive domaines.

With this in mind, if Romanée-Conti in particular continues to creep upwards in price, it stands to reason that regular buyers of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti may themselves be priced out of that particular label and so begin casting around for other wines within the same stable, and their attentions can only be drawn to the likes of Romanée-St-Vivant, Grands Echézeaux etc.

Someone capable and willing to pay £6,000 for three bottles of Romanée-Conti will certainly not balk at the prospect of paying £1,000 to £2,000 per three for another grand cru.

Barring a catastrophic correction, the trend in Burgundy points to ever greater price appreciation especially at the very highest and most sought-after level. The non-monopole wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti may have escaped much of the attention up to this point but they cannot and will not escape for much longer.

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