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The DRC Interview: Aubert de Villaine

Posted: Feb 11, 2014

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In the 1960s, before you joined the family business, you went to America to write about Californian wine. Tell me about that experience.

I wrote articles for La Revue du Vin de France, because in the 1960s nobody knew wine was made in California and it was the very beginning of the New World. [They] are amusing to read today, because at that time I interviewed Bob Mondavi. He had no idea what was going to become of the industry in California. He had a real passion and ambition, but he never realized what would happen.

 

What were your first impressions?

What I saw was maybe two wineries trying to make good wines, and the rest making ordinary wine without any idea of quality.

 

If you hadn’t come back to the family winery, do you think you would have continued writing? If not, what would you have done?

I would have liked to have been a teacher – literature or philosophy.

 

You joined the estate in 1974. At that time Domaine de la Romanée Conti was very well-known, but had not yet reached its potential? Why was that?

For many reasons. Burgundy was hit by phylloxera in the 1880s, you had the First World War, you had the crisis of 1919, the Second World War, and then the market from the 1950s became better. Before then, everything had been miserable in Burgundy; people started to think more of productivity than quality. In 1974 we were just coming out of these times, so I think I was conscious of a certain number of things that were essential for progress in quality. I tried to put them in place, and little by little it worked.

 

Today, do you think the estate has reached its full potential?

No, no. I have to retire one day, but there is still work to be done. The most important thing is in the field. It’s never finished. It’s what we call 'material vegetal.' In the field, it’s essential to select every year new mother vines with the specific quality you want. This is something I started 25 years ago and is of course still going on – and where we can still make some progress.

 

In the 1990s, you did a small trial of high-density plantings of 14,000 plants per hectare. What were the results?

Not very interesting. The idea was that with higher density the vine would have to go deeper [into the soil] and explore more, with less fruit per vine making better quality. But it didn’t really work well. It created problems of pruning, for instance, so it is not a path we are going to follow.

 

The estate is now run along biodynamic principles. How have the philosophies of Steiner influenced you?

I’m not really interested in the philosophy of Steiner. I am interested in what Steiner has installed for agriculture, but the philosophy – anthroposophy – it’s a kind of religion.

 

So why did you become biodynamic?

What I look for are the best ways to make the greatest possible wines. We have been organic since 1985, and then I experimented with biodynamics for some time. I realized it was the best way to be as close to the vineyard as possible, and for the vines to be most in harmony with nature.

 

In 2009, you introduced a new wine – DRC Corton – why did you decide to do this?

In life, it’s always a question of opportunity. The family Merode, whom I knew, the parents died and the children were not in a position to continue the exploitations [vineyards], so they came to me to get advice. We came to the conclusion that the best way was for a domaine of good reputation to work with their vineyards. We have a lot of progress to make there.

 

Currently, the Corton is a blend of three grand cru vineyards. In the future, is there a plan to make single-vineyard expressions?

We make an assemblage for the moment. Maybe when we have finished with the work of replanting or T-budding [grafting], we will then start to bottle the three climats separately. It will take 10 or 15 years.

 

I can’t interview you without discuss counterfeiting. What are you doing at the domaine and how can the industry address this problem?

That's a big question! Since the 2010 vintage, we have used something that protects completely the traceability of the bottles.

 

What’s the system called?

I’m not going to tell you what it is! There are tools that allow the traceability, but most important for me, and what we have been working on for the past 30 years, is the control of the distribution from the domaine to the final consumer – the person who is going to drink the wine in a restaurant or at home.

The people who want to buy on the auction market or the parallel market, it’s at their risk. They have to take the responsibility. The terrible thing with the auction market is that they don’t give the provenance and they should. We are certainly not going to examine each bottle that people buy. [For us], it’s control of distribution and the tool that we have had for traceability since 2010.

 

You are the president of Burgundy's recently shortlisted bid to win Unesco world heritage status. Why did you decide to become so heavily involved in the project? You were a busy man already.

Yes, I didn’t need that. I have the music festival at the Clos de Vougeot, and the monastery of Saint-Vivant [DRC purchased the ruined abbey in 1996 with the aim of restoring it]. The reason why we started the Unesco project – and why I got so involved – was for two reasons. First, I had learned over the years how different Burgundy was from any other wine region, and how special and interesting it is. I thought this was an occasion to show the world what Burgundy is in reality – outside of the folklore, the things that have been said about Burgundy. 

Second, perhaps the most important for me, was the chance for the people of Burgundy, especially the vignerons, to become conscious that they had in their hands a precious, very old, high-value, unique place in the world. It is very important that its integrity is kept to be passed to the next generations with its essence.

The Unesco document suggests that Burgundy’s vineyards and their unique goût de terroir must be protected.

Contrary to what a lot of people were saying 10 or 15 years ago, the consumer is not looking for uniformity, he is looking for diversity, and the success of wine in Burgundy shows this tendency. It is a way to show to the world that a model like Burgundy, based on diversity, works.

 

But while the diversity of Burgundy is celebrated by wine lovers, it isn’t always understood. Is the complexity sometimes a liability rather than an asset?

Burgundy has always been, and will always be, a liability because it is not easy to understand. This is also the reason [for the Unesco application], because if we don’t maintain the integrity of the vineyards as they are, and the know-how, it won’t be Burgundy anymore.

In Burgundy, the climatology is difficult – the great diversity of the soil can be looked at like a handicap. In many other regions they have chosen to erase the differences, and used varietals in order to make a product that is more uniform. Here in Burgundy, we have chosen to make wines that reflect the weather conditions of the year with one varietal only – one for the red (pinot noir) and one for the white (chardonnay).

 

So aligoté (a white variety also planted in Burgundy) doesn’t count?

No, it counts. You are a touching a sensitive point. I live in a village – Bouzeron – and aligoté is the specific white variety.

 

So aligoté is close to your heart?

Yes, it is close to my heart; I produce aligoté. Bouzeron is not in the [Unesco bid] area. We would like to have chosen a larger piece of Burgundy, with the Côte Chalonnaise for instance, but we were told it would be too large to be considered by the French ministry of culture. Perhaps with time...

 

How many years have you worked on the Unesco project?

Seven years. We launched in November 2006.

 

How much time have you personally spent on the application?

Since the beginning it’s been a half-time job for me.

 

So you’ve been spending half your time on the Unecso bid, managing Domaine de la Romanée Conti, helping to organize the Clos de Vougeot music festival, and running your property in Bouzeron. When do you sleep?

Alors, I sleep during the day. I used to have a gift for sleeping at any time, but I don’t have it anymore, unfortunately. It’s fine, I manage.

 

Tell me about the Clos de Vougeot music festival. How did this come about?

We have good friends who were musicians from the Metropolitan Opera of New York who love wine and who used to come to Burgundy to visit. They asked me and Bernard Hervé to help to organize a concert to thank the vignerons, so one year we did. Then we did it again the next year, and it had so much success that we decided to start a small festival.

 

What music do you enjoy?

All kinds of music. This festival is chamber music, mostly. I prefer classical, but in classical you have so many different types. For me, the last quartets of Beethoven [are my favorite].

 

 

 

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