Two Lessons From Perfect Wine

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If there’s one estate in the world that can make perfect wine, it is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (“DRC” to insiders) in France’s Burgundy region. So special is its Pinot Noir that tourists make pilgrimages there just to gaze thirstily at the vineyards behind its low stone wall. It is so coveted that some careful collectors will scrawl an “X” on bottles that they have drained to prevent counterfeiters from reusing them.

This is the kind of juice that Miles from Sideways would pursue to the end of the earth, even if it meant making like Thelma & Louise and rocketing his red Saab over a canyon into the blue beyond.

This week I found myself in the surreally fortunate position of having two separate opportunities to taste DRC. Rather than try to tantalize you with embellished, mostly meaningless wine poetry, I instead offer two lessons that these wines bring to mind:

- Extraordinary wine tastes great, but is also less filling. A commonality among the different DRCs I tasted is that they all offered concentrated aromas and flavors, yet were relatively light on the palate. This is a key element that distinguishes a good wine from a cliff-rocketing one. The latter will make enthusiasts wonder: How do they get so much character from the wine without it being overly thick or heavy for its type?

- Wine can have virtually the same origins, yet be so different. At my first tasting — a dinner with epically charitable friends — the two wines were not only from the same grape (Pinot Noir, as is all red Burgundy), the same year (1990), and the same winemaking techniques, but also from virtually the same location (one was from the legendary La Tâche vineyard, the other from the revered, minuscule Romanée-Conti). As DRC’s understated co-director Aubert de Villaine confirmed for me, these vineyards are just a minute’s walk from each other. But what a difference 60 seconds makes. The La Tâche was a giddy swirl of black cherry, Asian spices and menthol, ready to dazzle like George Valentin in The Artist. The Romanée-Conti was no less mesmerizing, but, by contrast, it shaded more to Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a haunting, tightly wound bundle of blackberry, earth, and minerals that revealed its secrets slowly.

This contrast illustrates our previously discussed concept of terroir where slight variations in climate, soil and elevation can lead to marked differences in the wine’s aromas and taste.

Such was also the case at my second DRC encounter, a media tasting hosted by importer Wilson Daniels to showcase the just-released 2009 vintage. Among the nine wines we tasted were La Tâche and Romanée-Conti, and, once again, two wines you might assume would be identical twins manifested themselves differently. True to their terroir, the La Tâche was an exuberant, kaleidoscopic feast; the Romanée-Conti, a bastion of restrained intensity.

Despite these differences, all of the wines shared a trait that was undeniable: a lingering taste that was so long and pleasurable that, in the words of De Villaine, the wines “seemed like they wanted to spend the night.”

Every week, Mark Oldman -- wine expert, acclaimed author and lead judge of the series The Winemakers -- shares with readers the basics of wine, while making it fun and practical. In the coming weeks, he'll tell you what to ask at a wine store, at what temperature to serve it and share his must-have wine tools.

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