At the inescapable, seven-course banquet which accompanies every French wine fair, I was relieved to find myself seated next to a familiar face. Aubert de Villaine is a grower in this little wine village [Bouzeron] just outside Chagny and is co-owner and co-manager of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the Côte-de-Nuits.
During one of the long intervals between each dish, Mr. De Villaine began talking about the advantages of late harvesting for the quality of wine. A series of speeches by local dignitaries cut him off, but I wanted to hear more. When the midday banquet finally broke up about 6 p.m., he invited me to his house, a few kilometers away.
We tasted his 1976s: Bourgogne-Aligoté, white Bourgogne Les Cloux and red Bourgogne La Digoine.
Then he broke out a 1962 Grands-Echézeaux from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Contrary to most '62 burgundies, which tend to be over the hill, this one was at its peak of vigor with a rich fruity flavor and the unmistakable aroma of an autumn walk through a forest carpet of dried ferns.
An even more remarkable wine was to come, but in the meantime we returned to the subject that had brought us together than evening – late harvesting, its advantages and occasional disadvantages.
The basic idea is that waiting a few extra days to harvest makes for riper grapes. They contain more sugar, which gives better balanced, more naturally fuller and aromatic wines. The need to add beet sugar is reduced or eliminated because the grape sugar will yield sufficient alcohol.
The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has practiced late picking for more than a century and this is at least one factor in the extraordinary quality of and demand for its wines.
Mr. De Villaine showed me a pamphlet on the subject written by an ancestor of his and published in 1869 in Dijon. Here, in old-fashioned language, was the whole theory laid out with a comparative chart of the sugar level of grapes at the beginning of the harvest and at a later date for every year from 1822 to 1868.
Only three times in these 47 years did the sugar level decrease because of bad weather after the normal date for the harvest. In every other late-picked year there was an appreciable gain which could at times mean the difference between a well-balanced wine sold for a good price and a thin, acid vintage of low repute.
Mr. de Villaine explained that last year, with its rainy summer but sunny fall, was a perfect example of what was to be gained. Most growers began harvesting as early as Oct. 5, but the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti waited until Oct. 20, when nearly everyone had finished.
The sunny weather continued for another week and the grapes continued to ripen although the vines were already losing their leaves. At the end of September many grapes were still green and the delay gave them time to turn purple and catch up with the rest.
This gave a unity to the crop in late October that it did not have at the beginning of the month. Early-picked grapes yielded only about 10 per cent alcohol while the late-picked gave wines of 11.5 per cent.
This meant that much less beet sugar had to be added to give them body. It was this completion of the ripening of the grapes that made for good quality last year, at least at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and at Mr. de Villaine's vineyards in Bouzeron.
Good results from late picking also depend on whether the vines can take it. The vines must be strong and healthy and this depends on what rootstock they are grafted to, how they were cultivated and treated. "If you get a good crop in a given year, it represents 10 years of laborious preparation behind it," says Mr. de Villaine.
Some growers cannot afford to wait because they have hired their pickers for the beginning of the harvest and have to use them when they are available. But Mr. de Villaine argues that "Quality cannot be based on economic reasoning. You have to take your chances to achieve it."
And it does not always work out. In 1960 and 1968 the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bottled almost nothing because of rot and waiting for late good weather that did not appear. But the reputation of the Domaine's wines is not based on occasional failures any more than is that of Château Mouton-Rothschild, a premier grand cru of the Médoc which also practices late harvesting for the same reasons.
If in the freak year of 1964 Mouton was caught by rain in the last part of the harvest and made rather light instead of full-bodied wine, its wines in off years hold up far better and longer than most bordeaux. In great years they may last a century or more.
Mr. de Villaine offered stunning proof of the same result with a Richebourg from 1931, an eminently forgettable year. It was an extraordinary wine grown from ungrafted vines, for until 1945 the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti preferred to treat the soil with sulfur compounds to kill the phylloxera root louse instead of grafting its vines to phylloxera-resistant American rootstock. The cork was stamped with the words Vigne originelle française non-reconstituée.
The wine was brick-colored but still hale, if obviously very old. It was like a well-preserved 90-year-old man, a shadow of its former vigor. It faded as we drank it and was dead in half an hour, having slipped away into a dry mustiness. Yet while it lasted, its fugitive qualities were amazing.