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Can Any Wine Be Worth $500 A Bottle?

June 20, 1996|MATT KRAMER

Among fine wines, Burgundy exerts an appeal on its followers like no other. The reason is simple: Burgundy, the home of the Cistercian monastic order, is also the motherhouse of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not only is it where these two grapes were born, but the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of Burgundy remain the standard against which all others are measured.

But Burgundy exacts a price beyond the pocketbook. Merely forking over your lunch money for the next five years isn't enough. It's an insider's game, since two bottlings from the same vineyard and vintage can be dramatically different in quality. Tiny vineyards have dozens of owners, each making minute quantities of individually labeled wines, all selling for the same high price.

This helps explain the attraction of Domaine Leroy for the world's Burgundy junkies. The 1993 vintage was rightly acclaimed as one of the greats (for the reds, anyway). And no producer's red '93s were more acclaimed by Burgundy lovers than Leroy's. They are, in effect, some of the greatest red wines from one of Burgundy's greatest red wine vintages.

Whipping up the frenzy even more was the fact that, because of ineffective spraying against spring mildew, the size of Domaine Leroy's 1993 crop was even smaller than the already minuscule yields Lalou Bize-Leroy usually seeks. For example, in 1993 Domaine Leroy had 2.45 bearing acres in the grand cru Romanee-St. Vivant. Yet just 75 cases (three barrels) were produced, which means a theoretical yield of 7 hectoliters per hectare or one-half ton of grapes per acre.

When Jim Smith, a Burgundy specialist and manager of the San Francisco branch of the retailer Wine Club, invited a small group of Burgundy fans to a private tasting of Leroy's 1993 Burgundies, nobody blinked an eye at the price: $400 per person. Smith had laboriously rounded up one bottle each of nearly all of Domaine Leroy's 1993 red Burgundies. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

So how good are Domaine Leroy's '93 red Burgundies? Did they live up to the hype? Are they worth the price? In the words of James Joyce, "Yes and yes again." As for the money--well, that's all a matter of your pocketbook and your passion.

In the '93 vintage, Domaine Leroy's signature characteristics of breathtaking delineation and tremendous concentration were more magnified than in any other vintage yet. Collectively, many '93s were superb. Most of Domaine Leroy's renditions, however, have been universally praised as being the best of class.

Which wines stood out? The grands crus, of course. Almost all were marvels, setting new standards for their respective vineyards. For this taster, the '93 Romanee-St.-Vivant (75 cases, $450 a bottle) was an expanding galaxy in a bottle, simply the finest Romanee-St.-Vivant in my 20 years of tasting Burgundies. The '93 Chambertin (75 cases, $500 a bottle), Clos de la Roche (75 cases, $350 a bottle), Richebourg (100 cases, $500 a bottle) and, not least, the Musigny (75 cases, $500 a bottle) were comparably grand. All were dense and concentrated beyond description yet retained superb balance. The delineation of flavors was virtually digital.

Were there any, well, deals among these '93s, assuming you can even locate a bottle or two of the wines? The notion of a deal at this rarefied price level is obviously relative, but two possibilities exist, both magnificent: Corton "Renardes" (175 cases, $200 a bottle) and Vosne-Romanee "Les Beaux Monts" (375 cases, $200 a bottle). Each is fragrant, opulent and dense beyond imagining.

A note about buying Domaine Leroy: It takes a lot of searching to turn up even a few bottles, and the odds of locating any '93s are slim. But it is possible to find other vintages that are very nearly as fine as these ballyhooed '93s.

Simply put, Domaine Leroy rarely misses. The 1989s, '90s, '91s and '92s from this estate were all benchmark wines for their respective vintages. The usual vintage generalizations do not apply to Domaine Leroy. You can find some superb red '89s, '91s and '92s on the market, at prices that might almost be considered affordable, say, $50 to $80 a bottle. These three vintages are the real deals in Domaine Leroy red Burgundies.

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