By | February 25 2014
Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards (Foreword by Aubert de Villaine)
Published by Kyle Cathie Ltd £40
Reviewed by Claude Kolm
In the early 1990s, as my knowledge of Burgundy grew rapidly and the region changed equally rapidly, no source was more important to my education than Remington Norman’s The Great Domaines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Finest Wine Producers of the Côte d’Or. With the knowledge that a new edition of that book would be coming out, accompanied by a companion book (the one under consideration here) that would focus on the vineyards, I had hoped to do a single review of both. Publication schedules did not allow for simultaneous reviews, however, and my review of The Great Domaines of Burgundy appeared in WFW 29.
Grand Cru is an attractive book with sumptuous photographs throughout (most from Burgundy specialist Jon Wyand and the author’s wife, Janet Norman). It is the same dimension as The Great Domaines of Burgundy and fits naturally beside it on the bookshelf. Its publication coincides with the application – initiated in 2007 and culminating in the final presentation in 2011 to the French state – to make the climats of the Côte d’Or vineyard a UNESCO World Heritage site — a fact not lost on Aubert de Villaine in his thoughtful foreword. It is written in the simple but elegant and even poetic style that will be familiar to those who have read de Villaine’s other writings. The foreword sets the stage for the importance of the task that Norman has taken on of describing the particularities of the greatest vineyards of the Côte d’Or and, by extension, many of the greatest vineyards of the world.
Norman’s introduction explains that the vineyard, or climat, is only one part of the equation and that the producer is the other, more important element: "Choosing a good source matters more than nuances of vineyard, vintage, or appellation." The producer part, of course, was covered in The Great Domaines of Burgundy.
Part I of the book is titled "Excellence and Progress: The Evolution of the Côte d’Or." Chapter 1 is "The Côte d’Or in the Context of History," and this provides what I think is a generally good summary of the development of wine and wine culture in the region, though I was surprised to see an apparently positive mention of the use of reverse osmosis (p.18 – contradicted later, on p.27, where Norman admits that artificial concentration does indeed mute expression of terroir).
Chapter 2, "The Genie of Terroir in the Côte d’Or," is one of the book’s key chapters. In it, Norman argues that more than any other wine region and unlike many others (at least until recently), terroir, shown through the different expressions of a single grape in various climats, has been key to Burgundy. This assertion may pay too little heed to Germany (where the wine tradition owes much to Cistercian monks who came from Burgundy) but otherwise is soundly argued.
Nevertheless, Norman correctly points out that, in recent times, terroir and purity of expression have taken on even greater importance for the ideals and standards of Burgundy. In doing so, he puts his training as a philosopher to good use in considering and refuting the various arguments against the existence of terroir. He concedes (rightly) that there is a human dimension to terroir and the concept is continually evolving. The chapter then goes into separate essays on the interactions of soil, topography, and grape type in terroir.
Chapter 3, "The Origins of the Côte," discusses geological aspects of the Côte d’Or, with essays on morphology, geology, pedology (here meaning the study of soils), faults, and the two côtes (which contrasts the various factors in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune). Up to here, the book does a generally good job – it is informative and accurately discusses the topics, and it does not overlap too much with The Great Domaines of Burgundy.
Part II of the book, titled "The Concept of Grand Cru," contains chapters 4 and 5. The first of these, "The Universals of Quality," discusses the differences of various vineyards and why one vineyard may be not just different but also superior to its neighbor. Quite frankly, I’m not sure there’s anything here than isn’t said elsewhere (often more than once) in the book, but that may be nit-picking.
The following chapter, "The Grands Crus and Finest Premiers Crus of the Côte d’Or," examines all 33 grands crus and the nine premiers crus that Norman believes are of a quality superior to that of other premiers crus and maybe even to some grands crus: Clos St-Jacques and Aux Combottes in Gevrey- Chambertin, Les Amoureuses in Chambolle-Musigny, Les St-Georges in Nuits-St-Georges, Les Rugiens in Pommard, Les Caillerets in Volnay, Les Perrières in Meursault, and Le Cailleret and Les Pucelles in Puligny- Montrachet. (Norman admits that there is much room for vigorous and pleasurable debate on which vineyards to include.) This is the section of the book that most readers expect to be its heart. For each vineyard, there is an introduction; statistics on the size of the vineyard, number of owners, and average annual production; a listing of principal owners (with those Norman considers superior marked in bold) and the surface area that they hold, plus, if available, information about the age of vines; origin of the name; a description of topography and geology; and a description of the wine.
Maps that are overlays from Google Earth or similar satellite photos are provided. Though much is well done, here we begin to encounter some problems that I shall return to below. The second half of the book – consisting of Part III, "The Making of Burgundy," and Part IV, "Modern Challenges" – covers material already largely addressed in The Great Domaines of Burgundy, often with the identical names for the chapter headings: for example, "Pinot Noir," "Chardonnay," and "Tasting Burgundy."
The one new addition is a chapter on "Burgundian Grapes in the New World" that seems somewhat out of place. (And if one is going to discuss Burgundian grapes in areas other than Burgundy, why just the New World and not other areas of Europe, such as the Jura and Germany, where there are many remarkable wines from those grapes?) For those who have not read the parallel material in The Great Domaines of Burgundy, there is much useful information here, but for those who have read that book, there seems to be quite a bit of filler.
Parts of the text are also written with considerable moralistic pontification, which seems to serve no purpose other than to express the author’s anger at those who do not appreciate Burgundy the way he does. For example, he writes that "it is not surprising that red Burgundy continues to divide opinion like no other wine, apart perhaps from the whites of Alsace and Germany, with many knowledgeable palates failing to see either the quality or the attraction. Those bitten by the bug have an almost obsessive devotion to the region and its producers and happily immerse themselves in its diversity with a passion often backed by formidable knowledge. Indifference is not an option: those who dislike Burgundy do so with equal fervour."
So far, so good: Just as there are music lovers who adore Wagner’s music and others who are left unmoved by it, so it is with Burgundy; Norman has recognized this fact and shown his respect for those who disagree with him by calling them "knowledgeable palates." But then he contradictorily continues that the fervor of those who dislike Burgundy "often appears to conceal a lack of understanding rather than any aversion to the wines themselves. It is difficult to understand how any wine lover could possibly dislike La Tâche or Musigny." In so discrediting anyone who fails to share his taste, Norman descends to the level of those who do not appreciate Burgundy and call its lovers masochists or snobs. What’s to be gained by doing so? Reading such a conclusory condemnation is not going to persuade those with other opinions that they are wrong.
Alas, these two drawbacks – the preachy moralizations and the fact that Norman spends half the book covering material already in the companion Great Domaines of Burgundy – are not the most serious of the book’s failings. That is left for the great number of factual errors, especially in the discussion of the individual climats. The errors are too numerous to list here, but I’ll provide some examples to give their flavor. Some of the errors appear to be the result of mere carelessness. For example, on p.44, Norman states that part of Clos de Tart remains a garden and courtyard, but on p.66 he gets it right, since it is Clos des Lambrays that is in fact part a garden and courtyard.
At other times, though, the errors are more serious. For example, the map of Gevrey-Chambertin fails to show the portion of Mazoyères/ Charmes-Chambertin that descends to the route nationale. It is this portion of the vineyard that I have consistently heard referred to as not worthy of grand cru status – not the portion up-slope bordering the departmental road (Route des Grands Crus) and facing Aux Combottes, as Norman claims.
A statue of vineyard workers in Puligny-Montrachet, where two of its finest premiers crus, Le Cailleret and Les Pucelles, are among the climats considered by Norman to be of higher quality than the rest
Among the errors, the maps are a persistent problem. In addition to the Charmes/Mazoyères-Chambertin misrepresentation discussed above, the map of Morey-St-Denis fails to include the Bouchots and Meix Rentier climats as part of Clos des Lambrays; the Chambolle-Musigny map omits the Combe d’Orveau climat of Musigny; and the map of the Montrachet growths omits the Chassagne portion of Montrachet. Like the confusion between Clos de Tart and Clos des Lambrays mentioned above, these errors can be written off as mere carelessness, but their number and significance do not inspire confidence.
But for the most bizarre mapping error, involving the Perrières vineyard of Meursault, something more seems to be amiss. Perrières consists of four climats: Clos des Perrières, Perrières Dessous, Perières Dessus, and Aux Perrières. Clos des Perrières and Perrières Dessous are significantly better than the other two, as Norman states, and so correctly identifying their location is important to understanding the vineyard and its wines. The map correctly shows Clos des Perrières and omits identification of Aux Perrières (not uncommon for maps of Meursault). As for the other two, the modifiers Dessous and Dessus mean below and above, respectively; one would reasonably expect, therefore, that the Dessus climat of Perrières would be higher on the slope than the Dessous climat, as one sees on the map is the case with neighboring vineyards Charmes and Genevrières.
Except for the three editions of The Great Domaines of Burgundy, every map that I have consulted, whether in print (going back to that in Lavalle’s classic 1855 study) or on the Internet (checking the websites of producers with vines in the Perrières Dessous climat and official Burgundy sources) shows that Perrières Dessous constitutes the down-slope portion of Perrières, both north and south of Clos des Perrières. Yet Norman states in his discussion of Perrières that the Perrières Dessous is the entire south portion of the vineyard, including the up-sloping vines, and identifies the wines north of Clos des Perrières as Dessus. In affirming that the incorrect labeling of the map is as he thinks it should be, he demonstrates that the error is one of understanding, not oversight.
A wise buy?
Many Burgundy fans want to be comprehensive, and for them there is no question about the wisdom of purchasing this book – nor should there be, as long as they understand that it has shortcomings. But if one wants a single work that provides great detail about the individual climats in the Côte d’Or (far more than just the 42 covered in Norman’s book), I would have to recommend Jasper Morris’s excellent new book (Inside Burgundy, to be reviewed in WFW 32) or either of the older but still fine books by Clive Coates MW for their greater accuracy and more comprehensive scope. Given this competitive situation, one wonders why Grand Cru was not combined with The Great Domaines of Burgundy, eliminating the repetitive material and expanding the number of climats described.
This book is the third about Burgundy that I have reviewed in recent issues of The World of Fine Wine. I undertook each eagerly, hoping to find sources that would lead others to discover the wonders not just of the wines but also of the people of the region and their culture. Unfortunately, I have found all three books lacking to some degree and have not been able to give the enthusiastic reviews that I had anticipated. I take no pleasure in these judgments, but I believe that Burgundy should be, can be, and has been better served by other works.