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February 19, 2014updated 07 Jun 2023 10:07am

The Wines of Burgundy

By Thierry Dessauve

Clive Coates MW
The Wines of Burgundy
Published by University of California Press US$60 / £35

Reviewed by Toby Morrhall

The Wines of Burgundy is a welcome update of Clive Coates’s 1997 Côte d’Or, for much has changed in Burgundy over the past decade. It is a weighty tome of 878 pages, though slightly shorter than the 1,007 pages of its predecessor. Those familiar with Côte d’Or will find the new book is laid out in a similar format, beginning with a review of communes arranged geographically from north to south, describing the vineyards climat by climat, and containing an alphabetical listing, star rating, and commentary of the growers resident in each commune, extending to 271 pages. A most useful feature is that for each vineyard there is a list of “recommended sources.”

This section now starts with a new chapter on Chablis (20 pages) and finishes with a new chapter on the Côte Chalonnaise (also 20 pages). Both were omitted from Côte d’Or, which explains the amendment of the title. The maps of the vineyards are now in color. There are new maps of Chablis, Chablis Grands Crus, Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny, which are useful, though some have no contours, so one cannot gauge the gradient of the individual vineyards.

The main change is the deletion of Part Two of Côte d’Or, the “Domaine Profiles” that occupied 343 of the original 1,007 pages. The bulk of the new book is taken up with “Vintage Assessments 2006-1985” and ten of the best older vintages going back to 1959, extended from 323 to 508 pages. These comprise an excellent introduction to each vintage, with the sections “Weather,” “Where are the best wines?” and “When will the wines be at their best?” followed by copious tasting notes, all written since 2000. Each wine is described and given a start and finish drinking date, as well as a score out of 20.

The Wines of Burgundy is the most comprehensive survey and ranking of Burgundy growers that I know. This is perhaps the chief virtue of the book. The sheer size and complexity of Burgundy makes it difficult to grapple with and almost unknowable by one person in a lifetime, as the author says in the preface. Yet few people have spent so much time doing so much primary research as Coates. If anyone can do it justice, it is he. He has visited 250 growers, spending three or four months every year doing so, for the past 20 years. Who else could describe and rank 15 growers in Marsannay, or eight in Maranges?

In this respect, Coates has no rivals. As far as Anglo-Saxon writers go, America is better served than Britain, with Allen Meadows, Claude Kolm, and Stephen Tanzer, among others, regularly visiting Burgundy to taste from cask-but not on the same scale as Coates. No other British journalist spends enough time visiting growers in Burgundy to be able to offer such a comprehensive account. Sadly, many British writers form their judgment of the vintage without ever setting foot in Burgundy, basing it on cask samples sometimes sent before Christmas and shown in London at the January tastings of the en primeur merchants. Sampling before bottling, particularly delicate Pinot Noir, is most accurate and reliable when the sample is drawn freshly from the cask.

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One of the best parts of the new book is the excellent introduction, which gives a broad overview of Burgundy with particular reference to what has changed over the past decade. Of the Côte d’Or, Coates says, “There has been an explosion in quality over the last 25 years.” He has increased the number of starred domaines by more than 50 percent. There are now 11 three-star domaines as opposed to five; 29 two stars compared to 22; and the number of one stars has increased from 59 to 99. There is a section on “global warming”; a description of different types of viticulture, such as biologique and biodynamique, including the best translation I have seen of lutte raisonnée (“reactive viticulture”); an explanation of the new laws on yields; and another on the causes of premature oxidation.

The new chapter on Chablis covers all the most important growers and many others, too. Topics such as the danger of frost and “oak or not” are well handled. The author is critical of much Chablis: “Far too often […] Chablis is a disappointing wine.” Machine harvesting, overproduction, overmanipulation, and the youthful age of the vineyard (which has tripled in extent since 1978) are the reasons given. His answer is that machine harvesting should not be used for premiers or grands crus and that there needs to be a significant reduction in yields. Prices will have to rise. “Perfectionism is the only way forward.”

I am surprised that domaines Vincent Dauvissat and Raveneau are not given three stars, since they are of a different order of quality to everyone else. In view of the author’s criticism of Chablis, however, there is perhaps too generous a sprinkling of two-star domaines (ten!), though William Fèvre certainly deserves the accolade. La Côte Chalonnaise is also well covered. The premiers crus of Rully, Givry, Mercurey, and Montagny are set out in tables. A significant number of domaines have upped their quality, and the author has noted all the best producers, such as Michel Briday, Vincent Dureuil-Janthial, François Racquillet, and François Lumpp.

In the Côte d’Or section of the book, considerable updating has been required, since domaines such as Dujac and de Montille have acquired new vineyards. The best of the younger generation have been picked out, such as Jean-Marc Vincent, Olivier Lamy, Arnaud Ente, Denis Duband, Jean- Marie Fourrier, Benjamin Leroux, and Nicolas Potel, to name but a few.

Vosne-Romanée is a commune that has seen significant movement over the past ten years. Anne Gros and Sylvain Cathiard have been promoted from one to three stars, Jean Grivot from two to three, and Comte Liger- Belair is making at least two-star wines from vineyards returned to the family domaine rather than being farmed out. Henri Jayer’s successor, Emmanuel Rouget, comes in for criticism and is described as a “crazy mixed-up kid.” But despite his lack of organizational skills, a 1997 Cros Parantoux I tasted there was sensational-one of the wines of the vintage.

I regret the demise of the “Domaine Profiles” that featured so largely in Côte d’Or. And because the space allotted to tasting notes has risen so significantly, there is less information about the character and style of the grower. I would have liked to see the entries for all the starred domaines be at least double their existing length.

While the quality of the producer is easily discerned by the three-star rating system, occasionally one would like to have the producer’s style of wine put into the context of those in the commune, or an explanation of why his rating has improved. Fourrier (Gevrey-Chambertin) has risen from no stars to two stars, so is clearly important, yet after reading the entry on Fourrier, I would not know what style of wine he produces. Since Fourrier’s style is one of the most exquisite, perfumed, and ethereal of the commune (at the extreme end of the elegant spectrum for Gevrey) and a complete contrast to, for example, the bigger and more powerful Denis Mortet wines of the mid-1990s, it would be worth explaining the style in more detail and in the context of other producers in the same appellation.

While the note on Bachelet (also Gevrey-Chambertin) describes his style well, the entry is virtually identical to that in Côte d’Or, apart from a slight change in the maceration temperature and the percentage of new oak. There is no explanation as to why the domaine has risen from one to three stars.

Clos de Tart gets two short paragraphs yet is one of the jewels of Burgundy. There is no space to discuss the richness of its history or the increasing quality of its wine, nor the remarkable research into the geology of the Clos, the sélection massale scheme, the project to plant Pinot on its own roots, and other improvements that Sylvain Pitiot is undertaking.

The vintage assessments are excellent, but the number and organization of the tasting notes that follow are rather less welcome. The tasting notes occupy 508 of the 878 pages, which for most people will be too much. It would surely be better to store some of these on a website with public access. They are also in a larger typeface than the rest of the book.

The tasting notes are arranged alphabetically, whereas it would perhaps be more helpful to list them thematically, since what one is most often looking for is who made the best wines in comparable categories. For example, one might group all the grands crus of Vosne-Romanée together, which would avoid having to thumb backward and forward to compare Echézeaux, La Grande Rue, Grands-Echézeaux, Richebourg, La Romanée, etc. Furthermore, the score out of 20 at the end of the note is not so easily assimilable by the eye and brain as John Livingstone-Learmonth’s sixstar system in the same publisher’s The Wines of the Northern Rhône, where at a glance the line of stars awarded becomes a graphic bar chart. Another of Livingstone-Learmonth’s devices might also be adopted in a future edition: that of describing the wines and awarding stars under the entry for the grower, and then summarizing under the section on the vintage using just the stars, which makes it easy to see quickly who made the best wines in the given year.

There are one or two errors and inconsistencies that may have been weeded out by now, since the review copy was an uncorrected proof. At Moret-Nominet, in Savigny, the joint owner and winemaker is David (not Daniel) Moret; and in Santenay, it should be Jean-Marc, instead of Jean- Claude, Vincent. The author states in his introduction that to achieve three stars a domaine must have “significant holdings in grand cru vineyards.” This has always struck me as unfair, and I am pleased to say that this rule has been broken not once but twice by the elevation to three stars of Michel Lafarge and Guy Roulot, neither of whom have any grands crus.

In the awarding of the stars, Coates exercises sound judgment based on many years of experience. But there are inevitably a few tiny personal disagreements other than those I have already noted in the section on Chablis. I would have awarded Tollot- Beaut a star for making such lovely “plumptious” wines at levels as modest as Chorey-lès-Beaune, surely one of Burgundy’s best-value wines. I rate Chevillon above Gouges as the best Nuits-St-Georges producer and worthy of two stars, not one. In Volnay, I would promote de Montille from one to two stars, and I would award Jean Boillot (the domaine name has now changed to Henri Boillot) two stars for the quality of the white wines. I would also promote Jean-Noël Gagnard in Chassagne from one to two stars. The Wines of Burgundy is the most comprehensive guide to who makes the best wines in Burgundy, and it is highly recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in Burgundy.

Just as Côte d’Or was, The Wines of Burgundy will become my Burgundy bible. If there wasn’t quite enough room to fit in longer notes on the best producers, perhaps Coates might like to write a companion volume with extended notes on the domaines awarded stars in this book. I, for one, would love to read it. Coates often adds “Grand vin!” at the end of a note on a particularly splendid wine. In the same spirit, I would feebly pun, “Grand bouquin!”

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