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Book Review – The Great Domaines of Burgundy, By Remington Norman & Charles Taylor MW

By February 13, 2012No Comments

This third edition of a fine reference on the best wine domaines of the Cote d’Or has received excellent reviews as well as less complimentary ones since its release in 2010. Obviously I am in the camp that is impressed with the book, especially from a New Zealand wine enthusiast and reader’s point of view. For me it joins the works of Clive Coates with his ‘The Wines of Burgundy’ (2008) and Jasper Morris’s ‘Inside Burgundy’ (2010) as essential references. Each has its own style and approach, equally valid, and the combination of these books along with several others (as well as the internet) provides one with about all the information you’ll need, short of visiting.

First published in 1992, then revised for 1996, the 2010 third edition has Remington Norman, who interestingly resigned from being an MW in 2003, joined by Charles Taylor, an MW engaged in the importation of Burgundy wine, as co-author. I understand that Norman’s text has had a good going over by Taylor, who has revised and added material. It was Taylor who personally visited each of the 141 domaines for the revised edition. The book has grown a little from profiling 111 producers, but the number of pages has been kept under 300, as in the first edition, and the same layout has been retained. Afterall, why change a successful format?

The introduction of the latest edition attempts to update the scene in Burgundy, a difficult task knowing how quickly changes are occurring. But the authors manage to introduce many of the trends, both “welcome” and “unwelcome”, while retaining a sense and feel of the tradition of the region that makes it what it is today.

Then comes the heart of the book straight away, travelling from the north of the Cote d’Or, starting with Marsannay-la-Cote, moving south all the way to Santenay. Each commune chapter is headed by an overview of the commune, describing the village, its fortunes and attributes, and a colour map with all the significant vineyard sites – village, premier cru and grand cru is provided. If the commune has grand cru vineyards, a table of the breakdown is also published.

Each chapter then profiles the authors’ selection of leading domaines located in that commune, and these profiles are what make this book outstanding. The profiles are detailed essays of the producers’ philosophies and approaches to making their wines. Norman and Taylor record the viticultural and winemaking techniques which are the manifestations of the thinking behind the wines. The domaine profiles cover some of the history relevant to the current owners, and describes in ascending quality or regard the wines from the portfolio. Each domaine profile provides an assessment of its current standing and progress to date or an indication of potential. For nearly all of the producers, there is a table of the domaine’s vineyard holdings, listing ranking, name of climate, area and age of vines. Each domain profile has a page dedicated to it, though a number have more writing. The authors say the length is not indicative of the regard of the domaine, but it seems to be the case to me. This collection of domaine profiles and the detail given is an amazing resource.

As with the earlier editions, Norman and Taylor finish with a number of dissertations covering the subjects of appellations, climate, soil, viticulture and winemaking, as well as the wine trade and how to appreciate the wines. There is a summary of vintages from 1971 to 2009 and a glossary of French words and terms that appear extensively throughout the book.

The criticisms and limitations of the book do not detract from its significance. If the authors increased the scope of the book to cover the greater Burgundy region of Chablis, the Cote Chalonnaise and Macon, then it would be propelled into the realm of being one of the great wine books. However, this would be a massive undertaking, and the book could be more than twice the size and twice the price. More importantly, it would raise the question of the selection process of domaines for inclusion in such a book. Are top-rated producers in the ‘lesser’ regions more deserving of being profiled than those that are ‘just off first class’ in prestigious appellations?

This leads to one of the criticisms of the choice of domaines featured in this edition. It has been noted by some critics that a number of the producers covered are those that Taylor works with commercially. Does this conflict of interest matter? For those with a similar vested interest in trading in the wines of Burgundy it is a valid point. But for the vast majority of other readers, and those in New Zealand, it doesn’t. The producer of practically any burgundy wine of note and quality brought into this country can be found in this book. If not, there are other means of finding out information. As with any selection, there will be differences of opinion on whether a domaine should be included, or why it wasn’t. Those close to the subject, especially traders, will have a stronger view on this point.

Another detraction for some is the lack of a stronger, more definitive appraisal or rating of each of the domaines in their performance and quality of their wines. Such assessments are very useful, but this book’s more gentle comments on the domaines’ standing are more than adequate for me. Of course one can argue that a producer’s performance is in a state of flux, the quality of the wines and the reputation of the estate is as good as the last release, as the saying goes. And there are other books that rate producers more precisely anyway.

And one final annoyance which has been noted is the use of French words and phrases throughout the book which may not be clear to those familiar with the language. These words and phrases, italicised in the text, are mostly technical, relating to viticultural and winemaking practices, and the majority of these are explained in the glossary. But their generous usage requires constant referring to the end of the book to check on their meaning. There are quite a number of phrases and quotes in French not listed in the glossary, and for readers who are less familiar with French, their meaning is lost. Some might see this as effete, others will interpret it as colourful and characterful.

These are minor criticisms for me, and having the book provides me with a great deal more information and confidence in looking at the profiled estates’ wines, and Burgundy wine in general. Combined with the other books and sources mentioned in the first paragraph, I feel extremely well-armed in continuing my exploration of the wines of this fantastic vignoble.

The Great Domaines of Burgundy, By Remington Norman and Charles Taylor MW
Sterling, New York, 2010, ISBN 978-4027-7882-7
RRP USD$35.00

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