Book review: The Great Domaines of Burgundy By Remington Norman with a foreword by Michael Broadbent, $90, Kyle Cathic Ltd, London, 1992

The lights at Chateau Shanahan burned late on deadline eve this week. Remington Norman’s just-released The Great Domaines of Burgundy, a guide to the finest wine producers of the Cote d’Or (286 pages, Kyle Cathic Ltd, London, 1992) proved the best, if somewhat heavy reading since Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine was released two years ago.

While Johnson’s studious book takes a broad look at wine from the earliest times to the present, Norman’s focuses in considerable detail on just one region – Burgundy – in the present time.

And while it is packed full of facts and figures, a little turgid in parts, its origins are firmly from the British romantic school of wine writing. The hallmarks of this school (the contemporary head of it being Hugh Johnson) are a scholarly approach underpinned by a deep love of the topic that wells up time and again. These are writers who love wine, love discourse on it, but, finally, see it as product to be drunk and enjoyed.

In contrast, we have the harsh, put-a-spot-light-on-it-dissect-it-and-give-it-points-out-of-a-hundred approach of the Americans. Winemakers love and fear the leader of this school, Robert M. Parker, as a high score from him virtually guarantees success in the U.S. market.

Parker is confident and fearless enough to rate every wine he comes across on his own absolute scale of 100 points. To some, the concept of an individual achieving credible results, especially on such a small scale, is ludicrous. So, from Parker we see page after page of turgid tasting notes and a point score that falls short of being the absolute measure of quality it claims to be. $5 and $10 chardonnays, for example, come uncomfortably close in score to great White Burgundies at $100 – not a true measure of the quality difference.

On the positive side, Parker’s fearless approach, which I suppose is in the democratic ‘free speech’ tradition of American journalism, admits unknown wines and helps in breaking down the worst aspects of the myth that all French wines are necessarily better than all other wines. Winemakers of the new world, including those from Australia, owe some of their success in the United States to Parker.

Yet I read Parker and don’t feel inspired to go out and enjoy a good bottle as I do after reading Johnson, Broadbent, Forbes, or Arlott (yes, the late cricket commentator), to name just a few of the British romantics.

Remington Norman’s book deals with a topic dear to his heart – dear to the heart of anyone fortunate enough to have drunk good genuine Burgundy, either red or white. That’s a luxury now with world demand and a weak dollar having pushed the price of the best well over $100 a bottle. But Burgundy’s importance to wine lovers goes beyond

its own production as virtually every pinot noir and chardonnay made anywhere in the world is modeled on Burgundy.

While it’s a serious and substantial book to be devoured by Burgundy lovers, the reader unfamiliar with Burgundy will also come to grips with this most complex of all wine-growing regions. Perhaps the only criticism I can make in this regard is that while the maps of Burgundy’s many communes are good, there is no map showing where Burgundy sits in France. That would have been very helpful for beginners. Still, it’s no great difficulty to look up Beaune or Dijon in an Atlas.

An excellent foreword from Michael Broadbent precedes a pithy introduction from Norman. Then follows a commune (parish) by commune description (with maps) of the Cote d’Or (the central strip of Burgundian vineyard from Dijon in the north to Santenay in the south).

Each commune description is followed by a fairly detailed analysis of ‘Domaines’ associated with that commune. As ‘Domaines’ (winemaking operations with ownership of vineyards) are generally seen as the makers of the greatest Burgundies, descriptions of 111 such adds up to a fair snapshot of modern Burgundy.

For beginners, the last forty pages should be read before proceeding into the commune and Domaine descriptions. Here you’ll find chapters on appellation, climate, soil, the two Burgundian grape varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, vine maintenance, oak barrels and maturation, winemaking, marketing of Burgundy, tasting, as well as a bibliography, vintage guide from 1945 to 1991 and a glossary of terms.

It’s not only a good read, but attractively laid out as well, with magnificent colour photography from Jenny Price. The Great Domaines of Burgundy has a recommended retail price of $90 and I’m told by the distributors that it’s been ordered by Angus and Robertson, Collins, and Dymocks.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007