The Wines of Burgundy, Clive Coates

Update 17.3.2010(2.12.2009)billn

w_o_b_clive_coates2008, University of California Press

I usually give my thoughts on books here, but given that this is the most important book published in over 10 years that is devoted to Burgundy, I felt that I should make a more considered comment. ‘Important’ could also be synonymous with weighty given that Amazon quote a shipping weight of 1.9kg for the (close to) 880 pages!

This is, in the main, an update of the 1995 ‘Bible of Burgundy’ (the publisher’s description); Côte D’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy.

This new opus covers the major vintages 2006-1959, geography of the region including small domaine profiles from the areas under discussion, and includes two new geographical additions – Chablis and the Côte Chalonnaise.

  • Some might call it unorthodox, but I would characterise the contents pages and separation of sections and articles throughout the book, i.e. the navigation, as woeful – it’s a complete mess. Despite much copy being verbatim from the first book, there is none of the ease of navigation of that book to found in his first tome. The only way I could find what I wanted was to continually refer to the index, starting on page 855…!
  • On a similar level of complaint is my regret that Clive chose to remove much of the domaine profiling, citing little change in the last 10 years as the reason (there’s a hint, there are 13 years difference between publishing dates, but some of the ‘new’ content has an older feel to it). The implication is that ‘geography’ is more dynamic! His 1995 book is a reference point for domaine profiles – so you now definitely need both volumes despite the former being quite out of date. Note there is much new domaine information, but in the form of ‘domaine thumbnails’ rather than ‘profiles’ – they are good, but I’m left wanting for more.
  • My last ‘gripe’ is one that I expect to have limited resonance with most of you that read this. Almost two-thirds of the pages are given over to vintage assessments – actually the vintage assessments are fine, rather it pains me that 98% of the text is tasting notes. Except where you have intention to demonstrate the longevity of wines/lieu-dits etc. the notes will largely be of no value in 5 or-so years, I personally think they are unnecessary – which is not same as saying I wish I wasn’t at the tastings! I know from those pages that most of my readership visit, that 60+% of you will totally disagree with me!
  • The book was clearly rushed out with inadequate editing/correction as mistakes abound, but they are mainly of the decimal point in the wrong place variety – regrettable, but insufficient to sully the remaining content. As I will demonstrate in much of the text that follows, the attention to detail – at least in terms of proof-reading – has been wretched, I also think that a lot of the text could have been written as much as 10 years ago. The design in terms of usability is also poor.
  • Clive seems to polarise opinion, yet, despite its legion of faults, his insight and experience are distilled into the pages such that this is the single most important and useful book that you can buy to learn about burgundy today (Anthony Hanson’s book needs a thorough up-date if he is to regain his trophy). It’s a book that is so important that I would have done this proof-reading for nothing – but they didn’t ask, and it saddens me that so many mistakes ‘got through’!
  • Despite such reservations as the laziness of proof-reading, the laziness of wholesale cut-and-pasting from old to new volume, and the awful separation of texts, there is still nothing, believe it or not, on the market today that is so up-to-date about burgundy – particularly the domaine thumbnails that are offered – for those alone, this is essential reading and I recommend it.
Summarising the sections:

Subtitled, the good the bad and the ugly!

  1. Today’s Côte d’Or
    This is as good a summary of the many, many steps from virgin ground (latent vineyard) to, eventually, when and how to empty a bottle as you will find anywhere – and it’s all wrapped up in 35 pages – of course that’s quite small text and largish pages! The author is clearly in the text – it’s more soap-box than sermon – but the opinionated passages are what make it interesting to read , and let’s be clear, the opinion on all aspects of viti/viniculture is the distillation of decades of learning – even though, it’s still just ‘an’ opinion. This section is well-crafted, but clearly it is also a long time in the making: “one of the raisons d’être of magazines like The Vine… p31” – that sounds like ‘present tense’, and as we all know, Clive ended publication of The Vine in late 2004. It least he shows he’s internet savvy with a short mention of “the US internet” 😉
  2. Chablis
    Excellent. This is a very readable section that would certainly class as much more than an ‘introduction’ to Chablis – it’s at least as good as any I’ve read – also the last two pages cover other areas of Yonne such as Irancy etc. Clive just doesn’t cover the history/location, he’s quite upfront about the challenges (as he sees them) for the region, amongst which is the proliferation of the area under vine – admittedly at the lowest end of the classification – oak, picking machines, and he certainly takes the region to task over yields. We finish with the shortened domaine ‘thumbnails’; much as I decry how concise they have become, they still offer quite enough information to be of use.
  3. Gevrey
    – Charlopin: “deliberate prefermentation maceration for up to 8 days in 1988” – I hope the date is a typo! You will also find (many pages later) some discussion of what Latour-Giroud did back in 1999 (?!)
    – EDIT: See comment hereChézeaux: “1999 Ponsot Griotte is a disgrace” – let’s quickly cut to the vast section of tasting notes: 1999 Ponsot Griotte, very long, fine, 17.5/20
    – Fourrier: “Ploughing in the vineyards via a vibrating sorting table” 😉
  4. Chambolle
    The menu seems all screwed-up; Hautes Doix on the end of Les Amoureuses, but without any header, likewise Les Feuselottes and Chatelots tagged onto Les Charmes.
  5. Vosne
    – Domaine Rene Engel Profile: why?
    – “The recent elevation of La Grand Rue to grand cru” – approaching 30 years, I guess that’s ‘recent’ in geological terms…
    – “Jayer has now ceded his vines to his heir and nephew” !!!
  6. Nuits
    Except that one of the thumbnailed producers happens to be based in Gorgolion, no complaints
  7. Corton
    This is quite the best historical perspective I can recollect for Corton – but it did seem familiar, a quick check shows that it is virtually verbatim from his first book I guess he decided it wasn’t appropriate to try and improve upon perfection. I chose not to check if all other historical section required the same amount of work! If the history is good, there is a certain level of ‘balance’ that makes the ‘principal proprietors’ section a mess to read:
    – The principal proprietors of Corton-Charlemagne is punctuated by a list of red and white vineyard surface areas.
    – The list of principal producers of red comes before the end of the text on the whites
    – Half-way through the text on whites Clive begins a discussion of the Hospices de Beaune red Cortons before jumping back with “Corton-Charlemagne is a quite different wine to the grand crus of the Côte de Beaune…” and continues about white again
    This whole section needs revisiting, though certainly not from a content perspective, rather a presentation perspective.
  8. Vintage Assessments
    – The dates of the tasting notes start as early as 2000, so already past their sell-by date
    – 2002 Bâtard-Montrachet by Henri Boillot must be a monument, “Drink 2009-2918”!
    – I’m surprised that there are instances of corked wines being ‘scored’.
  9. Maps
    Done specifically for this volume, apart from a few suspiciously spelled lieu-dit names (Clive was probably taking local custom!) they are very, very fine indeed…

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

There are 13 responses to “The Wines of Burgundy, Clive Coates”

  1. Daniel14th December 2009 at 12:36 pmPermalinkReply

    I prefer CC’s older book:”Côte D’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy” to this new opus。。。

    • billn14th December 2009 at 12:43 pmPermalinkReply

      Hi Daniel,
      In terms of the layout and the depth to the domaine profiles I have to agree. However, those profiles are now largely out of date, and given the updated ones and the nice new maps, I would take the new one if I could only have one volume – Though both is best I think!

  2. Phil Eaves14th December 2009 at 8:19 pmPermalinkReply

    Bill, I think you have addressed what many have thought but not been prepared to say and I could’nt agree more. Its a pity that both Coates and Hanson have done little to update the profile information available as both books were (are) a treasure of information. As for tasting notes I for the life of me cannot understand why so many need or rely on others notes instead of their own preferences and if I had any sense I probably would not have purchased the second book when its TN content is in preference to profiles.
    A TN is only any use for comparative scores or to impress the dinner guests, it will not tell you if you are going to like the bottle you open, but then again I have had some stinkers, so what do I know.

    Another fantastic piece of clear thinking Bill keep it up.

    cheers Phil

  3. Hartmut15th December 2009 at 10:59 amPermalinkReply

    Hi Bill,

    thanks for this thorough and fair review!

    I would have prefered more in-depth profiles either. However, I am one of those 60% liking TNs – what if you bought aged wines at an auction or did a tasting on past vintages?

    Anyway, apart from Parkers Bordeaux (admittedly, a matter of taste) I am unable to spot a better book on any wine region in the marketplace, can you?


  4. Chris L.15th December 2009 at 12:22 pmPermalinkReply

    Bill –

    I applaud you for standing up and saying some things that really needed to be said. I was appalled at the new Cote d’Or book; not because of any issue with Clive’s sensibility itself — I think he’s by far the best seasoned taster of Burgundy as it should be tasted — but that the book did his work such a disservice. The organization of it is horrendous, and as a person in book publishing I was particularly saddened to see that. The design is so poor that it makes you immediately recall and admire just how concisely laid out the previous volume was. Given the small degree of changes in some of the material, it feels as though the new designer simply decided to change everything in order to put his/her stamp on the product — or perhaps out of fear that it would look too much like the original volume!

    Having said all of this, I am still immensely pleased to have the new volume, and the new introductory material is Clive at his best. And I do think you judge a bit too harshly with regard to tasting notes. Coates himself states emphatically — at least on his website — that tasting notes are useful in evaluating the quality of the fruit and its expected life-span and window of drinkability. He would be the first to go on record saying you shouldn’t expect wines to taste like someone else’s note. That’s exactly right, and I think he should be acknowledged for this very un-Parkerized attitude, an attitude that sounds not that much different from your own, really. Hartmut above is right in saying many consumers use these notes to help evaluate what wines to buy at auction, or when to open the first of a few precious bottles of something expensive. I absolutely do. (And Coates is still relatively unafraid to say when a producer puts a foot wrong, which seems to be getting rarer in the world of writing about expensive wine. Too many writers, particularly in magazines, are all-too-aware of what side of the toast the butter is on.) Having said all this, I realize your main point, well-taken, is that the notes take up too much of the book, and I so wish he would’ve done a more assiduous job of updating the profiles in the book, as part of his legacy. Maybe there’s room for a Burgundy book from a new source?

  5. billn15th December 2009 at 12:49 pmPermalinkReply

    what if you bought aged wines at an auction or did a tasting on past vintages?

    Hi Hartmut & Chris,
    Only on my lack of enthusiasm for old TNs – remember I said that 60% of you would disagree with me 😉

    I work on 2 principles:
    1. When mature there are great bottles not great wines
    2. A tasting note that is 5 years old has almost no relevance to a bottle you open today, and that’s before you refer back to point #1!
    Of-course, if you’ve only ever heard good things about 1959 La Tâche (from tasting notes) it is good indicator, but likewise one bad tasting note may have no relevance on the next bottle…
    Cheers, Bill

  6. Tom Blach15th December 2009 at 11:05 pmPermalinkReply

    Bill, you are right, of course, but data is in this case better than no data, and as someone who has consistently used CC’s notes for older wines I have to say that I’m impressed. They are consistently very much better and more precise than they seem!

  7. Tom Blach15th December 2009 at 11:06 pmPermalinkReply

    The use of ‘consistently’ twice is a very regrettable stylistic error that I see no way to edit. My apologies.

  8. chambolle19th December 2009 at 8:42 pmPermalinkReply

    Take a look at my brief review of the book, posted on about the time it was released eighteen months ago.

    Seems Nanson and I had about the same reaction — wish the domaine profiles had been updated and if anything expanded, not essentially purged from the book in favor of more tasting notes. The original Cote d’Or was THE reference work on Burgundy – – and it remains so. It’s the volume I still pull down from the shelf. The new volume, alas, does not register as an improvement. However, this is not a knock on Clive, he can’t help it that he set the bar so high when he put Cote d’Or together in the first place.

  9. Jez23rd December 2009 at 5:02 amPermalinkReply

    “- Chézeaux: “1999 Ponsot Griotte is a disgrace” – let’s quickly cut to the vast section of tasting notes: 1999 Ponsot Griotte, very long, fine, 17.5/20”

    I think it’s fairly clear here that he (the author) is referring to Leclerc’s 99 Griotte rather than Ponsot’s…

    you’ve misquoted the actual text…

    “…important, as Leclerc is a far inferior operator to Ponsot. His 1999 Griotte is a disgrace.”

    • billn24th December 2009 at 12:38 pmPermalinkReply

      Well spotted Jez, I didn’t have the book to hand whilst on these foreign shores, but isn’t that what Google Books is for? 😉

      It’s a shame then that if the Leclerc is so bad, he didn’t include a tasting note in the 600 or so such pages….
      Cheers, Bill

      (Page ammendment on the way…)

  10. Jez23rd December 2009 at 5:04 amPermalinkReply

    I do have to get me some of that Boillot 02 Batard-Montrachet though!

    • billn24th December 2009 at 12:42 pmPermalinkReply

      There’s a result then – assuming it’s not p.oxed. My 01 Charlemagne went a sad way, I still have one, for which I’m hopeful of a miracle…

  11. Staffan Fredholm25th December 2009 at 6:16 pmPermalinkReply

    I think this goes to show that books about an ever changing subject is very much inferior compared to web based information.

    I suppose most of us has a computer or a phone to be able to have access to digital information when we travel.

    I got a book as a present about another wine area and there where so many false facts and tragic mistakes that I had to throw it away.
    I wrote the publisher and the editor to get some kind of explanation but they did not bother to answer.

    Thanks for a great site Bill.

    Staffan, Sweden

  12. Joachim8th January 2010 at 11:55 amPermalinkReply

    I’m kind of puzzled by the reviews and comments here. Reading Clives book I was deeply impressed by the depths and the knowledge. I never found a book before that could match this quality (even if I have to admit that I didn’t read the first edition). But without doubt, this is THE book about burgundy, and I think its not fair to hide this fact in the last paragraph of the review, buried after a lot complaints.

    Still, thank you very much for your site, Bill, which is also amazing!

    • billn8th January 2010 at 12:15 pmPermalinkReply

      Hi Joachim,
      That’s why I started with a summary and ended the summary (before dealing with each section) with my recommendation to buy. If you did not have the first book, which was well edited and beautifully laid out, then you may not fully follow the complaints. As you will see, the complaints are nothing to do with Clive or his depth of knowledge, only the (un)finished article…
      Cheers, Bill

  13. David Metcalfe12th August 2010 at 9:38 pmPermalinkReply

    Clive Coates seems to me more of an anthropologist-geologist than an oenologist. The descriptions of people and terroirs are dense, accurate and finely written. The wine tasting notes are largely uninteresting compared to annual books like Le Guide Hachette. Strange to find such as famous book about a wine growing region which has little insight about wines!

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