The Pearl of the Côte, the Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée by Allen D. Meadows. Published by Burghound Books $59.99, and worth it.
You don’t usually begin a review of a book by quoting from someone else’s – but here goes, anyway: “Burgundians devote an extraordinary amount of attention – some say obsessively so – to just the soil.” So it’s no surprise to read this from Allen Meadows:
“I slowly got into the habit of going with the vignerons into their vineyards…I noticed that many them were always picking up chunks of soil in their various vineyards and crumbling them in their hands…One day I asked a gnarled old Burgundian why he smelled the soil. He said ‘because the soils smell different everywhere.’ And damned if he wasn’t right. Sometimes, the differences in smells between vineyard soils were extremely subtle but I persisted and over time, I developed the ability to readily discern these nuances.”
Here, in a few lines, in an aside in the chapter on Grands Echézeaux, is the key to why The Pearl of the Côte is a truly outstanding book. Mr Meadows has both metaphorically and literally dug himself into what makes Burgundy the greatest of wines – in every sense of the term, he’s got his hands dirty.
Another writer, talking of his early years in the wine trade, wrote. “The difference between wines seemed so small. I came from a family which drank wine only rarely, and it is regular tasting which allows one to build up one’s knowledge. There is no substitute for experience.” Mr Meadow’s, in an aside about his early drinkinging, back in the seventies, writes: “I also had the opportunity to taste an enormous amount of fine Bordeaux, primarily from the 1959 and 1961 vintages.”
Actually, that’s pretty much all you need to know. The author, following significant exposure at a young age to very fine wine, then spent thirty years visiting, studying and tasting burgundy. In that time he seems to have read every important book on the subject, tasted every wine, walked every vineyard and talked to every Burgundian. The two other authors quoted above, Matt Kramer and Anthony Hanson, have done a lot of that too, and produced terrific books – both are acknowledged here. But Mr Meadows’ is both different and better. Different, because of its focus on a single village. Better, because the years since the other two have seen an explosion of scholarship, so he can tell us a lot more about the history of Burgundy. Here you can find the details of battle between the merchants who wanted big brands and the growers who were determined to bottle the product of a very particular patch of earth, fought out in court case after court case. And Mr Meadows has the advantage of publishing this himself, so he’s written what he wanted to say, and then made a genuinely beautiful book – superb content married to superb pictures, on high quality paper, all beautifully bound.
So what’s in this large and handsome volume? A historical survey of how Burgundy became a wine region, and more on that fight for genuine wine (the growers won, thank goodness). Then fourteen short essays on the fourteen premier cru vineyards, a brief discussion of the village’s lesser wines, eight longer essays on the eight grand cru vineyards – Echézeaux, Les Grands Echézeaux, La Grande Rue, Romanée St Vivant, Les Richebourgs, La Romanée, La Tâche and La Romanée-Conti, all followed by tasting notes from a selection of vintages and producers. And a long closing chapter describing a sensational three day, 74 vintage tasting of Romanee-Conti.
At which point, I stopped for lunch. Today’s wine had to be a Vosne-Romanée, a bottle of Maizières from A.-F. Gros. Mr Meadows has recently scored the other Vosne villages wines from this producer slightly higher. With respect, I disagree.
Fortified by wine, and emboldened by a first disagreement, I’ll raise a few more quibbles. Too many of the photos don’t have captions. While it’s a wonderful idea to produce an aerial photograph outlining the vineyard for each essay, it’s too hard to relate them to their neighbours. I think he makes too much of the origin of the name La Grande Rue, the newest grand cru of the village. It means “the big road” – and lots of French villages have a Grande Rue, best translated as “Main Street.” Sound familiar? The production statistics for Les Grands Echézeaux are orphaned at the top of a page, above a photograph – I had to check twice before I found them. And I think he misses a trick on those statistics. Adding together his estimates for the total quantity of wine produced from all the premier and grand cru vineyards of Vosne-Romanée gives a figure of around 52,000 cases. Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, admittedly one of the largest but arguably also the best, produces nearly that on its own. No wonder it is so hard to buy a decent selection of wines.
What else hasn’t he done? He mostly avoids giving prices – which is good, as they, and exchange rates, fluctuate so wildly. There are no grower profiles here – but both Clive Coates and Remington Norman have recently updated their books which are stuffed full of those kinds of details (yes, Mr Meadows acknowledges them too). And he’s avoided something undesireable – sounding smug, arousing jealousy in readers –simply by writing well. Not for him eighteen wheeler truck prose, industrially efficient at noisily delivering vast quantities of information, but without any other merit. There’s room here for asides, for personal reflections, for interesting anecdotes, even the odd reference to Michaelangelo and Balzac. The information comes along for the ride.
I finished this big book feeling I had spent a long time in the company of a wise and knowledgable author, with a great sense of perspective. Ten years ago, he says, he quit his job meaning to write a book on Burgundy. Instead he founded the Burgundy enthusiast’s indispensible quarterly, Burghound. If this is the book he meant to write, it’s been worth the wait.
Review by Philip Abrams