UNCORKING THE CITY: AN EXPERT ON BURGUNDY

Lettie Teague Speaks With Respected Wine Authority Clive Coates Wine drinkers who dislike the 100-point scoring system (and there are quite a few) might want to consider the “Coatesian” classification of wine. English writer and critic Clive Coates rates wines by means of adjectives, utilizing words like “fine” and “very good”-occasionally augmented by “plus”-to indicate the quality of a particular wine. For example, a wine that is “very good” but has a little something extra would be scored as “very good plus.” A wine that was even better would be “fine” or “fine plus,” or even “very fine plus.” But calling a wine “fine” makes it sound like it doesn’t quite measure up to a wine that is “very good,” I protested to Mr. Coates, who was in New York to promote his latest book, “My Favorite Burgundies.” The 72-year-old is one of the world’s most highly regarded authorities on wine, particularly the wines of Burgundy, where he now makes his home. Mr. Coates has written nine books about wine, and his “Côte d’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy” is considered a seminal work. Mr. Coates seemed surprised that I misunderstood his terminology, thinking perhaps it was confusion born of cultural differences-the linguistic rift that occasionally widens between the Americans and the English. The two of us were at Crush Wine & Spirits-I’d asked Mr. Coates if we could do a bit of pre-lunch browsing together: I wanted to look at Burgundies through his eyes. Mr. Coates seemed mostly surprised by the high prices the wines command in New York. “I find the idea of a premier cru Marsanny for $58 to be a lot of money,” he observed, adding: “Obviously you Americans are not as poor as I thought.” But he admired the store’s selection of the more basic Burgundies. “It’s nice to see some good generics,” he said to Joe Salamone, the Crush wine buyer, and Ian McFadden, the director of fine and rare wine, who were standing nearby. Mr. McFadden offered to show Mr. Coates the rarer, more expensive Burgundies in the store’s back room. Mr. Coates declined. He was perfectly happy examining the lesser wines-many of them made by his friends and neighbors. He was particularly pleased to see a wine from Domaine Dureuil-Janthial. “We had Mr. Dureuil’s Aligote at a luncheon recently and it was delicious,” Mr. Coates said. (Aligote is the “other” white grape beside Chardonnay grown in Burgundy that is used to produce inexpensive but often quite good wines.) “Do you find that Aligote is better than it was 20 or 30 years ago?” Mr. McFadden asked him. “I think wines in general are better than they were 20 years ago. The quality of everything has gone up in almost every country,” replied Mr. Coates, adding that it was also easier to make wine. Or, as he put it: “It’s possible to make wine in a bucket of sand on the North Pole.” Mr. Coates has been writing about wine for decades; he started out as a wine merchant in London and took up writing on the side. He even founded a magazine, Vine, which lasted more than a decade. All Mr. Coates would say on the subject of its circulation or readership was: “It provided a good living.” His first few books were about Bordeaux, the region he knew best and visited the most often in his early years. Of course, both Burgundy and Bordeaux were very different places back then, Mr. Coates noted, as were the wines. Most Burgundies were bottled by negociants rather than individual domaines, and few of the important Bordeaux chateaux were owned by corporations, as they are now. Mr. Coates lives in the Côte Chalonnaise region of Burgundy just south of the Côte d’Or-an area that he described as a “gastronomic desert.” And worst of all, there is no decent Chinese food to be found, so when Mr. Coates visits New York he makes sure to eat as much of that cuisine as he can. He had already eaten at several Chinese restaurants by the time we met at Shun Lee Palace in Midtown. Mr. Coates generously supplied the wine for our lunch-a lovely 2005 Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling that was from Alsace rather than a Burgundy. The former is an easier match with the restaurant’s cuisine, he noted, though “Marsanny Rose is a great wine for Chinese food,” he said. We talked a bit about his early years in Burgundy and the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux. “Burgundy is a very friendly place. It’s a very relaxed place and it’s a family place. In Bordeaux, there is no one who ‘lives over the shop,’ so to speak. You can’t go and chat with the owner. You can do that in Burgundy,” Mr. Coates said. Burgundy lovers can do just that under Mr. Coates’s guidance, as he takes very small groups of wine drinkers to visit various Côte d’Or domaines-places they might not find on their own. “I know the people where you will get the best visit even if they aren’t most fashionable,” he said. Mr. Coates regards it as his responsibility as both a journalist and a tour guide to introduce people to the small growers he feels should be better known. They don’t need him to tell them about Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the most famous domaine in Burgundy. Or, as he said: “They don’t need someone to tell them how good DRC is.” Famous or otherwise, I was sure that the wines were all very fine-perhaps even very fine plus.

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