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May 31, 2013updated 07 Jun 2023 10:58am

A chacun son goût: A refreshing trio of new Bordeaux books

By Thierry Dessauve

Stephen Brook

The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines, the Châteaux, the People (Revised Edition)

Mitchell Beazley $60 / £45

Jane Anson

Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines of Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Mouton Rothschild

Stewart, Tabori & Chang $55 / £35

Neal Martin

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Wine Journal Publishing £50

Reviewed by Keith Levenberg

Stephen Brook wrote in his 2000 book Bordeaux: People, Power, and Politics. The privilege must also extend to frenemies, since one of the remarkable things about Brook’s latest book on the region, a second edition of The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines, the Châteaux, the People, is that he is still invited back.

Brook opened People, Power, and Politics admitting that he had “come to develop a love/hate relationship with Bordeaux” and concluded it not as a love letter but as a Dear John letter: “If you and I can no longer afford to drink it, we are at any rate not short of alternatives. But we shall miss the wines of Bordeaux, and just possibly they may come to miss us too.” In between, Brook exposed all the sordid stuff that never appears in the bestvintage- ever puff pieces the Bordelais buy with that famous hospitality: all the en primeur gamesmanship, the proprietors obsessed with getting higher prices than their neighbors, the various cellar tricks engineered to produce wines of maximum impact when they are one-year-old barrel samples and appeal to palates calibrated to heavyweight Napa Cabernets. What’s more, he named names. For the most part, Brook maintained a journalistic objectivity about the effect of such techniques on the ultimate character of the wines. But for those who appreciate knowing how their sausages and wines are made, Brook’s accounting of the châteaux that achieve those inky colors by forcing out water with reverse osmosis, boiling it off by évaporation sous-vide, or siphoning it off with a low-tech saignée was a far more valuable work of consumer advocacy than any agglomeration of ratings and breathless tasting notes.

Some of the same ambivalence informs The Complete Bordeaux, which Brook introduces by acknowledging the “gulf that separates the visitor from the insider” and the hospitality, banquets, and old vintages he has experienced by being “on the inside [rather] than the outside.” But that is only one part of the story of Bordeaux, and The Complete Bordeaux is appropriately titled, in that it aims to render a full picture of the region without fixating on the small number of estates (and even smaller proportion of the region’s land mass) that receive all the glory. After an introductory overview of the region’s history and practices, the majority of the book is devoted to estate profiles, well over 100 pages of which cover the so-called minor appellations. There is no discrimination on account of color: Whites as well as reds are covered, and there are chapters on Sauternes. With such a broad scope, estate profiles don’t exceed four pages even for the most important properties, but they are dense with information on history, technique, and terroir, with just a perfunctory paragraph or two of commentary on specific vintages — in narrative text rather than as disembodied tasting notes, but still hewing to the usual tasting-note conventions. These could probably have been compressed further still: While some of the older vintages whet the appetite, all the “cedary, blackcurranty” younger wines can blur together. But Brook supplements the flavor-wheel verbiage with astute commentary on how different vintages compare to one another in terms of more fundamental attributes such as texture and weight, purity and power, stylishness and grace, so his notes actually manage to say a lot more than others that, well, merely say a lot more. And he does it without scores.

There are those who will quickly turn to the entry on Château Pavie as a convenient litmus test of whatever style prejudices the author harbors. Brook finds kind words for some vintages but dismisses others as “heavy-handed,” concluding that, despite their virtues, “they are very hard to drink with great pleasure” and that “the problem” is “a high degree of vanity combined with an assumption that going to extremes is a formula for achieving excellence.” Still, his commentary on other estates may confuse the litmus-testers, since he has mostly positive things to say about Château Monbousquet, a stablemate of Pavie’s in the Gérard Perse portfolio, which essentially applies the same recipe to much less hallowed ground.

Most of the St-Emilion garagistes and Left Bank modernists get glowing reviews, too, despite acknowledgments of some of their wines verging on overripe, overoaked, and overdone. It is better not to dwell too much on such judgments and instead take advantage of the transparency Brook offers into the process, which seems always to have been what sets his work apart. Different critics can draw the line in different places when it comes to the question of how much technique is too much, but few have done as much shoe-leather reporting as Brook into who is doing what.

First-class hagiography

Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines evidences similarly meticulous research but none of Brook’s ambivalence. The book is a history and hagiography of Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux, and Haut- Brion. (The subtitle is a misnomer, since it includes Mouton but excludes Sauternes, but it could hardly have been called The Médoc First Growths, since it includes Haut-Brion, nor The Red First Growths, since it excludes Cheval Blanc and Ausone…) The hagiographical agenda is apparent even from some of the chapter headings (such as “Increasing their Renown,” “A Barometer of World Power,” “Making the Greatest Wine in the World”), yet it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call this book a love letter, either. Its tone is reverential but not passionate. That’s not really a criticism, even though it may sound like one. Rather, it may simply reflect the reality that there is no other honest way to write about the first growths today.

It was said in the 1950s that rooting for the New York Yankees was like rooting for General Motors or US Steel. Rhapsodizing about the first growths today is kind of like that. There was a time when one could be stirred by poetic descriptions of the first growths, such as what Hubrecht Duijker wrote about Margaux in 1975: “Whoever drinks Margaux is reminded of the scent of the most lovely flowers, of the subtle charm of fine porcelain, of intricate music for the harpsichord — in short, of many things which are exquisitely delicate and beautiful.” But these days people talk about the first growths like investment vehicles, and indeed far more is written in Bordeaux Legends about how they are priced than about how they taste. (Not only are there no tasting notes per se, but there is, somewhat curiously, not much at all about the characteristic tastes of each of the wines.) To be sure, these wines are blue chips for a good reason; nobody denies their greatness with any credibility, and Anson includes ample information about their underlying terroir and the research investments they have had the ability to make that account for how they reached that position. But at the prices currently charged, with a single bottle selling for nearly what a full case used to cost as recently as a few years ago, the first growths are not in the wine business anymore. They are in the luxury fashion business. That’s the apparent admission of Mouton Rothschild’s managing director Hervé Berland, whom Anson quotes on the subject of fighting counterfeits: “If you look around in the luxury business, it is a problem for everyone, from Hermès bags to Rolex watches.” Not to be outdone, Haut-Brion proprietor Prince Robert of Luxembourg was recently quoted in a flurry of news stories on an April 10 dinner in Cambridge, England, that the château’s esteem in the 1600s “may make us the first luxury brand in the world.”

That tasting was held to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Haut-Brion’s mention in the diary of Samuel Pepys, a watershed event at the “Royall Oak Taverne in Lumbard Street,” which Anson of course covers in her book. But Pepys commented on the “good and most particular taste that I never met with,” not on the wine’s exclusivity or prestige. He could not have been writing about a gold watch or a handbag. Admittedly, he could not have been writing about a peasant’s wine, either. Anson puts the event in context. Pepys’s tasting of “Ho Bryan” was followed three years later by the opening of a tavern in London to promote its wine in the English market.

The Pontack’s Head, as it was called after the portrait of proprietor Arnaud III de Pontac’s father by the door, “quickly established itself as one of London’s finest eating houses,” and attracted “a roll-call of 17th-century high society: John Dryden, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe,” as well as Pepys himself, who probably therefore drank Haut- Brion more often than the single occasion referenced in 1663. The Pontack’s Head sold Haut-Brion “at seven shillings a bottle compared to two shillings a bottle for other wine” and helped build the estate’s reputation in England. By the 1700s, demand for other wines of the “New French Claret” style was firmly established, including some of the eventual first growths.

Whimsy with depth

Pascal’s aphorism has it that “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” And had there been a bridge over the Garonne before 1822, the society that frequented the Pontack’s Head might well have been drinking Pomerol rather than Haut-Brion. But the Libournais growers, cut off from the port city, were forced to sell their wares inland. And thus the history of Pomerol unfolded very differently from that of the Left Bank. One struggles a bit to think of it as an underdog given that Pétrus, until recently, sold for multiples of the 1855 first growths’ prices, but this itself was a recent phenomenon. In Neal Martin’s account in his comprehensive, 591-page volume Pomerol, not much was written about it until the 1920s. Though some of the better vineyards were ranked in Cocks & Féret’s 1868 second edition of Bordeaux et Ses Vins, they were omitted entirely from the first. A decade later, Martin writes, some Pomerols won medals at the Paris Exhibition, and the wines found a loyal market in Belgium in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until a “conjugation of events,” including the legendary trio of vintages in 1945, 1947, and 1949 and the ambassadorial efforts of the Moueix family, that Pomerol at last “woke […] from its slumber.” Martin writes: “Illustrious appellations such as St-Emilion, Margaux, and Pauillac all yearned for existence. History had their names engraved upon it. […] Pomerol was an afterthought which, for many years, lacked purpose and direction. It was a nebulous, abstruse entity that stumbled and muddled its way toward the present. It existed in the minds and dreams of its labourers and artisans, who belatedly got round to organizing a legislation to bind them as one.”

Jacques Guinaudeau’s original sketch, with a key to soil types, for the map of Lafleur in Neal Martin’s Pomerol

Jacques Guinaudeau’s original sketch, with a key to soil types, for the map of Lafleur in Neal Martin’s Pomerol Map by Jacques Guinaudeau, courtesy of Neal Martin

Martin is not the first to write of Pomerol’s history, but nobody else writes like Martin. The first sentence gives readers a hint of what they’re in for: “Is Motörhead an appropriate way to begin a book on Pomerol?” Martin is the guy whose first act when Robert Parker invited him to contribute to The Wine Advocate was to burn Parker a mix CD. His diary at always interspersed wine notes with musical picks, and his whimsical approach carries over into Pomerol without in any way compromising its utility as a reference. On his drive away from Château Gombaude-Guillot, a naturally made wine with “[p]erhaps […] a rustic edge,” Martin writes, “I switch on the radio and find myself drenched in the feedback of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes.'” One can consider Pomerol a book of terroir: the Neal Martin signature is always discernible. It is probably the only wine book in my library designed with a soundtrack. It also has strikingly original black-andwhite photographs by Johan Berglund and the most charming maps. Martin not only spared himself the expense of a cartographer but added considerably to his book’s personality by asking the vignerons to sketch out maps of their vineyards in their own hand.

The book includes detailed profiles of all the major Pomerol producers, shorter profiles of the minor ones, and one profile of an estate that no longer exists. The chapter on Domaine de Mautretat, subtitled “Remember Me,” begins with an imaginary phone call from a person trying to buy up the wine before it becomes the next Le Pin. “The customer only made one mistake,” Martin writes, “He telephoned his wine merchant approximately three centuries too late.” Mautretat was broken up in the 18th century, but Martin felt it warranted its own heading as a vineyard “central to the genealogy of Pomerol.” When it was broken up, one of the purchases created La Conseillante; another, L’Evangile.

Of L’Evangile, Martin writes, “Merlot plays the melody, Cabernet Franc the harmony.” At La Conseillante, “There is a succinct marriage between the structure imparted by the gravel-based Cabernet Franc and the corpulence lent by the Merlot. After a decade in bottle, the Cabernet Franc begins to engrave its design on the wine through its palette of secondary aromas and flavors.” Vieux Château Certan is “one of the greatest Pomerols and occasionally it can represent its apotheosis, evoking a spiritual as well as a sensory experience.”

As for the great Pétrus: “You remember your first Pétrus like your first kiss.” Here are clarets where the reviews don’t read like stock tips. The back cover board of Pomerol bears the quotation, “For such a small appellation, Pomerol has a big beating heart.” And thus, finally, Bordeaux has got its love letter.

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