Decanter book reviews
Bordeaux Legends, Jane Anson, Editions de la Martinière, £35
The aim of this book is to show how the histories of the Médoc and Graves five first growths are linked, and how each is defined by the others. That’s an ambitious aim, and the author is right in saying it hasn’t been done before. Other authors have opted for the easier route of separate histories, with myriad opportunities for atmosphere, personality and drama; or for a general history of Bordeaux, or wine. From such a linked, precise history you want revelations, coincidences; why Lafite is how it is, why Mouton is how it is.
The story starts in the 16th century with the arrival of the Pontac family who owned what is now Haut-Brion. In 1654 a Pontac daughter married a de Lestonnac of what is now Margaux; in 1658 the groom’s mother inherited Latour. Other families enter the picture: the Luzes, the Brannes; the Irish contingent of Dillons, Bartons, Kirwans, MacCarthys, Mitchells and Lawtons; kings, brokers, négociants and revolutionaries.
The problems of writing this must have been colossal. I’d guess not all the châteaux were equally easy to deal with; and that’s before you get to missing papers, or archives that don’t exist. Anson’s scope embraces London, Hong Kong and the US as well as Bordeaux: the story zigzags across seas and centuries: one moment you’re reading about 18th-century household linen, the next about the views of a 21st-century Londonbased broker. Given the book’s structure, it would have benefited from an index.
This is certainly a thorough history of the first growths, but does not show how each is defined by the other. The châteaux’s history is shared to some extent, but it’s not self-contained, and if you separate them out you are left with the sense that much of the time the action (or just the context) was elsewhere. It’s polite, even politic. Phylloxera gets hardly a mention.
The meticulous research doesn’t always carry through into the text: the British Regency ended in 1820; an annulment and a divorce are different, and Louis VII got the former from Eleanor of Acquitaine; and the area of London is St James’s, not Saint James. Minor quibbles, but they detract from the book’s authority. It remains, nonetheless, a valuable addition to the shelf for any claret lover.