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Jefford on Monday: Bordeaux Between The Covers

Is the electronic word suffocating the printed word? 2012’s surprisingly prolific harvest of wine books would suggest not. Self-publishers are indeed lifting the tide, but it’s encouraging that mainstream publishers are finding reasons not to abandon the subject entirely. The global wine boom just might, it seems, be provoking a quiet wine-book echo.

Bordeaux, of course, remains a choice subject – rightly, since it produces so much more fine wine than other regions, and since those wines endure in time in a way that few others do. The three most recent books on Bordeaux (or aspects thereof) to reach me are all, variously, excellent.

I held my breath as I knifed the cellophane off Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Legends (Éditions de la Martinière). It’s a book about the First Growths. Easy, eh? Not at all: the difficulties are manifold. Books about ‘great wines’ and ‘great producers’ can easily turn into an insipid pageant of grovel and slurp, while the subjects are liable to be so touchy about reputation that diabolical pacts (and zero criticism) may be required in return for access.

Anson, happily, has done much more than merely recycle posh press releases: her original historical research is excellent (indeed it fills over half the book), and the contemporary sections, too, are written freshly and engagingly, her eyes unencrusted with stars. She concentrates on the details, the collaborators (often admirably modest) and the personalities of owners and managers, and the result reveals much of the complexity and challenge of running something which is simultaneously agricultural enterprise, luthier’s workshop, Ferrari factory, and global visitor attraction.

The quality of the photographs, alas, is very mixed (some are dreadful: pp.152-3, or the ludicrous and technically mediocre picture on p.212); there are no tasting notes at all; and not much chewing over difficult issues. Fakes and anti-counterfeiting measures are cursorily treated; there isn’t even a mention of Parker, his colossal influence on prices, and how the First Growths have made traction from that; and there’s no drawing attention, either, to some of the often striking disparities of practice at the First Growths (such as Lafite continuing to use outside bottling contractors who rock up each June in a lorry – the bottling of the 2009, current price £800 each, is shown above – while Latour’s bottling line wouldn’t look out of place in Tate Modern).

Neal Martin’s Pomerol (http://www.pomerolbook.com/) is a valuable addition to any Bordeaux drinker’s library, as this little area hasn’t been closely picked over by most writers in the past. He obviously loves his subject, and has thrown himself into it with abandon. The result is more good first-hand historical research, plus copious ownership profiles, useful material on pedology, ample viticulture and winemaking info and some useful hand-drawn parcel maps (though it’s a shame Kelly Moueix didn’t draw them all, as some are almost illegible, including both Thienpont efforts – surely it was worth another draft of these?). The tasting notes, oddly for a Wine Advocate team member, are not the multi-sentence efforts which constitute house style; three or four vintages are sometimes summarized in a single sentence. They are scoreless, too, which seems liable to disappoint the Parker faithful. Martin tastes well, though, and expresses himself interestingly, so readers who don’t want to be tethered to a score need not feel frustrated.

Martin’s background as a writer has been electronic, and the two great vices of ‘the blogger’ – self-obsession and self-indulgence – are sometimes evident. (A tough editor, remember, is the writer’s equivalent of the sorting table.) The obligatory reference to whatever it was Martin claims to have been listening to as he arrived at the property in question quickly grows nerdy. Each profile begins with an imagined narrative, often pitched in the past of the property. This unusual stratagem can excite intrigue, but it can also topple over into portentousness and over-complication, and you sometimes feel he’d rather be writing a historical novel than a wine book. His style varies from the chatty to the archaic (he has a good sense of humour, but I can’t work out if he means a sentence like “the carpet of verdure that rolls down towards a glade of trees and, yonder, its vines” or “a rather tumbledown abode” to be read ironically or not). But never mind: Martin has talent, time, imagination and original research to offer, and the result is long, lyrical and unique, truly a wine book like no other.

Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux (Mitchell Beazley) has been updated and reissued this year for the first time since its 2007 publication. Brook was an editor himself prior to writing for a living, and is a highly disciplined writer and taster from whose writing all traces of self-obsession and self-indulgence have been rigorously excised. Is this why, in this age of Zeppelin-sized egos scattering showers of self-promoting tweets, his work hasn’t, perhaps, received the praise which it merits? I don’t know, but this book is a magnificent work of research from a meticulous wine-scholar. There aren’t many grand gravel drives (or rutted tracks in obscure appellations) which Brook has failed to negotiate through the encroaching dusk in a hire car; all of the key data is there; and his tasting notes are measured, sure-handed, economical but articulate, covering an impressive spread of historical vintages as well as more recent ones. I already think of this book as a faithful friend, and I hope Brook is able to update it repeatedly – and as indulgently as he feels able to allow himself.

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