Book review: “What Price Bordeaux” by Benjamin Lewin MW
There’s something retro about this book, in the best sense. It reads more like something from Hugh Johnson or André Simon than a slapdash quickie from today. Authoritative, classic in structure, elegant and complex, like a Classified Growth itself.
The book contains much that has been written elsewhere on Bordeaux: its ancient history, explanations of its multitude of appellations, how the AOC “pyramid” works and the history of its evolution, a detailed analysis of terroir, the differences between the Left and Right banks, observations on scores and pricing, and — most relevant and interesting to me — a critical examination of the famous 1855 Classification, which not only set in stone the hierarchy by which the famous chateaux are ranked, but established a template that every other famous wine region in the world tries, consciously or not, officially or not, to mimic.
Lewin asks questions that are as fundamental as any that may be posed concerning wine, and it’s amazingly odd how little consensus there is concerning their answers, even going on the Classification’s 154th anniversary.
- Given that even First and Second Growths were often still blended with Rhône and Spanish wines (to strengthen and colorize them) as late as 1865, “Were there in fact any consumers who knew the taste of the unadulterated wines of the Médoc when the chateaux were classified in 1855?”
- Given the frequent changes in vineyard location (due to swaps/trading, purchases and new plantings), does it make sense to classify chateaux in a way that suggests permanance of terroir rather than continual change?
- “Do some chateaux have better terroir, or is their position in the classification self-reinforcing, giving them greater resources because they can claim higher prices?”
- “When chateaux decline due to neglect, can they be resurrected by new investment? And how can chateaux originally lower down in the hierarchy fight their way up?”
- Given the fact that much of the Médoc’s vineyard area sits in areas that used to be marshes but were drained for agriculture, does it make sense to refer to “natural terroir”? “Whether the terroir is natural or made by man, the basic question is: how far are the great wines of Bordeaux driven by terroir? Do they provide unique representations of conditions that can be found only in their specific vineyards? Or are they brands, representing commercial marques where the underlying quality depends on changing methods and sources of production?”
Lewin sums up with a final question: “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?”
These are brave questions to ask, and they ought to be asked. There are so many fertile areas to explore and discuss, one hardly knows where to begin; I could blog on these quotes alone for the next year. But here’s some food for thought:
Never again should we speak of terroir as something pristine and unadulterated, existing in and of itself, like Aquinas’ prime mover. There is no such thing. Wine is the product of terroir and man/woman, or what the great enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls “cru.”
Never should California attempt anything as silly and insubstantial as a hierarchy of wineries or vineyards.
Never should we conclude that one area is permanently better than another. Five hundred years ago Bordeaux was a mass of swamps, and the wines often were so thin and austere, they had to be mixed with riper, darker wines from warmer climates. Today, one can complain that some regions in California are too hot to ever produce fine wine. But who’s to say that some unknown mitigations will not upset those calculations in ten years or twenty?
The implications for the unstated, unofficial hierarchy we have today (Napa Valley at the top) are obvious. No one can rest on pre-established laurels. It took the old order centuries to rationalize itself because historical conditions meant that things could change only very slowly, if at all. We are now in the new order, when change occurs in 140 characters at the touch of a “send” button. I’ll leave it to others to answer Lewin’s question, “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?” But I will say that every hierarchy that exists today is in danger of being turned over.
“What Price Bordeaux” was published by Vendange Press, a Dover imprint. I highly recommend it.