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Book review: “What Price Bordeaux” by Benjamin Lewin MW

21 comments

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.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    I thought the classification system was thoroughly debunked decades ago. Are any of these these ideas new? I don’t think so. The only thing that gives that classification validity today are critics who don’t taste blind and novices who buy what they are told to buy.

  2. Steven Mirassou says:

    Steve:

    Thanks for bringing the book to my attention; I’m going to get it today.

    Making Cabernet from the Livermore Valley, I am particularly interested in the notion to which you and the author allude, that one particular wine region, in this case – the Napa Valley, is a priori the best place to grow Cabernet in California and that it has always been so, and that there is no other alternative possible.

    In our instantaneous communication world, even 10 years ago seems like ancient history. There was a time (50 years ago) when experts were pointing to the Livermore Valley as one of the best spots in CA to grow BDX varieties; now, we are not even a footnote. Many things have conspired (mostly of our own doing) to make this so; it’s not the inherent viticultural quality of the area though.

    I guess my point is that wine is just another fashion business. What is in fashion now may not always be so. Pronouncements about quality; pronouncements about what characteristics a certain variety should possess; pronouncements about the primacy of a certain growing area will end up the sepia-toned images of a day gone by at some point in the not-so-distant future.

  3. …all of which brings up the question of the truly useless American “appellation” system.

  4. Steve
    Out of curiosity, how does our AVA system try to “mimic” the 1855 Classification, unconsciously, or otherwise?

    Granted man is a powerful influence when it comes to “pristine and unadulterated” terroir, but I think it has as much to do with what man doesn’t do to influence the land and vines. A stroll through the Eisele Vineyards with Bart Araujo brings home this point perfectly.

    I don’t necessarily agree that the “American appellation system is useless.” Is it not meant to help consumers identify where a wine is from, not what the quality of a given wine from that region may or may not be?

  5. Bruce, I think the only reason America has AVAs is because Europe does. If they didn’t, nobody here would have thought about it. And the only reason California, in particular, pays so much attention to appellations is because we’ve assimilated, from Europe, that they’re important, or should be. That’s what I meant by “unconsciously.” On some deep level we believe that AVAs possess some mystical quality, rather than just being a guide to geographic origin of the grapes.

  6. Steve and Bruce,

    Not to defend the European system, but the American AVA simply tells the consumer that “the TTB recognizes that grapes grow here.”

    So what? Grapes grow in a lot of places.

    TTB goes out of its way to state in the regulations that AVA status says nothing about quality of the product.

    If anything, the AVA system discriminates against the other places where grapes grow, but where influence and pressure have yet to get TTB’s attention.

  7. Steve,
    The only reason we have wine grapes (yes there are “native” grape’s, but…) here is because they were brought here from Europe, yes?

    Thomas,
    They’re also grown in places they shouldn’t be. Just spent a month in Napa and am amazed at the # of cab vineyards planted ion soil that is more suited for tomato plants.

  8. It’s interesting how quickly this blog entry became about Napa and not abot Bordeaux. Too bad because there are things to be discussed and learned, both good and bad. Regardless of the fact the Morton is more right than not that some of Lewin’s concepts have been aired before, there is nothing wrong with a 2010 take on these ideas.

    The fact that some wines sell for higher prices than their classification and others sell for less indicates that the market already has discounted the classification system to some extent. It is also clear that some wineries get higher prices simply because of who they are. But, the lesson of Ch. Ausone is instructive. When that property went off the boil some decades ago, its prices fell. But, its standing allowed them to come back to glory more quickly than a fifth growth could reach the top pricing tier.

    Most of the comments here seem indifferent to the misleading aspects of the classification. Yet, the very fact of the classification’s existence is somehow leading folks to take unwarranted swings at Napa. In the American system, there is no “standard” that makes Napa special. It is the wine that does it.

    At the risk of upsetting some people, let me repeat myself. IT IS THE WINE that makes Napa more interesting than other places in CA. It is not the reviewers; it is not the winemakers; it is not the area’s past glories. It is the wine.

    Tasted blind, Napa Valley Cabernets offer more complexity, layering, ageworthiness than their peers from elsewhere in CA. And it has been thus for a very long time. It is not a new concept.

    The AVA system has nothing to do with the Bordeaux classification system. It does have to do with a more specific system of place identification for the wine’s provenance. No one claims that the Rutherford AVA was set up for qualitative reasons. Its delineation by commune border rather than by commonality of growing region was made directly in the face of arguments that West Rutherford should have a standing on its own.

    The reason that there are cabs planted on “ion” soils may have to do with the Napa name on the label. That name has existed for a century and more. It has nothing to do with an AVA system or a classification system.

    And before we let this get too far down the road, there are references to agricultural products from good growing areas going back centuries, even millenia. The recognition of such things is simply not related to a European system. It is related to the human condition to differentiate products by provenance and to understand that Ipswich clams or Maine lobster or Scottish salmon or Jamaican coffee has unique characteristics and that some people care enough for those characteristics to speak of those products in admiring terms.

    Kudos to Steve for a fine review of the book. It is the classification system that is most at fault for creating inconsistencies in value and perception. It is not the AVA system.

  9. But Charlie, recognition has little to do with reason.

    I know full well that the AVA system has nothing to do with qualitative considerations–that’s my complaint about it. The only thing it tells the consumer is that grapes grow here and wine is produced here, a fact that can be gleaned from many sources, some of which actually say more than that.

    As for the Bordeaux classification, it was originally set up to satisfy the king of France. It was established based on nothing more than the prestige (as seen through prices of the wine in the Medoc) of the time. The fact that the system has not been improved says more about the French than it says about the wines of the Medoc, not to mention the power of names and marketing.

    The U.S. Appellation/AVA system, which many confuse with the European AOC system, is nothing more than the Medoc classification system; it’s all about marketing.

  10. Sorry Thomas, disagree. Sure there are the marketing mavens who try capitalize on a name-place. why am I thinking King Freddy of Franzia. But I honestly believe that most consumers, associate AVA labels with an expectation of a sense of place, be it Russian River pinot, Colio pinot grigio, Bandol Mourvedre or Rutherford cab. And yes, other varietals may be produced in these various appellations, but specific growing areas to me are identifiers that I associate with a sense of place and grape, not marketing. They are the starting point; quality, price, critics, marketing etc. may or may not follow.

  11. Bruce,

    I agree with you about how consumers perceive the AVA, but that does not shoot down my claim that it is mostly marketing; it might even support my claim.

    Perhaps, the quality of wine coming from certain AVA areas is superior, but that has to do with the producers and the area, not much to do with the TTB establishment of the AVA. In that regard, AVA is akin to the Bordeaux classification system: each was set up with a purpose other than to recognize individual producer quality.

  12. Steven Mirassou says:

    Charlie -

    There’s no doubt that great Cabernet is grown and has been grown in Napa for a long time. The appellation has “won” the argument about how Cabernet is supposed to taste due to its critical mass of wineries growing the same grape, the length of time they’ve been doing it, AND the approbation given to those efforts by critics and wine writers. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, again, the 50 years of the modern period of Napa isn’t forever, and no number of 90 point scores makes the appellation “inherently” the only place or even the best place to grow Cabernet.

    At the risk of being accused of running a fool’s errand, it’s my intention to compete with Napa. I believe that the Livermore Valley has the natural characteristics to compete in quality, and now it’s my responsibility to make sure that we have the winemaking characteristics in place to do the same thing.

  13. Steven. Amen to that.

    But, with La Rochelle, you are making Pinot from a variety of proven places like RRV, SCM and SLH. Why would the Steven Kent label be limited to Livermore?

  14. Tom–

    It is hard to argue that appellations not directly tied to quality are something other than marketing at one level, at least. But, the usefulness to the consumer of having more knowledge than that the wine came out of the ether is not unsubstantial. Even a Burgundian system with appellations that are small at the less than commune level, still is not specific. There are differences from one end of the appellation to another and from row to row when separate growers control them, as often happens.

    I would rather see Napa divided by growing area than by commune, as it is in the heart of the valley, but I still prefer the name Napa Valley to the name California and I still prefer Rutherford to the name Napa Valley. Now, if someone would just go ahead and define the West Rutherford Bench and the North St. Helena Alluvial Fan ………………..

  15. Steven Mirassou says:

    Charlie:

    The world doesn’t need another Napa Valley Cabernet, and Livermore is my winemaking home (as well as a place that has world-class potential for Cabernet). Now if I had property in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Cupertino…that could be fun too. I guess I want to tilt at one windmill at a time.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  16. For me the AVA system has always been about a stylistic expectation. I make Pinot and chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. I have an expectation of how my wine should taste, and how other RRV Chard and Pinots should taste because of that. When I drink pinots from the central coast, or the Wllamette Valley, they are both different. Not better or worse, just different. In part because of the winemaking, but also because of the terroir. Where the grapes come from makes a big difference. If the AVA system worked correctly, it would better indicate where the wine comes from, but when appellations overlap, you might just as well junk it and start over. I personally don’t want a system of County, Region, town, vineyard. It gets too confusing.

    I can’t make Richbourg on Westside Road. No winemaking trick in the world can make that happen. I’m ok with that, because they can’t make an RRV wine.

  17. Charlie,
    Check out Stu Harrison’s blog on “benches” at triviuumwine.com. Doesn’t actually define it, but an interesting and simple explanation.

  18. Laurels don’t make good beds, as they say. While I find the particular facts (i.e. Bordeaux used to be made up of swamps) interesting, I don’t find the overall message to be a revelation. It’s the same with any product in the world. Look at the internet. There was a time when Netscape was the country’s top source for web browsing. Firefox just celebrated their 1 Billionth download of their browser. Visit your old elementary school. I guarantee the playground has been upgraded to what’s considered more safe and modern equipment. I agree. There’s room for the newcomer, there’s more possibility than not that someone will produce something amazing and unexpected, overtaking the top position of their respective industry. That’s not just the American Dream, it’s a historical fact, and, as we know, history tends to repeat itself.

  19. I am a vine grower and a wine maker in Pomerol. My english is not good enough to explain what is terroir and how much the idea of linking it with wine identity and quality is a good one. So I copied the following text ( from Charlie Olken) with which I pleinly agree . “And before we let this get too far down the road, there are references to agricultural products from good growing areas going back centuries, even millenia. The recognition of such things is simply not related to a European system. It is related to the human condition to differentiate products by provenance and to understand that Ipswich clams or Maine lobster or Scottish salmon or Jamaican coffee has unique characteristics and that some people care enough for those characteristics to speak of those products in admiring terms….It is the classification system that is most at fault for creating inconsistencies in value and perception. It is not the AVA system.”A last point : terroir is not only a matter of soil and under-soil, mild oceanic climate of Gironde is very important. It allows balance, finesse and complexity, which cannot be get so easily in hotter areas. It is a main point that is often forgot even by vine growers and wine makers of Gironde. And climate change could also change this… But the main danger of it is not for the vine…

  20. Its too bad its a good book, I took a WSET trip to the Loire with this writer And he is one of the most stuck-up pompous jerks I have ever met. Every night at dinner he and another woman had to have a pissing contest about who would order the wine and what wines. As far as the two of them were concerned, the other 10 of us didn’t exitst. What a complete egomaniacal jerk. At that time, he dindn’t have the MW. Now his ego must be even bigger.

  21. Dear J. Carey, he does sound like a pompous ass. But he’s a good writer and he wrote a great book!

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