I finally finished Bernard Lewin MW’s great book, What Price Bordeaux?, and want again to recommend it. It’s not a book about how Bordeaux tastes, it’s about the historic, legal and social underpinnings of what may be the world’s greatest, most important wine appellation.
Perhaps because he edited a biology journal, Lewin is a rigorous reporter. Whenever there’s a question that needs to be asked, Lewin asks it. In re: the concept of appellations, he is the ultimate skeptic, wondering over and over again why the Classification of 1855 should remain relevant, and throwing down gauntlets that the Bordealais may find it difficult to jump over.
He has a great way — you could call it Socratic — of asking questions that practically answer themselves. “Do any of the existing [Bordeaux] classifications really make a useful difference?” This refers to the fact that chateaux move up and down in quality over the years regardless of their official level, so who cares if, say, Sociando-Mallet is a classified growth or not? (It isn’t.)
“And does the range of variation become so broad as to lose utility when a class is as large as the 46 Grand Cru Classés” of Saint Emilion? Lewin doesn’t answer his own question, but you find yourself thinking, Well, yes, it probably does become too broad.
And this, on the terroir the Bordelais so treasure: Given the intensive human intervention in the Médoc (beginning with draining the swamps), and given the fact that individual parcels pass between different chateaux with some frequency, “Do they [chateaux] provide unique representations of conditions that can be found only in their specific vineyards? Or are they brands, representing commercial margues…?” Once again, Lewin’s lips are sealed, but you can infer his answer. Commercial marques, anyone?
My own feeling, which has evolved over years since I began studying wine, is that there’s less than meets the eye to the classic Bordeaux argument of terroir. I think the First Growths are Firsts because people were willing to pay the greatest amount of money for them 200 years ago, which allowed their proprietors to lavish the greatest care possible upon the vines, which improved the wines, etc. etc. ad infinitum.Throw in the Snob Factor — “I can afford Lafite, too bad you can’t” — and we have a system petrified in time.
I think the Classification of 1855 is irrelevant, but also represents the greatest marketing triumph in the history of wine (or, possibly, the second, after the Champenois). I think when you classify 46 chateaux as Grand Cru Classés, the title does lose meaning: it’s like all the children in Lake Woebegon being above average.
There are lessons to be absorbed here in the States, and especially in California.
1. Let’s never, ever classify vineyards or wineries. It’s a no-win proposition.
2. Human perceptions of brands are stubborn and persistent. It’s nearly impossible to alter the typical view that Lafite, say, is better than Talbot, even though it may not be. That’s good news for wine brands that have implanted themselves into the consumers’ psyche, bad news for brands that haven’t.
3. There’s no such thing as terroir. Yes, there are better and worse places to grow wine grapes, but the place in and of itself is not enough. You need the right vineyard management and winemaking techniques. Even the latter — good winemaking technique — is not enough, if the grapes are not perfect. The combination of terroir plus human intervention is called cru. That’s why there are Grand Crus in both France and in California.
4. California’s Grand Crus will survive this economic mess, just as Bordeaux’s got through civil war, the Napoleonic Wars, devastating phylloxera, war with Prussia, and two World Wars in the 20th century, with a Great Depression inbetween. Not to mention Jerry Lewis.
I go to Seattle today, a city I love, to drink wine with my friend and colleague, Paul Gregutt, who I expect will play a little music on his guitar. I’ll try to post your comments, although it’s sometimes tough on the road. Have a great weekend!