Book reviews 2020 – Bordeaux

Ch Lafite 1868 The Alamanac by Saskia de Rothschild book cover

29 December 2020 We're republishing free details of these three excellent new books about the world's biggest fine-wine region.

4 December 2020 See this guide to all of this season's book reviews.

Château Lafite 1868 
The almanac 
Saskia de Rothschild 
Flammarion 
ISBN 9782080204202 
$235, £125, €150 

Saskia de Rothschild may have grown up in some of the most fêted vineyards in the world, but writing was her passion and her career. Two years ago, however, she gave up her job as journalist for The International New York Times to become, as Jancis put it, Lafite’s new chatelaine.

In that same year, Ch Lafite celebrated their 150th anniversary. In style. At a sumptuous dinner deep in the cellars, Jancis tasted Lafite going back to 1881. Her tasting note for that wine is quite staggering. Saskia mentioned to Jancis at the time that she was putting a book together to celebrate the Rothschild years of the estate and now, published just 10 days ago, here it is. Like the wines, it ain’t cheap. Like the wines, it’s also pretty sumptuous.

I was sent a PDF copy of the book, so I’m basing the physical aesthetics on information I have to hand: 620 pages, 257 x 319 mm (10 x 12.5 in), hard cover, glossy. It’s a heavyweight. And, by the looks of it, it’s available in French, German and English.

In her preface to the Almanac, Saskia de Rothschild writes this rather poignant paragraph:

‘When we first began researching this book, though, we discovered this statement in a copy of the newspaper Le Constitutionnel dated Monday, September 7, 1868: “Mr. Baron James de Rothschild left Paris for Château Lafitte [sic] in Médoc, which he has recently purchased.” It’s a single sentence, mentioned along with the day’s other news, but to me it means everything. It rendered tangible my great-great-great-grandfather’s visit to this land that I’ve known like the back of my hand since childhood. The announcement specifies that he travelled from Paris, the same trip I make every week. I can easily imagine him 150 years ago. But did he come alone or with his wife, Betty? I imagine he took the train. The Paris–Bordeaux line officially began running in 1854, and it makes sense that he would have taken it. So, he would have watched the same landscape roll by as I do, albeit at a different rhythm, now that the high-speed train connects Paris to Bordeaux in just two hours. I then consulted the calendar of our harvests to see if, on that particular September 7, harvesting was underway at the château. Lo and behold, in 1868 the harvest began on September 7. He chose the right day to come. Did he walk among the rows of vines when he arrived? Did he shake the vineyard workers’ hands? He was already gaining in years, but, perhaps naively, I can imagine him pulling up a chair to eat lunch with the teams. The year 1868 was a great one, which means the harvest must have taken place in good spirits. The harvesters undoubtedly would have been smiling. The same smile would light up the faces of the Lafite team in October 2018, 150 years later. The skies seemed to promise a legendary harvest for this vintage.’

An almanac is a curiously old-fashioned thing. It was, traditionally, an annual calendar of sorts that set out information such as astronomical and meteorological forecasts, religious festivals and other key dates for the year ahead as well as a miscellany of bibelots – songs and poetry, quotes, advice, recipes and curative tips. For farmers, it would suggest planting and harvesting dates. For sailors, high and low tides. It was generally predictive rather than archival, although it was based on the collective knowledge and wisdom of the past. The purpose of it was to guide, inform and preserve the rhythm of the continuing cycles and circles of life, connecting the past to the future for a safe and prosperous present.

The Lafite Almanac is not quite traditional. It’s an archive not a forecast, it covers 150 years not 12 months. It is the history of one place, one family, a retrospective of each of the 150 years that the de Rothschilds have owned Ch Lafite, from the day that Baron James de Rothschild bought the property on 8 August 1868. His visit on 7 September, as told by Saskia above, may have been the first time he’d ever visited the estate. It may also have been his last. He died two months later, on 15 November 1868.

But, having said that, it is everything else an almanac should be. Each entry has a record of the weather, vintage conditions, remarks on the vintage, tasting notes, prices and production data, as well as other notes on what happened that year. It is a calendar – the time and seasons recorded through the rhythm and cycles of pruning, planting, harvesting, pressing, ageing and bottling. It is a compilation of meteorological data: the rainfall, the vintage weather, the frost and hail, the sunshine of each vintage pulled from documents and letters and records of 150 years. It is a collection of the wisdom and the knowledge of the past, connecting the present moment (that wine in your glass), to the future (that bottle in your cellar). And it is useful – both guide and reference book for the Lafite wine lover, for the Lafite wine drinker, for the Lafite wine buyer.

It is also full of quirky gems: wonderful, satirical hand-sketched caricatures on the tough work of harvest by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879); a photograph of the desk where Otto von Bismarck and Jules Favre, the foreign affairs minister of the new French Republic, met in September 1870 to discuss an armistice; a map of the vineyards in 1885; 1901, when the Lafite estate manager glumly commented that the wine was poor, mediocre and thin, and sold the entire crop to two négociants for 850 francs per tonneau. Notes from their guestbook include signatures from American soldiers visiting in 1917 and cartoon sketches from their more artistic visitors. There are vat-room inventories, letters from family members to each other, menus from glamorous dinners with VIPs, newspaper articles, diary entries and invoices.

This, quite apart from Ch Lafite Rothschild itself, is a compellingly fascinating look at the past – and even if you have never so much as looked at a bottle of Ch Lafite in your lifetime, it would be impossible not to slowly turn these pages without a sense of awe and emotion. The entries from the war years, tough vintages, times of loss, times of huge celebration, all capture the essence of the human spirit. Saskia de Rothschild has done such an exquisitely executed job of researching and compiling 150 years of history that any museum curator would be impressed – and envious!

The quality of the photography is impeccable, the design of the layout is outstanding. Cleverly (or perhaps ambitiously?), enough space has been left on each page for you to ‘annotate and scribble on the pages by adding your own comments, drawings, and impressions upon tasting a specific vintage; the paper and the design of the right-hand page were chosen for that very purpose. Make this book your own’, Saskia writes poetically, ‘just like the bottles that leave our winery each year to finish up in your cellars and your glasses, leaving a trace in your memory’.

It is, at the price, not a particularly affordable book. But then, it is a book quite clearly intended for those who can afford to drink Lafite. If you’re one of a lucky few, then I most certainly recommend that you never lift another glass of Lafite without opening the Almanac to see how the planets and the stars aligned back then and right now.

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson book cover

Inside Bordeaux
The châteaux, their wines and the terroir
Jane Anson
Berry Bros & Rudd Press
£60, $80, €70, 325 Chinese yuan, 8,500 Japanese yen, SG$105

I still have Jane Anson’s book Wine Revolution on my favourite-wine-books shelf. But natural, organic and biodynamic wines are really just a distraction from Anson’s day job. Bordeaux is her métier, her craft, her dominion. She’s lived there for nearly 20 years. She is both disciple and master.

The first thing Anson does is tackle the inevitable question: do we need yet another book on a region that has been, in her words, ‘so widely covered, studied, dissected, discarded, rediscovered, fought over, loved, despised… rinse-and-repeat’. Bordeaux is changing, she asserts. We may think of Bordeaux as if it is set in stone, but it is constantly evolving. The climate is changing, a new generation of winegrowers are looking at the world differently. And we have research, technology and knowledge within our grasp that wasn’t even heard of two decades ago.

She explains in her introduction that she wrote this book because Bordeaux is so familiar that we’ve almost stopped seeing it. ‘It is becoming more important than ever to stop the “one size fits all” approach to Bordeaux’. Part of the problem being that we don’t approach Bordeaux like we approach Burgundy, Barolo and the Rhône, by studying and understanding the mosaic of soils and microclimates in order to interpret the wines. Our purchasing decisions are formed by well-worn clichés and unquestioned dogma. Inside Bordeaux is Anson’s crusade to shake us out of our comfortable apathy.

There are two main themes running through the book: Bordeaux terroir and Bordeaux today. Less history, more science; Less Place, more people; less what and more why. But having said that, she doesn’t ignore the basics. History, viticultural and vinification traditions and techniques, classifications, the business and economics of the Bordeaux machine are all covered in useful, digestible detail. Indeed, her explanation and analysis of the somewhat cut-throat bordeaux sales system is one of the clearest I have read – it certainly convinced me that I do not want a career as a courtier. Also illuminating is her conversation with an anonymous owner of a leading classified estate to get a behind-the-scenes view of how they price their en primeur releases.

The most exciting, ground-breaking part of this book is packed into pages 60 to 85. This is where Anson really digs deep under the surface, literally and metaphorically, and wrestles aside some of the simplistic conceptions we have of Bordeaux the place and bordeaux the wine. ‘The longer that I’ve been living in, tasting and writing about Bordeaux, the more frustrated I have become with the approach to terroir here’, she laments, adding that even taking into account practices that obscure terroir, the reality of terroir in Bordeaux is routinely overlooked or outright dismissed in favour of brand.

In order to do this, Anson enlisted the expertise of a crack team of scientists including Bordeaux-terroir researcher and professor Kees van Leeuwen, Sovivins founder and viticulturalist David Pernet, climatologist and winemaker Benjamin Bois, and geologist and terroir consultant Pierre Becheler.

With Bois, she looks at the fascinating picture of climate in Bordeaux, from rainfall patterns across decades to the five temperature zones based on ripeness dates, showing places that are systematically drier, wetter, warmer or cooler. This not only has implications for purchasing decisions. In a very hot year, for example, focus on wines from the cooler zones if you’re looking for freshness. Late-summer rain in Bordeaux may have averaged out at 60 mm for a specific vintage, but St-Émilion may have been deluged with 110 mm and St-Estèphe received just 10 mm. That makes a profound difference in potential vintage quality between those two appellations. Climate-zone data also informs the future. By analysing climate maps, it is possible to find areas of unexplored potential or future trouble spots.

‘Beneath the vineyards: a little geological drama’ takes us back 38 million years, across faults and folds, through ice ages and inter-glacials, erosion and deposition to the six gravel terraces of the left bank and the limestone cliffs of the right bank. Each terrace tells a different story: the mountain area its gravel comes from, the bedrock it lies on, subsoils of clay or sand. Anson points out the huge variation in height of the terraces, composition of the gravels, depth of the limestone, the intrusions of gravel corridors into the right bank and limestone formations in the left bank of the Gironde.

With Kees van Leeuwen, she looks at the story of the soil. They map the four key soil types of Bordeaux onto a broad-brushstroke map of the region (clearly showing that the left-bank gravel v right-rank limestone narrative is way too simplistic). Then there are four separate soil maps (printed on gatefolds, so that you can view all four side by side) with detailed scrutiny into where to find this soil, when wines on this soil show at their best, the grape varieties that thrive on this soil, taste character, great vintages, problems and benchmark estates. The level of detail she delivers with each of these maps is remarkable. From analysing the impact of the soil structure on water and heat transmission to nitrogen levels, flavour, ageing profile and wine structure, this is one of the most rigorous and specific investigations I’ve yet read on terroir.

As well as a quick look at other soil types found in Bordeaux and which château has the best terroir, Anson tutors us in how to assess a bordeaux vintage through a simple five-point, weather-based checklist and then takes it to the next dimension by reframing it in the context of terroir. I found her comments on dry white wine potential particularly interesting – it’s clear that Bordeaux has a much greater potential for high-quality white wines than is currently being realised. It may sound sacrilege right now, but in 30 years’ time, the St-Émilion you’re pouring into your glass could well be white.

In another creative, visually arresting and informative stroke of genius, Anson has then devoted about 30 pages to double-page, landscape photographs of aerial views across Bordeaux, ‘to raise our eyes from what’s beneath the vines’, she writes, and ‘to illustrate some of the points in this section’. In these beautiful colour photos by Jason Lowe we can just see the faint outlines of natural topography and features that have subtly shaped this region and its wines, in contrast with the stark anthropic dominance of militantly straight vine rows and roads that have not-so-subtly shaped this region and its wines.

From hereon in, for the next 500-plus pages, the book is divided by subregion and Anson puts each appellation under the terroir microscope. As well as key background information such as size, communes, classifications, breakdown of varieties and number of producers, she also provides information on appellation rules, organic and biodynamic estates, interesting developments in the appellation and châteaux to watch. The producer profiles are succinct, interesting, informative – particular weight is given to sustainability practices and vineyard soils. They’re good profiles – just what you would expect from a writer of her calibre and particular expertise. But what sets them apart is, quite simply, a map reference. Armed with that reference, you can go to the handsome, colour-coded, side-by-side gatefold maps for each subregion. On the left-hand map, locate the estate in relation to the surrounding topography; on the right-hand map, in relation to the soils.

These stunning, brand-new maps (58 in all) give us a chance to see Bordeaux in a new light, in a new level of detail that isn’t concerned with ownership, pricing, history or classification. They create a visual tool for understanding connections between some appellations and large differences between neighbouring estates. Through terroir, Anson explains why, for example, Listrac has struggled to gain traction and why it may well become the future flagship of biodiversity for bordeaux. From side-by-side soil and planting maps for individual estates, you can overlay variety on soil and make sense of an estate’s wine style and character. That St-Émilion is the region that is the most frustratingly difficult to pin down with wines that ‘vary from fragrant and delicate, to austere and thrillingly mineral, to voluptuous, powerful and heavily oaked’, Anson points to the terroir: shallow, hard Astéries limestone; gravel; sand; sandy clay; clay loam; Molasses du Fronsadais; deep silty clay on hard limestone; calcareous soil on unconsolidated limestone; old alluvium; silt over gravel; gravel over clay. And then you have plateaus, valleys, plains and hillsides. Good luck with working all that out.

I particularly appreciate that throughout the book, from start to finish, Anson keeps sustainability right at the forefront. For every single appellation and region, she highlights the extent of sustainability practices and which producers are working sustainably. Her curiosity and respect for terroir is all the more authentic for her clear, informed and unwavering belief that environmental stewardship is not only connected to true terroir expression but that the future of the region she loves and respects is inextricably connected to the way it is managed.

Inside Bordeaux stands out not because it is well written and meticulously researched and presented, which it most certainly is. I expected it to be just that and it met my expectations. It stands out because it’s not a display of deep, specialist knowledge published to showcase the region and the author. It’s also not a passionate paean to the glory of the region or the romance of the terroir. It is about terroir and it does tell us that Bordeaux is even more wonderful and exciting than we thought it was. But it’s written with a very specific mission that has a solid, practical purpose based on close collaboration with scientists who are leaders in their field.

One of the reasons Anson has become so obsessed with terroir is because, increasingly, she’d found herself wanting to understand why certain Bordeaux wines tasted the way they did and were priced the way they were. A second reason was ‘to learn how these rules can be applied to unearth value at spots less celebrated but with potential – given warming temperatures, and increased awareness of the details of terroir – to outperform their status’. In other words, she’s giving bordeaux drinkers with curiosity, good taste and modest means a key to a hitherto hidden code: first-class bordeaux at prices mere mortals can afford. Through science and dirt, she’s empowering us to inform our own purchasing decisions by making bordeaux more accessible. She’s not taking away the mystique and magic – just giving us a pass into the inner circle.

On Bordeaux by Academie du Vin Library book cover

On Bordeaux
Tales of the unexpected from the world's greatest wine region
Edited by Susan Keevil
Académie du Vin Library
ISBN 9781913141059
£30

On Bordeaux is probably best described as an anthology of short stories. Académie du Vin editor Susan Keevil has riffled through the literary archives and dusted off articles going back as far as 1833 and 1893, but she’s also managed to persuade a crack team of writers to offer twenty 2020 perspectives on Bordeaux. As Jane Anson points out in the introduction, the 47 pieces here span four continents, three centuries and 40 writers. That’s quite a collection!

Keevil begins the preface with, ‘Many thousands of words have been written on the subject of Bordeaux, from Samuel Pepys first succinct reviews of “Ho-Bryan” in 1663’. I suspect that may be a massive understatement. As I look back at the huge tome of Cocks & Féret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines on the shelf behind me, I’m thinking that ‘many millions’ might even be an understatement. Which begs the same question that Jane Anson asks in her book reviewed above: do we really need more?

She explains that the initial aim of the Académie du Vin Library was to ‘restore to readers the writing we rarely catch sight of, but which truly conveys the essence of the wines we drink’. Steven Spurrier, she writes, decided that the best way to represent Bordeaux was through the ‘best bits from its favourite authors’. The end product has, I think, benefited from being broader than that and from bringing in some fresh perspectives – writers such as Fiona Beckett, Margaret Rand, Elin McCoy, and even, from 1893, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, balanced the more bordeaux-permeated positions of writers such as Jane Anson, Neal Martin and the late Michael Broadbent MW.

Keevil has marshalled the writings into 10 chapters, each with a different theme – from the inevitable topics of vintages, vineyard and history, to rather more unusual ones of scandal and food. It’s not chronological, but it does start with what might possibly be a cliché: 1982.

Fiona Morrison’s first vintage in Bordeaux, 1982, was so hot that they were getting sunburned as they picked, and they were buying giant blocks of ice from the meat-packing district and chucking them in the tanks to cool the fermentations. It was a vintage dismissed by critics and trade as flabby and overripe… until young Robert Parker declared it superb. It was, she wrote, ‘the year that changed Bordeaux’. It was the year that put bordeaux on the road to becoming ‘accessible in every way but price’. It’s an article that reads like a supernova, celebrating the meteoric rise from the rags of the 1970s to the helipad riches of the 21st century. But there is an undercurrent of sadness and regret. ‘Ours was a simple world’, she writes of that harvest in 1982. ‘Our sheer amateurism … 80 of us, all seated together at trestle tables decorated with plastic Vichy tablecloths, our drunkenness, our use of tractors, trailers, ladders and hoses that would shock any safety inspector today. Sadly, this crazy camaraderie disappeared as quickly as the new-found wealth arrived.’

It’s a good start. It’s not as clichéd as I feared.

There are other poignant insights. From Margaret Rand in 2010, on a wonderful day with Michel Duclos, dyslexic pruner, national pruning champion (there is such a thing in France, I kid you not). His Jack Russell Leeloo sits on a chair at the restaurant with them and gets fed lunch. His advice to Rand: simplicity; don’t prune by habit; you must not tire the vines. ‘It is better’, he tells her, ‘to work for eight hours every day than 16 hours a day for two days’. Does he prefer to work with old vines or young vines, she asks him. ‘Do you prefer babies or grandmothers?’ he replies. This is the man who prunes 250 vines an hour, 150,000 vines a year, five million vines by 2010. I wonder if he is still going?

James Lawther MW and Mathieu Chadronnier contribute extremely good, thoughtful pieces on (respectively) Petit Verdot and sustainability. Joe Fattorini’s blue-lycra-clad interview with Anthony Barton earns a sniffy comment from Mme Barton on the desirability of a tie and Barton’s slightly bemused musing on his grandson running the Marathon du Médoc: ‘I wonder what my ancestors would have thought if they knew one of their descendants would be running through Bordeaux… dressed as a fairy.’ Cyril Ray, in 1985, tells us that Baron Eric de Rothschild was basically named after a pair of binoculars.

Vignettes of Chx Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Petrus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Yquem offer insights from across half a century. 1974, Cyril Ray on Mouton: ‘I have heard one of the Rothschilds of Lafite say that “I don’t like Mouton, because I don’t like burgundy”’. 2020, Hugh Johnson on Latour: did you know he had a hand in the gardens there? 2020, Neal Martin on Petrus pens an amusing sketch of the inimitable Madame Loubat in her flamboyantly plumed hat worn to church each Sunday, and tells the story of Christian Moueix standing at the château entrance in the late sixties handing out postcards to passers-by in the hope that they might come in for a tasting. Those were the days.

Perhaps my favourite report of the whole book is told by Anglo-Irish cousins, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (aka Violet Florence Martin), who headed to the Médoc in autumn 1893 armed with notebooks, sketch pads and ‘the Kodak’. Their tongue-in-cheek, archly caustic observations had me in stitches. ‘It would be neither kind nor clever to call a newly built house in the neighbourhood of Limerick, Pig Robinson or Pork Murphy; but in France, Sheep Rothschild is a name held in uninquiring reverence by the négociant en vins.’ They proceed to comment on the fat wasps, clustering thickly around the pressing grapes and endowed with ‘intelligent pertinacity’, who threw one of them, in mid ‘creditable question’ about phylloxera, into a shrieking dervish-like insanity. Their rather brutal comparison of Mouton with Lafite concluded with a feeling I have often experienced on wine trips: ‘we were penetrated by a sense of the gross absurdity of our pose as students of viticulture, while Monsieur Z and the manager of Château Lafite imparted fact upon fact antiphonally and seriously, without a shadow of distrust of our capabilities … this touching belief in our intelligence was both a glory and a humiliation to us.’ Towards the end of their open-mouthed tour of the private cellar of Baron de Rothschild, with its hundreds of thousands of bottles of claret, Monsieur Z tells them, without a shadow of irony, ‘He will not drink it all.’ The ladies confess, ‘We laughed a feeble giggle, whose fatuity told that we had become exhausted receivers.’ The caption under the charming old photo of the two ladies sitting on a porch with their dogs reads: ‘In the Vine Country was their only venture into wine writing.’ Exhausted in aeternum.

There is a poignant missive from wine merchant and cricketer Ian Maxwell Campbell, written in 1948, commenting on the bordeaux he’d been able to taste from the war years. He writes, ‘one can only hope that les années de la guerre may again prove the hand of untrammelled Nature to be a not unsuccessful substitute for the skilled labour of Man.’ He laments the ‘restrictive, almost prohibitive, duty on claret and light wines’ which forces the middle classes to drink beer, spirits and poor-quality ‘fermented fruit juices (by no means always grape juice)’. Of Winston Churchill he notes, with no small degree of irony, ‘the grandeur of his humility’.

Stories range from the chilling account of Jewish Philippe de Rothschild escaping Nazi-occupied France to advice from Bordeaux veteran Bill Blatch on what to eat with Sauternes (potato crisps).

Elin McCoy puts soils and wine styles aside, suggesting that to really understand the difference between right and left bank, we look at history, people, culture, ambitions and even climate change. Jane Anson describes the extravagantly carved taffeta-and-satin-stuffed beds found in so many Bordeaux châteaux that were, she suggests, a necessity rather than a luxury in those icy, draughty rooms. And if we thought Rudy Kurniawan was a bit of a trickster, it’s instructive to read Cyrus Redding’s account of the differences between bordeaux sold in England and bordeaux made in Bordeaux. Orris root and raspberry brandy flavour in your claret, anyone?

Memoirs of a Freeloader Stephen Brook’s article, entitled ‘The culture of hype’, compares the hospitality models of lavish Bordeaux v parsimonious Burgundy and includes this particular observation: ‘I have visited Burgundy and its growers every year for over three decades, and can count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have been invited to stay for lunch, let alone dinner. Without fail, a 10:30 appointment will come to an end at noon, and the visitor will be politely shown the door. Hungry after a morning of tasting? That’s your problem, monsieur. I used to find this irksome…’ Irksome indeed.

In Andrew Caillard’s article, ‘Red Obsession: when Bordeaux met China’, he comments that the ‘Bordelais are the doyens of luxury marketing’. On the opposite page is a photograph of Hong Kong actress/model Kathy Chow. Standing in front of a HK$3.5 million Chen Yifei oil painting, wearing a HK$15 million jade necklace, she thrusts a sultry pout at the camera while clutching an HK$80,000 bottle of Petrus 1961. Christie’s auction press preview. No price given for the jade and diamond earrings and brooch she sports, nor the designer dress. The ultimate marketing or desperate measures?

Keevil has done an excellent job of corralling these disparate voices into a coherent whole, and the end result is a lively symposium that might flip back and forth through time and topic, but stays the course in presenting Bordeaux as so much more than en primeur and Cabernet.