Books, Maps, Magazines, Films even Podcasts!

a book of french wines, p.morton shand (1960)

By billn on March 06, 2009 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

a book of french wines, p morton shandWhilst this book actually covers 399 pages, I’m basing this discussion only on the 59 page section about Burgundy – including appendices. Despite my skin-deep approach, this book can be truly described as a reference work for its time. My copy is a 1960 reprint from the original 1928 work, and is clearly and largely based on that original text as there is no mention of AOC – merely a few statistics are changed to reflect reprinting dates. AOC is later discussed in quite some detail, but only as an appendix. [Edit: I later note from Mr Shand’s Wikipedia page that he actually died in April 1960]

The burgundy section opens with an erudite discussion of the enigma of the region – Maisons de Négoce – followed by a few meandering and largely unexciting pages that cull quotes from authors past – Dr Middleton, Brillat-Savarin, Stendhal – all extolling the virtues of burgundy wine. We then move onto a travelogue of sorts, taking the now traditional route from the northern Yonne outposts to the southern (essentially Rhône valley) vineyards of Beaujolais.

The text is actually very interesting once you get past the puffery, as there is detail that you don’t find in modern manuscripts – probably because the information is culled from a generation who still remembered the tracts of vineyard land that were perhaps lost to phylloxera – but those little addressed areas such as the Tonnerrois, Auxerrois, Châtillonais and particularly the Côte du Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais receive wordy treatment with the author listing primary vineyards, many of which that seem to be lost from today’s labels. e.g. a short passage from ‘Beaujolais’:

According to the délimitation cadastrale of 1919, both Moulin-à-Vent and Thorins (each of which is partly in the commune of Chénas and partly in Romanèche-Thorins) were entitled to the appellation ‘Grand Cru’ – a privelige enjoyed by 32 named vineyards of a total of 284 hectares in Moulin-à-Vent (the most famous being the Carquelin, or Grand-Morier, known as ‘le rognon du Moulin’ from its situation), Rochegrès, Combes, La Roche, Les Champs de Cour, Les Savarins, Les Brasses, Les Grolliers, Les Caves, La Rochelle and Vérillats, and 46 named vineyards, covering 291 hectares, in the case of Thorins.

There is (before the AOC appendix) some attempt at classifying vineyards: Chablis is quite straightforward with 1st, 2nd and 3rd class wines. The first class list extends to La Moutonne, Les Vaudésirs, Clos, Valmur, Les Grenouilles, Blanchots, Pointe des Preuses and Pointe des Bougros. Preuses and Bougros themselves are second class. Bringing up the rear are “the wines of Clichet and Milly (Lechet), together with the wines known as Chablis village and Petit Chablis”. As for the Côte d’Or, the author makes a large table and tries to make a distillation of the work of Lavalle, Danguy et Aubertin and Camille Rodier using the ‘Tête de Cuvée’, ‘Premier’, ‘Deuxiemme’ and Troisiemme’ levels.

The appendix on AOC is much more detailed than you will find in most publications, offering allowed vines, alcoholic strengths etc. e.g. for:

Appellation Contrôlée ‘Rosé de Riceys’: (Aube): decree of Dec 1947.
This appellation is confined to rosé wines grown in the Commune des Riceys, some 20 miles south of Troyes, from Pinot noir vines to a minimum 75% of the encépagement with a maximum 25% of Svégnié and Gamay. The maximum production allowed is 30 hectolitres per hectare and the musts are required to contain a minimum of 170 grams of grape-sugar per litre and develop not less than 10 degrees of alcohol after fermentation. The production of this rather delicately flavoured wine is very small; it is rarely met outside its more or less immediate area.

Summarising: Whilst P.Morton Shand doesn’t deliver up a personality like that of Harry Waldo Yoxall or Philip Youngman Carter, what he puts on paper is, as you can see, extensive and rather comprehensive for its time. Certainly a book worth picking up for the relatively low outlay required in a ‘pre-owned’ bookstore.

PS – anyone ever heard of Svégnié?

the widow clicquot, tilar j. mazzeo (2008)

By billn on January 05, 2009 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

the widow clicquot tyler j mazzeoThe story of the redoutable ‘Widow’ who, despite the misfortunes of war and family loss, became the equivalent of a billionaire in her epoch. It’s another Harper-Collins’ title – following on from their very readable ‘Billionaire’s Vinegar’.

I read ‘The Widow Clicquot’ written by Tilar Mazzeo over the Christmas break. The style of the book left me cringing quite a few times, but, overall, it is clearly very well researched and provides quite some insight into the life and times of wine-makers (not only from Champagne) during the almost constant backdrop of war and upheaval in the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s.

The first thing to bug me was the language style – I found it so typical of US-sourced academic writing – as I persevered it jarred less and less, and indeed on re-reading the opening pages I didn’t get the same feel – perhaps I had immunised myself! The second thing that bugged me was the constant reference to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (The Widow!) as a woman in a man’s world, unique in a man’s world etc., etc. – even just once per chapter might have been sufficient! The third thing that bugged me was the peppering of the text with technical references to (for instance) TCA with some background or racking with no further info etc.; it was almost as if there was a list of things that would have to be in the book (because it was aimed at a wino audience?) regardless of whether it was part of the unfolding story or not. In my opinion the last, and worst, transgression is that despite us being constantly told by the author that little information personal to ‘the widow’ had survived, the author constructs a web of ‘make-believe’ and speculation for her storytelling, e.g.

Staring at the ceiling of her bedroom in the early morning hours of February 10th, 1806, Barbe-Nicole was perhaps already feeling queasy. The church bells tolled six o’clock, and without turning to look, she knew the horizon was still only a dim wash of early gray.

etc., etc.. I’m sorry but for such an evidently well researched book, I’m not looking for make-believe! Late in the book, there is some justification of the approach in the ‘Afterword’ where she points to the lack of surving personal information and describes writing the book as:

…an exercise in the oblique…

…The dilemma for any curious historian is a simple one: Without this sympathy there is silence.

If the larger explanation had been in the foreword, rather than the afterword, I’m sure I would have been less constantly annoyed whilst reading.

That was all the bad stuff I can think of, on the other hand you only need look through the notes section to get a feel for how extensive the research was and the historical backdrop to the narrative is fascinating. I have already taken up a number of references. Overall this is a book chock full of fact, many new to me, so despite having to weave your way through some fiction too, for the historical perspective alone of a wine-trade in such tumultuous, waring years, I’d rate this book as ‘close to’ indispensable.

There is also a ‘book review’ in the NYTimes; rather I would say it simply outlines the story of this remarkable lady as ‘pieced’ together by the author. As ‘reviews’ go, this is a better one.

the billionaire’s vinegar, benjamin wallace (2008)

By billn on June 07, 2008 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

1787 - the billionaire's vinegarBillionaire’s Vinegar is first and foremost a book that I really enjoyed – in the manner of well-researched fiction – perhaps not a thriller, but certainly a who-dunnit.  Secondly, it’s a book from which you can learn much of the auction market machinations and importantly if you are tempted to buy old wine, it will ensure that those rose-tinted spectacles will be left at home – oh and we are supposed to believe that it’s all true!

For those that may have lived in a cupboard for the last year or so, it is a story that starts with a bottle of wine with the initials Th.J. dated 1787.  Actually there may have been as many as 30 “Thomas Jefferson” bottles purportedly found in a Paris cellar, the first of which being famously sold by Christies for a world record price.

Despite multiple pages of reference and source materials, Christies (Decanter) claim there to be many ‘inaccuracies’ in the book, though as Mandy Rice-Davies would say – ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’. Of course Christies were not the source of those bottles, one Hardy Rodenstock is the primary target of the book, though from the narrative it’s clear that the author sees Christies in general and Christies’ Maître dit Michael Broadbent in particular as willing dupes at best.

Despite some of those bottles clearly containing excellent old wine, they were faked – analysis showed one of them to contain wine from 1962 – as they all came from the same cellar, undisturbed for maybe 100 years or more, if one falls they all fall.

I highly recommended this well-written book, but one thing disappoints; it’s still only a partly told story. Hardy Rodenstock is still being pursued, both by private detectives and through the courts – mainly by one very deep-pocketed owner of a number of questionable bottles, some with the initials Th.J.  Rodenstock’s hunter is playing a long game which the hunter appears to be both enjoying and expects to win. Perhaps the author of this book also felt hunted and needed to be sure hist book was published first. I expect the second or third edition may have one or two more chapters and a real conclusion.

reading material

By billn on May 22, 2008 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!#other sites

I must remember to update my list of books to read – this seems a good start.

 Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Also, here’s a nice article including the late Robert Mondavi and 100 year-old burgundy.

european fine wine magazine – a critique

By billn on January 14, 2008 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!#other sites

european fine wine magazine

  Photo: Blatantly stolen from the publisher’s website | Copyright, them

Let me first say that issue number 1 of ‘European Fine Wine Magazine’ is quite a coffee-table magazine, the photography is really something – not just the composition but the saturated, slightly underexposed processing too – never-mind black and white, even in colour it looks almost Gothic! Whilst I’m far from an expert in this area, the photographer (Pekka Nuikki) seems to be carving-out his own genre. In the end though I must come clean – it’s not a magazine for me.

I am an egalitarian when it comes to wine; there was a time when even a modest pocket-book could accommodate an occasional bottle of the grandest of burgundian grand crus – Armand Rousseau’s Chambertin could be had for £60 throughout the 1996-1999 vintages – though unfortunately those times seem but a memory… Anyway back to my point; this publication has nothing to do with the egalitarian – adverts for Maybach, open-top Bentleys, yachts, power-boats, 8-page Dom Pérignon advertorials (the Pol Roger thing looks suspiciously advertorial-ish too) and €6,000 mobile phones etc., etc., accurately reflect the publisher’s target audience – this is the bling of wine-publishing. Articles covering Bordeaux, Bordeaux, Bordeaux and ‘investing in wine’ hammer in another nail despite the next issue offering me an olive-branch in the form of a piece on Louis Jadot(!) The final nail is what I consider the inaccuracies in the investing in burgundy section; interesting that 1971 and 1962 are vintages that you should primarily invest in whites, that you should look out for de Vogüé’s Bonnes-Mares, Musigny Vieilles Vignes and apparently their Musigny too and that one of Rousseau’s ‘top three’ is his Charmes-Chambertin.

At least then, they have taken time to think about their audience: As this publication is only about conspicuous consumption, they have come up with a new wine-scoring system too: in with Robert Parker’s 100 points, but out with his methodology. The wine is scored only on how it tastes today, with no reference to future potential. I assume, then, that their scores on 2005 Bordeaux will all be around 75 to accurately reflect their current drinkability. Come to think of it, they will anyway only be drinking 1928, 1945 and 1961 Bordeaux – oh and 1962 Puligny-Montrachet of-course!

I’m surprised then, that I got my complimentary copy courtesy of ‘The World of Fine Wine‘; editor Neil Beckett extolling its virtues and urging a subscription. That magazine whilst positioned firmly in the ‘up-market’ is essentially a magazine of writing. The pretty bunny (sorry, hare) does little to disguise that this is only a vehicle for positioning ‘luxury brands’ like Petrus and Mouton. I shall not be investing, despite the often evocative and haunting images. Hopefully, though, this will bring Pekka Nuikki’s work to a deserved wider audience, despite his surreal website.

I rightly consider myself to be ‘too nice’ ever to be a real critic – but sometimes it just flows…

le montrachet, j-f bazin (1990)

By billn on August 25, 2007 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

montrachet“At first it seems ridiculous to devote a whole book to a few acres of stony hillside, owned through the ages by an ever-changing, ever-squabbling gang of greedy rustics, producing a mere 30,000 bottles of wine per year.”

So starts the foreward by Nicolas Faith who edited this English translation of Jean-François Bazin’s 1988 publication in French, Le Montrachet, and it’s about the only tongue-in-cheek moment in the whole book. Don’t let that put you off. Despite the profiles of the domaines that own parts of Montrachet (or it’s hyphenated neighbours) being 20 years out of date, this 190 page book is worth any second-hand purchase you might find.

Bazin meticulously works his way through the history of the area and the families that owned parts of the vineyard, what was Montrachet and what tried to be Montrachet. This translation of his French text original is very well done and reads easily. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes:

Showing that counterfeiting is as old as the sun:

“In 1822 André Jullien wrote: “Meursault… produces many highly appreciated white wines which, as they leave the area, often take on the name of the wines of Mont-Rachet which they resemble to some degree, though they do not have all their fine quality.” A century earlier, 1728 the priest Arnoux warned his readers against “the vines which are neighbours to that vineyard, for they somewhat resemble it in quality and sometimes pass for Montrachet”. “That is why you should be sure of having a trustworthy agent if you wish to procure some”, he advises.”

Finally, did someone mention squabbling rustics?

“It is probable that the strange greenish-yellow colour of Montrachet deepened along with progress in vinification and preservation of wines. In the eighteenth century it doubtless had the transparent palour of a young priest at court. Greenish-gold? Chablis and Pouilly-Fuissé also claim this mysterious blend of colour and its reflections. Yellow? “No” they say in Chassagne “Puligny is yellow.” Yellow? “No” they say in Puligny “Meursault is yellow.” “

the wines of burgundy, hw yoxall (1968)

By billn on July 27, 2007 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

yoxall burgundyFirst published by The International Wine and Food Society (Pitman) in 1968, this copy is from the slightly updated 1978 second edition. Compared to the last book I posted on, by Philip Youngman Carter (1966), this 190-pager by Harry Waldo Yoxall is a little more studied and less spontaneously amusing, but Harry has his nicely self-deprecating moments and like Youngman Carter before, retains the BBC grammar of a bygone age. To balance, there is more depth and in some areas considerable insight.

Harry certainly knew his stuff; he was a ‘Grand Officer de la Confrérie des Chevailiers du Tastevin’, chairman of the society responsible for publishing the book, and for 40 years was also the head of the London office of Vogue magazine and a contributor to others.

Overall, a book with some interesting areas; how to serve the wines, the question of adulteration of wines etc., broad enough in it’s coverage that it could have been an early template for the much revered book and probably still reference point in the subject by Anthony Hanson. I leave you with a few quotes:

“Halfway through the 15th century some Côte d’Or wine was evidently reaching the French court, for Louis XI praised the 1447 vintage of Volnay. (I liked the 1947)”

“This côte produces a light, fresh rosé at Marsannay, quite pleasant, if you like rosé, for picnic lunches – if you like picnic lunches.”

“My advice to the civilised tourist who is not in great hurry (and civilised people should not be in a hurry) is to keep off the main roads as much as possible.”

[Talking of Le Montrachet]“…Alexandre Dumas was inspired to declare that “it should be drunk kneeling, with ones head bared”. Personally I drink little wine with my hat on and, with my rheumaticky frame a kneeling posture would not enhance the pleasure of drinking even Le Montrachet.”

drinking burgundy, youngman carter (1966)

By billn on July 15, 2007 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

burgundy youngman carterDrinking Burgundy by Youngman Carter (1966)

I like to buy older books, not only are they very cheap 🙂 they give a (sometimes) usefully different context and insight into a region. This is a thin – only 90 pages – hardback which brings many smiles. Dated, certainly but with that ‘period’ BBC newsreel grammar. Here’s a selection of cool quotes, ones that make me smile:

” ‘Burgundy at it’s best overtops Claret at its best.’ This is the last word on the subject by the greatest of all wine writers, Maurice Healy. He goes on to say that a really great Burgundy is a rare thing, possibly a once in a lifetime experience, but fine old Claret is not hard to come by if your pocket permits.”

“…beware of restaurants who offer elaborate wine lists without mentioning the shipper. ‘Beaune 1959’ has precious little meaning but ‘Beaune De L’Enfant Jésus (Bouchard Père et Fils) 1959’ is a specification of a fine product. No man in his senses if buying a car would consider ‘A drop-head coupé 1959’ without inquiring if it had been made by Anon & Co. or Rolls-Royce; yet the restauranteur is presenting precisely the same invitation to buy blind.”

“A mile and a half south of Chenôve lies another little town, Marsannay-la-Côte, a community which has made great efforts to regain its lost prestige by displacing the invading Gamay and restoring the Pinot. Unfortunately, the cost of the original project was not recoverable, for the market for cheaper Burgundies has been lost to Algerian imports.”

” ‘Grand Chambertin’ is as meaningless as ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’. Maurice Healy calculated that in 1940 in London alone three and a half times as much ‘Chambertin’ was drunk as could be produced by those historic 70 acres in a twelvemonth and the consumption has been increasing steadily in the last quarter century. It comes, of course, from the adjoining vineyards of Gevrey, whose owners or their grandfathers, were astute enough to keep up with the Jones by adding a hyphen”

“They [Clos de Tart and Clos des Lambreys] are fine, full-bodied fellows who reach maturity slowly, from five to ten years, and keep well, sometimes up to fifty years, generally improving with age. This is very rare in Burgundy. It is, however, still considered ‘a ladies’ wine’.”

“Le Corton and Corton-Charlemagne are in the hands of expert vignerons and can be bought without fear of disappointment. The terrian is not for idlers, for the slopes are steeper than any on the entire Côte and the soil must be constantly protected against erosion by water from the wooded hills above and replaced if the winter torrents succeed in sweeping it away. The wines have the liveliest ruby colour in all Burgundy and mature in about seven years.
The crus here take Corton as the first name, the vineyard itself following, as in Corton les Bressandes. Eumenius, the Roman rhetorician of Autun, who visited these parts in 311, thought highly of the vineyards, which he regarded even then as ancient. So did Voltaire, who boasted, privately, that he kept Corton for himself and served Beaujolais to friends.”

“Beaune. Here the vines run in a continuous belt west of the city and form the largest acreage of first growths in all the land, producing an average of 86,200 gallons a year of Têtes de Cuvées. They can be drunk when comparatively young, since they have a shorter fermentation period than most, but never so young as the French would have you believe. Allow at least three years.”

“The best of Volnay and the largest vineyard, 36 acres, is indisputably Les Caillerets: a connoisseur’s wine, which is not to say it cannot be appreciated by ordinary mortals. Maurice Healy recalls a bottle of 1889 as being the finest he ever drank. It was over 30 years old then and surpassed even La Tâche 1904 and Richebourg 1923, the companions in his great triumvirate of perfection. They are, curiously, all Burgundies, though his main devotion was to Claret.”

” ‘Divine Montrachet!’ it has been called, and for many of us it is the world’s masterpiece as a white wine. In her incomparable presence Yquem becomes a dumb blond, relying on curves and diamonds, and the most expensive of the Germans an overscented Valkyrie. She is Millament played by Edith Evans: Fonteyn outbidding Nureyev.”

Some things change, some things don’t, and is that last quote the first ‘bling’ connection to wine?! Whatever, it is priceless. I shall now be on the look-out for works by Maurice Healy.

jacky rigaux – terroir and the winegrower

By billn on July 09, 2007 #books, maps, magazines, films even podcasts!

jacky rigauxAn important book, so worth a little delving into the detail. I purchased it in the Athenaeum bookshop in Beaune for 28 Euros – it doesn’t seem to be listed on Amazon at this time.

A quick flip through the contents and contributors (interviewees) and this is a book that looks like it should be worth the outlay – each author somehow touching on the subject of terroir and the winemaker.

It’s one of the few of Jacky’s books that I’ve seen translated from his native French, he doesn’t speak English himself, or at least the one time we had a conversation I had the impression that his English was worse than my French – in itself quite an achievement! – and maybe I can already spot a contributing factor to my early difficulty with this tome; it’s the language… well mainly!

Some early ‘niggles’ were:

  1. The Language. There can be something special about French translated into English – particularly on a corporate level – just look at the corporate communications of any major French company; the language is cringingly flowery and usually devoid of any real meaning – I had a real sense of ‘deja-vu‘ while reading the introduction of this book – they must have same translation agency!
  2. Misplaced Ideology. A major ‘slant’ of this book is the rejection of those Anglo-Saxon (more of that later) ‘technical’ or ‘industrial drinks’ more in common with cola than wine, ‘drinks’ which apparently portend the end of diversity and culture. My own perspective is somewhat different; I see these ‘technical’ wines engaging a brand new audience i.e. one that is in addition to the existing audience, and that a certain percentage of those new drinkers will look to broaden their horizons and effectively increase the global market for let us call them ‘terroir wines’. Let us also not forget that a) wine consumption is increasing and b) there are many harder jobs than selling a well-made wine. I emphasise ‘well-made’ because we wouldn’t want terroir to be used as an excuse for bad wine now would we…
  3. With Jacky. I don’t have a problem with much of his prose idolising Henri Jayer – anyway a reasonable choice – rather, and because of his academic background, I would have liked him to take a slightly more ‘modatorial’ stance vis-a-vis his contributors – but no, he nails his ‘terroirist’ credentials to the mast very early:

    “The bottle not only contains the fruit of the vine served by technique, it also reveals singularity of place, transcended by man’s labours, which often demands slow maturation so as to reveal the full terroir complexity.”

See what I mean about language – this would, for example, be better placed on Boisset’s website. It seems that I’m also a major part of the problem because I’m a card carrying member of the “dominating Anglo-Saxon culture”, this term is peppered through the opening pages; Anglo-Saxon being used in each case as a negative reference point. One assertion that amazed me after just finishing the excellent Phylloxera, was the following:

“For example, many winegrowers who refused to admit that phylloxera could be contained by the use of natural predators, were persuaded to resort to using American rootstock…”

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but no such suitable ‘natural predator’ was ever found, and although I know there is some research in returning the vines to their own ‘feet’ I’m not aware of anything approaching commercial reality – oops I suppose that’s an Anglo-Saxon (commercial) point of view! Let us also be clear; if there had been a fledgling gene therapy in the late 1800’s, you can be sure that someone would have inserted an anti-louse gene and everyone would have been very happy – regardless of the current distrust the technique engenders. I’m not saying I fully trust the technique, but in such times of hardship it would have been done, no question!

At one stage I found myself rather laughing at one contributor’s assertion that a ‚terrior wine’ from Burgundy could not really show the terroir if the oak didn’t come from Burgundy. Should I labour this point? – Okay; how many oak forests do you know in Vosne, Chambolle or Gevrey – hmm, seems they all come from quite some distance away in Burgundy – further away than (say) Vougeot to Aloxe, but mix the grand Crus of Clos Vougeot with Corton and what do you have? – regional wine, Bourgogne Rouge. This is not terroir.

Anyway one assumes that as we get into the ‘meat’ of the book, i.e. the contributions of 48 wine producers from across the globe (of course 42 are from France – 31 from Burgundy), that this will take a turn for the better. An early contribution from Jacques Perrin failed to light my fire, though one from Jean-Louis Laplanche – academic and former owner of the Château de Pommard – was good. The monographs that follow, range from extremist (Charlopin) to the anarchic (Dagenau), from the thought provoking (Lafon) to the compellingly mad (Lardière or Joly – to your taste!). One might reasonably assume that 48 monographs on the same subject might become rather laboured – but this is largely avoided and they are all great sources for quotes!

Whilst I was perhaps a little harsh of Jacky’s pre-amble, the juxtaposition of some articles and indeed his (presumably) introductions to the people concerned often do him no favour; for example about Nadine Gubine;

“…this remarkable winetaster, recognised as such by her peers, applies herself to making all these wonderful Grand Crus sing as precisely and harmoniously as possible…”

I’ve not yet had the good fortune to meet Nadine, but given that we are talking about the Jacques Prieur estate which has certainly not been the brightest star of recent years, and that this is dovetailed to a truly excellent article by Dominique Lafon did make me laugh. Talking of laughing, if you want real fun try reading the contribution by Jacques Lardière – he comes across as some sort of completely mad scientist – I was impressed, but didn’t understand a word!

One of my favourite parts was the ‘interview’ with Claude Bourguignon – fascinating, but maybe that’s my scientific Anglo-Saxon perspective.

For all my quibbles – and I would say that about 50% of the content did little to inspire me – I can heartily recommend this book because it contains some truly inspiring material and this remaining 50% is absolutely worth the outlay.

Burgundy Report

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