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In "Bordeaux Legends," Jane Anson traces the 500-year history of the five world-renowned Bordeaux wines known as “first growths."
BORDEAUX LEGENDS: The 1855 First Growth Wines of Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild By Jane Anson. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 288 pages. $55.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
One of the most frequent questions I entertain is, “Why do certain wines cost so much?” A definitive answer can be found in “Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines of Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild,” by Jane Anson. The 2010 vintage of the first growths is currently fetching more than $1,200 per bottle, but there is more involved here than just pecuniary concerns.
Anson’s book, scheduled for release in April, details the history of these five top chateaux, back to their beginnings in the Middle Ages. This top-quality production features stunning photos by Isabelle Rozenbaum reproduced on luxurious paper. Diligently researched, it describes the legendary families who own these estates, which today operate as both history museums and wine production facilities.
The reader travels back in time to the beginnings of Bordeaux, when white grapes were mixed with red, and brief skin contact time resulted in light, weak wines. In the 1650s, Arnaud de Pontac at Chateau Haut Brion began macerating entire grapes, including skin, pulp, pips and juice, for longer to extract more color and body from the wine. Arnaud also introduced the idea of associating a particular parcel of land to a specific branded product.
In 1794, during the French Revolution, Joseph de Fumel of Haut Brion was seen by peasants as loyal to King Louis XVI and met his fate at the guillotine in front of enthusiastic crowds.
In the 20th century, the vineyards faced devastation and occupation during the two world wars. Chateau Mouton Rothschild was added as a first growth in 1973 after an intense lobbying campaign by Baron Philippe Rothschild.
The final chapters of the book depict the way business is conducted today. En primeur, or wine futures, begins in mid-March as wine merchants arrive at the chateaux and taste the soon-to-be-released wines, taking notes and making decisions. Those not on the guest list are not admitted.
The one thing that remains constant is the chateaux owners’ relentless quest for the absolute highest quality wines. The Bordeaux region is uniquely suited for wine production with deep gravel soils held together by a particular sticky type of clay and a climate that in good years will produce spectacularly concentrated and flavorful wines.
I was captivated by the book from cover to cover. Jane Anson was kind enough to answer a few questions that I sent her.
Q: I would imagine that the book required intense research and travel. What inspired you to undertake such a project?
This is my first wine book. I have co-authored others, but this was my first solo wine title, and I wanted to write something that told a story. So many wine books are guides as to which wines to buy, but for me the greatest thing about wine is that it has a natural narrative — each bottle tells a story of the person that made it, the conditions at the time and the economics governing its sale. I have lived in Bordeaux for almost 10 years, and it has some of the greatest wine stories in the world. And I couldn’t believe that this particular one hadn’t been told before.
Q: How did you become interested in wine education, and what was the first wine that you found memorable?
I’m from Oxford, England, and my only real childhood wine memories were having an egg-cup full of wine, diluted with water, at Sunday lunches at home from quite young, maybe 8 years old. But neither of my parents were really wine drinkers — my father prefers real ale, while my mother drinks very little at all.
I first became interested in wine when living in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s, drinking mainly Italian wines. In 1996, I had a life-changing trip to South Africa, where I visited the winelands and drank a Nederburg Syrah that I loved. I bought a bottle to take across Africa with me to meet a good university friend in Zanzibar. We opened and shared the bottle out of plastic cups and chatted about our lives. Wine has rarely tasted as sweet.
I started dating my husband, back in London in 1997; he was a Bordeaux lover, having pretty much memorized his copy of Michael Broadbent’s “Bordeaux Wine Atlas.” I probably drank my first serious bottles of wine with him. When our first daughter was born, I wanted to freelance, and we decided to move to France. We considered Burgundy, but decided that Bordeaux was closer to home, and I knew there would always be a good market for stories from Bordeaux. So we moved here, and I began studying for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams — and writing for Decanter magazine.
Q: You discuss the fact that the Chinese have become major customers of the first growths and that the tasting notes are provided in Chinese at the chateaux. Do you expect that trend to continue?
The fascinating thing about the Bordeaux top estates is that they were developed for overseas tastes (the New French Claret style was specifically developed in the 17th-century for the English market), and they have always been exported. Whereas Bordeaux wines in general are only 40 percent exported, the first growths head over 90 percent export. So the Chinese are simply the latest in a long line of wealthy and demanding overseas consumers who buy and collect these labels. I imagine the power will remain with the Chinese for some time. There is a lot of growth in the Indian market, plus South America. There is not a country in the world where you can’t find yourself a bottle of Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion or Margaux — wine icons to many people around the world, which is one of the things that drew me to write the book.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone planning to visit Bordeaux?
I would say this is a wonderful time to visit Bordeaux. Right now there are huge projects going on both in the city and vineyards, and chateaux are more and more open to wine tourism. Among the estates I would recommend visiting are Chateau Soutard and Chateau Villemaurine in Saint Emilion, Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte and Chateau Haut Bailly in Pessac Leognan, and Chateau Lynch Bages in the Medoc. As of this summer, the new winery and museum at Chateau Mouton Rothschild will be finished, and that’s going to be unmissable. Downtown, there are a few new projects that should be finished by 2016 — the new wine cultural center, a high-tech sports stadium and vast arts center along the riverbank, to be known as Meca.
Q: What would you like for readers to take away from “Bordeaux Legends”?
I hope above all that they enjoy it — some of my best feedback so far has been that it can be read like a novel. It’s also been beautifully illustrated by photographer Isabelle Rozenbaum (it won Best Wine Photography at the Gourmet Book Awards in Paris last month), and there is the foreword from Francis Ford Coppola. I hope readers are convinced that the first growths are not just about money and big business — that they have earned their position through centuries of hard work, reinvestment and love. Their story is really the story of Bordeaux, of fine wine, and many key historical figures have a walk-on part, from Louis XIV, Charles II and Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson and Li Peng. Finding out just how many global stories are intertwined with theirs — the political fights between France and England, the French support of the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the world wars, the various global financial crises and global swings of power … it’s all in their history.
Q: Do you have any future books in mind?
I have just finished translating a book for Jean-Michel Cazes, the owner of Chateau Lynch Bages, which is out in mid-May with Glenat Publications in both English and French. It’s part memoir, part recipe book looking at the history of Lynch-Bages and the Medoc region, and more specifically Cazes’ own life. He has selected recipes that mean something to him, or that are reflective of the Medoc, and the fact that the region was built by successive waves of foreigners. It’s a lovely book and has been a pleasure to translate. But for my own next project — I have a few ideas, but I want to make sure I find a story as compelling as that of the first growths!
Gordon Kendall’s column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.
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