April is the time of year when wine people start pricking up their ears, scanning for news from Bordeaux. A few actually go there for the en primeur tastings of the latest vintage in early April, while the rest wait around until their tasting notes are made public. Occasionally, we wonder why we care, since most of the well-known Bordeaux wines are so stratospherically priced. This would be the right time to read Jane Anson’s latest book, Bordeaux Legends: the 1855 First Growth Wines (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2012).
Anson, a veteran Bordeaux-based journalist who is very well-respected in the wine world, has chosen to tell the story of five top-level Bordeaux châteaux and how they became so powerful. These châteaux were selected from the dozens that make up the famous Bordeaux 1855 classification – only it happens that one of them was admitted to the top level much later. How did this transpire, more than a hundred years afterward? Anson reveals the complicated twists and turns in a way that is clear to those who remember the event, as well as those to whom all this is new. And that’s just one of the châteaux she chronicles here.
The five châteaux detailed in this large volume are Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. And when I say detailed, I mean seriously studied. Anson begins with the early centuries of their historic origins, continues on to the placement of their vineyards, and then examines production, marketing and sales through the years and to the present. This is one book that doesn’t shy away from delving into the arcane and intricate processes of getting Bordeaux wines from the châteaux to the public – which is especially interesting, as money is one thing the owners do not like to speak about publicly.
Throughout the book, Anson steps delicately as she negotiates the perceptions and politics of the Bordeaux elite associated with these châteaux, both past and present. Because of the complexities of Bordeaux as a wine region, this is a story that is best for Bordeaux aficionados; readers who have at least some familiarity with Bordeaux wines and châteaux will applaud the depth of the information here. Though this tome is presented as a coffee-table book, it might be a better idea to keep it on the kitchen table where it can be read and absorbed a morsel at a time.
People who have some familiarity with the region and its wines will also enjoy putting faces to famous names, as seen in the vividly colorful photos by award-winning photographer Isabelle Rozenbaum. Indeed, the photos may make readers who have toured Bordeaux homesick for their last trip. Those who haven’t visited yet may find themselves scanning airfares and calendars because the scenes presented in the book are wonderfully evocative of the power and prestige, the beauty and the history of this classic wine region.
One thing I do wonder: why is the foreword by Francis Ford Coppola? Other than the obvious reason: his name is famous. As far as I can tell, he has no real connection to Bordeaux–but oh well, why not?
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 288 pages