It s extremely rare - dare I say even unique? - for a distinguished scientist previously unconnected with vines or wines to be let loose on the history of Bordeaux. It helps that he is sure to conduct his research with a rigor not generally found among wine writers, to ask awkward questions, and not to be put off with the many answers that don t satisfy his standards. Moreover, the scientist involved, Dr Benjamin Lewin, cannot be accused of ignorance about wines - he s a Master of Wine as well as a world expert on genes.
Is anyone here a subscriber to Cell, the review he founded, let alone a reader of books like his Molecular Basis of Gene Expression?
As a result of his background, What Price Bordeaux? ranges far wider and deeper than the title would suggest, covering most of the major elements in Bordeaux s fascinating history and curious ways with unique - yes, that word again - thoroughness. My approach, he writes, is more quantitative than has been common for a subject that is usually viewed somewhat subjectively - a rather dour-sounding attitude that happily does not in the least prevent a clear writing style. Moreover, the book's readability is greatly helped by a series of exemplary charts providing all sorts of useful information, such as that emphasizing the unstoppable rise of Merlot over the past few decades, not only on the Right Bank but in the rest of the Gironde as well.
To my great joy, one of Lewin s most penetrating analyses demonstrates the lack of correlation between Parker s scores and market values. Retail prices for Parker's 95-pointers for the 2005 vintage varied from $600 for Chateau Margaux down to a mere $44 for Chateau Monbousquet, another wine made by one of Parker's heroes, Gerard Perse, he of Pavie fame. Moreover, one of his charts demonstrates the way in which the garage wines so beloved of Parker proved to be a transient phenomenon that started to fade with the Millennium. In fact, as Lewin clearly proves, the biggest single factor in determining the price of a wine is the one it fetched in the previous vintage. There is considerable inertia with regards to changing the relative prices of chateaux, he says. Christian Seely of AXA Millesimes reckons that this delay can be as long as ten years for improvements, if quality resulting from investment is to be reflected in the price of the wine. This delay is exploited by many a buyer confident enough of his or her palate to cash in on improving wines before the cautious and lumbering market has caught up with their progress.
Inevitably much of the ground he covers is familiar, but he usually finds something original to say even on such well-known subjects as the drainage by the Dutch of the marshes along the Gironde, which, as he points out, lowered the overall water table and thus helped the quality of the wine produced on the precious gravel along the Medoc. Looking at the very varied wines produced in 1855, neat or fortified, he can legitimately ask whether there were in fact any consumers who knew the taste of the unadulterated wines of the Medoc at the time? I was also glad that he agrees with me, implicitly anyway, in stating that grafted vines were introduced rather later than the 1890s indeed, that the Graves wasn't completely turned over to grafted vines until after World War I.
Even a keen error-spotter like me is rarely able to find a quibble, though my eyebrows did shoot up when, in the context of the region s many vintages of the century, he says that 1961 is now all but forgotten. There are still a few worth drinking, and I hope that the royalties from his excellent book will enable Dr Lewin to buy a bottle of Palmer. --Nicholas Faith, Fine Wine Magazine
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