Julian Barnes

Did You Get Black Truffles on the Nose?

Chateau Latour: The History of a Great Vineyard 1331-1992

By Charles Higounet (ed) (Translated by Edmund Penning-Rowsell)

Segrave Foulkes 572pp £145 order from our bookshop


By Asa Briggs

Faber & Faber 250pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

On 14 June, Christie’s auctioned the cellar of a well-known wine authority and burnt Lloyd’s name. At the heart of the sale were two ‘super-lots’ of 195 and 197 cases, for each of which the reserve was a trifling £200,000-300,000. One sold for £200,000, the other for £340,000. Elsewhere, reserves were exceeded to such an extent that foreign buyers who had flown in especially for the sale kept their hands stuffed Atherton-style in their pockets. There was a man in a blue suit who, whenever he required a lot, simply raised his palm and kept it aloft until the wine in question was knocked down to him. It was rumoured – and denied and rumoured again – that he was bidding on behalf of one of our plumper knights of the musical theatre. Whether or not this was so, the prices achieved staggered even blasé vintners. A case of 1982 Mouton-Rothschild, which normally sells for £1,200 or so, went for £3,100; cases of 1947 Cheval Blanc (reserve £10,000- 15,000) for £16,000 to £18,000 each; three bottles of the fashionable super-Tuscan Sassicaia (reserve £200-300) for £1,200.

So the answer to the question ‘But who would buy a wine book costing £145?’ is ‘Probably lots of people.’ To the current owner of that case of 1961 Latour (estimate £3,000-4,000, sold at £5,600, plus 10 per cent buyer’s premium), this sumptuous and sturdy volume would cost no more than twenty-one centilitres of the nine litres he – or, more improbably, she – bought. And since the Christie’s catalogue note states the ‘61 Latour ‘will need a full half-century to come round’, the buyer will have something to read while waiting out the next seventeen years. Alternatively, the book costs thirty-seven centilitres – nearly half a bottle – of the 1959 Latour from the same sale, a wine described by Christie’s as ‘like Jane Russell, mean, moody and magnificent’. And, like Jane Russell, still apparently very much with us.

There are three categories of wine book. The first are guides, like those of Robert Parker, which seek to offer practical help in the purchase and consumption of wines – though their effects are often contrary, adding feverishness to the acquisition (‘I’ve landed a 95-pointer!’) and self-consciousness to the drinking (‘Did you get black truffles on the nose?’). The second category consists of historical surveys and château profiles, the latter often little more than disguised puffery, since the author will have been given privileged access to the archives, and will have been vetted, if not actually chosen, by the château, will have been wined and dined until he – or, occasionally, she – is practically wearing the château’s label as a blazer badge. Famous wine houses are nowadays international businesses, and no less good at promoting themselves than Nike and Benetton. Thirdly, there are books of almost no practical value but which appeal to the nostalgic, fetishistic or cork-sniffing side of oenophilia: celebrations, anthologies, reminiscences of the wine country and its colourful characters, evocations of people and vintages often long since dead. The wine buff will often buy such useless treasures second-hand and will employ them to induce harmless reverie, rather like leafing through an old Sears Roebuck catalogue. The strangest book I know in this last category is André Simon’s Tables of Content (1933). It consists of nothing more than 121 short accounts of luncheons and dinners Simon ate between 1928 and 1933: he lists location, host, guests, wines and food, following this up with a paragraph to a page of gastronomic annotation. There is also an index, not just of wines drunk, but also of hosts and guests, so that we may easily look up the pre-war munchings of Buster Malmo, Commander Tuffill or the Hon Drogo Montagu. (It might, who knows, help a biographer of Hilaire Belloc to know what was heading down his digestive tract in the late afternoon of 19 November 1930: plain omelette, fillet of beef, cheese and coffee, awash with 1915 Romanée, 1919 Corton, 1911 Chambertin, 1904 Romanée and 1830 Hine.) Many of the meals seem button-popping, and the company predominantly blokeish, but Simon’s notes convey a powerful sense of both epoch and pleasure, whether he is having a clubby dinner in London or eating ‘Chou de cocotier’ in Mauritius, or attending the Anti-Prohibition International Congress in Copenhagen (‘The 1908 Graham was absolutely delicious, full, fresh and fruity, grateful to the palate and probably most helpful down below when it met lobster and gosling arguing about their share of the bedclothes for the night’). When things go wrong, Simon’s malice is kindly, like that of most wine-drinkers. Dinner 94 is located simply ‘somewhere in the West’, and his host granted anonymity as ‘One of the best of men’. The annotation begins: ‘So kind and so keen to do the right thing, having spared neither expense nor trouble, poor X failed completely. Really pathetic. Mushroom soup, salmon with mushrooms, chicken with more mushrooms and a dish of braised mushrooms coated with cooked cheese to finish with. How I wished I had never said or written that I liked mushrooms!’

Disasters of this sort happen much more rarely in books of the second category. Or rather, the things that do go wrong are sent from outside to try the heroic château-owners: items such as the French Revolution, the German occupation, hail, drought, floods, phylloxera, mildew and oidium. Disasters are there to be triumphed over; owners (or, at any rate, recent owners) are always doing their best, even when the world is less than the best possible. Greed, corruption, exploitation of employees and sharp practice turn up as rarely in the literary genre that is the château profile as does premarital bonking in Barbara Cartland. (And just out of interest, were there no collaborators in the vineyards during the last war? I’ve yet to read of any.) Of course, these books tend to be commissioned when the château is rich and its label famous; even so, it would be a nice change to read some day of an estate where the vineyards were wrecked, the workforce pissed, the proprietors fraudulent and the wine disgusting. In the meantime we have Asa Briggs: ‘I would not have written this book, however, had I not been invited to do so by the Duc and Duchesse de Mouchy, and they, along with other members of the Dillon family (who now own the vineyard) on both sides of the Atlantic, have given me great encouragement – and offered me memorable hospitality – throughout the inevitably protracted period of my research.’ Well, yes. Briggs does his little nods and bows, and writes with the bonhomie of a trusted courtier. He imparts all the key information that official sources will disclose about Haut-Brion; he writes effectively about the wider history of the Bordeaux wine trade (which perhaps should have been his subject in the first place), and fascinatingly about the city under the Revolution, when the owner of Haut-Brion was sent to the guillotine. But it is not for nothing that the name Asa Briggs, as a New Statesman competition entrant pointed out, is an anagram of Sir Gasbag. He just can’t help the pompous and the self-referential: ‘The year 1938, when I went up to university, was only an ‘average year’, rather like 1939, the first year I visited Bordeaux before war reached it…I have never tasted the 1955, the year of my marriage’. He is also a generous quoter of the gasbaggery of others. Take this insight from that ‘great citizen and long- time Mayor of Bordeaux’, Jacques Chaban-Delmas: ‘The spirit of a city takes bodily shape, so to say, across time and across the history that defines, affims and perpetuates both its identity and its raison d’être.’ Not much will have gone missing in the translation.

It is, no doubt, the fault of the genre, but Haut-Brion avoids controversy like a corked bottle. Briggs praises Edmund Penning-Rowsell’s ‘thoughtful and wide-ranging’ The Wines of Bordeaux, but does not quote its author’s judgement that ‘vinously the château has had its ups and downs in this century’. Briggs is ‘deeply impressed’ by Robert Parker and his ‘outstanding personality’, but does not refer to Parker’s assertion that the château produced ‘simplistic’ claret in the years 1966-74: ‘Whether this was intentional,’ Parker writes in Bordeaux, ‘or just a period in which Haut-Brion was in a bit of a slump remains a mystery. The staff at Haut-Brion is quick-tempered and sensitive about such a charge.’ Briggs also manages to blandify the potentially interesting anecdote. There is a story about Malcolm Forbes (‘who died while I was carrying out research for this book’), who at one extreme famously bought a bottle of Jefferson claret for $156,000, and at the other several hundred bottles of 1965 Haut-Brion for $5 a throw. ‘Forbes described himself as an appreciator of wine rather than as a collector, and he was a shrewd appreciator at that, a man who liked a bargain,’ Briggs notes. He records Forbes’s opinion that the 1965 got ‘better and better’ each time he drank it, the owner of Haut-Brion’s view that Forbes had been ‘quite right’ to have bought the wine, and ends by nervelessly quoting the Haut-Brion brochure to the effect that the wine is ‘astonishing for the vintage’. Sir Gasbag concludes: ‘Six thousand cases of Haut-Brion were produced in 1965. The comparative figures for 1964 and 1966 were 17,500 and 19,500. Forbes obviously knew what rarity meant.’ Among the fawning and the back-slap-ping lies a moderately interesting story about the penny-pinching of the super-rich. Of course, the reason the 1965 is ‘rarer’ than those on either side of it was because of climactic conditions which made it one of the crappiest of all postwar vintages, in which Haut-Brion produced a marginally less crappy wine than some of the other first growths. And would any vineyard-owner ever willingly dump on his own wine in overt contradiction of a millionaire client? I once attended a vertical tasting of a second-growth claret in the presence of the owner and her business manager. Among several excellent vintages there was an obvious super-dud of a 1958, which should long since have been emptied straight into the vinegar mother. When the owner arrived for the tasting she asked her manager in some puzzle-ment why they were showing the 1958. Because we have several hundred cases of it left,’ he replied . Whereupon, a few minutes later, she rose to her feet and gave measured praise to the lesser-known but arguably undervalued 1958.

Château Latour is an English rescission of La Seigneurie et Le Vignoble de Château Latour, a 450,000-word, seven-academic volume published in French twenty years ago. It will tell you all you want to know about the history, ownership, soil, vines, grapes and wine of a great estate, and then some – and then some more. It is, finally, a work of reference, that’s to say, the reader who boldly or naïvely attempts to treat it as narrative will inevitably be reduced to the helpless squeaking stage at some point. My own crisis came just over halfway when I hit the section headed ‘Modernisation of the Drainage System’: ‘In March 1886 he [Justin Roux] paid Leglise and Latrille, drainage experts from Langon, 1871.50 francs for the installation of drains in three plantations: the Grand Enclos, the Grand Faure No 1 and the Gravette. They laid 2,508m (8,276 ft) of cement pipes and 323m (1,065 ft) of cement drains.’ After this I was practically yelping with pleasure over the enthralling account, a few pages later, of the installation of the telephone at Château Latour.

Edmund Penning-Rowsell’s presence as rescinder and translator makes for clear prose and peppery footnotes. Some of the latter make you wish he had written the whole volume. For instance, there was a decade-long, lawyer-enriching scandal at Latour in the 1830s and 1840s concerning the régisseur Lamothe, who after his death was convicted of siphoning off a fair percentage of the house product for his own purposes. He had indeed been dipping more than his tastevin in his employers’ liquid, but it was also true, as Penning-Rowsell points out in a necessary footnote, that Lamothe was working for greedy absentee proprietors who underpaid him. As this adjustment implies, Château Latour, like the rest of the genre, is very much the bosses’ record. How could it not be, since theirs is the documentation? Vignerons’ diaries are in short supply in this or any other century. Estate workers tend to come into château profiles only when they kick up trouble (rarely), are irritatingly conscripted in to the army, or mysteriously decamp to the city in search of modern pleasures. From time to time they are praised. In his report for the year 1936 Comte René de Beaumont, the administrator of Latour, noted his ‘grave anxiety about the social order. Right in the middle of the sulphuring period strikes burst out in a number of places in the Medoc. Thanks to the moderation and loyalty of our staff, appreciative of improvements spontaneously offered before any claims, the domain escaped the contagion and was able to round the danger-point of the sulphuring without a hitch.’ Nor is it just potentially stroppy workers who are put in perspective by the primacy of the wine and the needs of its vendors; so too are world events. In 1938 Europe gulped as Hitler met Chamberlain at Munich. The view from Latour read as follows: ‘The crisis was fortunately too brief to affect the picking.’

The grand solipsism of this line reminds us that wine prefers its own chronology. History may occasionally interfere (Haut-Brion became a Luftwaffe rest-home in 1940), and wine may occasionally nod back to history with ‘victory’ and ‘bicentennial’ vintages, but for the most part the grapes go their own way. Wine depends for its existence firstly on the soil, secondly on the weather, and only then on human competence. The gravel beds which give the Médoc their essential character developed over a million or so years; the distinctive topography of the Bordelais evolved over the next 600,000; while the top dressing of Landes sands blew in over the final 230,000 years. Which puts Munich in its place, let alone the seventeen years you are planning to wait for your ‘61 Latour to come round.

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