There’s a medieval watchtower buried in the undergrowth at the 9.8ha Château Biac in the southern Bordeaux appellation of Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux. The estate offers lovely views across a curve of the Garonne: it’s long been a strategic position – hence the watchtower, and evidence that a major Roman crossroads lay close by.
I’ve driven past the sign to Cadillac dozens of times, on my way to the much more celebrated appellation of Sauternes, but next time I’m going to take a detour and visit Biac – its wines are excellent, according to Jane Anson in Inside Bordeaux – the châteaux, their wines and the terroir.
The great charm of this excellent, scholarly book, published by Berry Bros & Rudd as a counterpart to Jasper Morris MW’s Inside Burgundy, is that it’s peppered with details like the watchtower at Biac. “Disinterring it, they say, is high on the to-do list”, Anson tells us – and there you have, in a couple of sentences, 2000 years of Bordeaux history, from the Romans in their togas cleverly siting strategic crossings to a present-day vigneron telling a visiting journalist he’ll get round to finding that watchtower one day, but he’s got wine to make first. The fact that Biac is owned by a British-Lebanese couple is somehow doubly satisfying in this great melting pot of a wine region.
The historical sections are just one of the strengths of the book. Anson, who lives in Bordeaux, has been writing about the region for nearly 20 years, in the form of hundreds of articles for the likes of Decanter, the South China Morning Post and – full disclosure – Club Oenologique. In 2012 she published the magisterial Bordeaux Legends, a history of the five first growths, for which she was allowed unprecedented access to the archives and libraries of the châteaux.
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Inside Bordeaux goes broad as well as deep. Anson has visited and/or tasted 800 châteaux, and while the great properties are covered in impressive detail, from north to south and east to west, Lalande-de-Pomerol to Francs Côtes de Bordeaux, the smallest commune and property is also given attention. Anson injects warmth and humanity into her descriptions. Here she is for example on the Marsaudon family of Château Monteberiot in Côtes de Bourg. “Marie-Hélène worked for a wine merchant…Gilles was in exhibitions before moving to Blaye…Excellent terroir at this spot, on limestone and clay slopes with a variety of different exposures.” You can imagine the writer sitting at the owners’ kitchen table, glass in hand and notebook at the ready.
The book’s coverage of the smaller AOCs is its great strength. Haut-Bailly and Haut-Brion have been written about a thousand times but Anson’s view that Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux (for example) is an AOC to watch, is worth noting, as is her championing of such properties as Ch Le Puy in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux – “One of the great unsung wines of Bordeaux.”
Another strength is the weight of research, especially into soil. The author’s stated aim is to assess the region “as we more typically do for other fine wine regions such as Burgundy, Barolo or the northern Rhône – by its soils.” For this she has enlisted the expertise of experts such as professors Kees Van Leeuwin, David Pernet and Pierre Becheler.
Again, a subject that could be dry is sparked into life. The six soil “terraces” are explained (geographers and soil scientists codify the gravels by such parameters size and origin – T1 gravels tend to be 30mm in size, compared to the larger T2 galet stones, and so on) and then contextualised. For example: Petrus and its vineyards sit on 40 million-year-old “sticky blue clay” that retains water efficiently making it “wonderfully protective” in the heat of summer. This is ”quite unlike almost all other Pomerol soils” except – as we see from one of the splendid double-gatefold maps that unfurl throughout the book – for a tiny lozenge of deep clay in neighbouring Lalande-de-Pomerol, on which sit Ch Tournefeuille and Ch Chambrun. I hadn’t heard of them either, but they have vines on exactly the same soil as Petrus and I’m going to take a good deal more notice of them in future.
This is a book no Bordeaux lover should be without
Anson is an engaging writer with an informal style that leavens her serious subject matter and makes it eminently readable. Here we have a glimpse into the life of a 17th century courtier who would ride four hours to get to Pauillac; there an aside on the unharnessed potential for good white wine in parts of Barsac, Listrac, St Emilion and Entre-deux-Mers. There’s a welcome lack of vintage-by-vintage tasting notes, which are tedious to read and so readily available as to be redundant in a work of this scope.
Other omissions I was disappointed by. En primeur is given rather cursory treatment; Anson entertainingly gives her views on many other subjects and I’d like to hear more of what she thinks about that annual circus. The book would also have benefitted from better photography to match the excellent maps: there’s an odd 30-page section with rather similar low-res aerial shots of terroirs that doesn’t really add much. And editing could be tighter overall – the chatty style occasionally becomes too casual – but that will be cleared up in subsequent editions, of which I predict there will be many.
This is a work of formidable scholarship, well-indexed (always a sign of serious purpose) and backed by some of the most eminent academics working in Bordeaux today. Eschewing the weighty academic style in favour of accessibility, it sets out to bring a new perspective to the world’s most famous wine region and it succeeds. This is a book no Bordeaux lover – or wine lover of any stamp – should be without.