Book Review – Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson
“…the soil of Yquem is like that of a Stradivarius”
– Lur Saluces
The second edition of the on-line Wine Book Club is being hosted by Tim over at the venerable Winecast.net blog. For more information on the WBC, or to jump on in and participate yourself in a book review, check out the official Wine Book Club website and the the Shelfari WBC reader group.
This time around, Tim has chosen Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson. The book is not short on accolades, having been a James Beard Foundation Award finalist. Echikson is also no slouch of a writer, having worked for Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and written a handful of other well-received books (on wine and other topics).
The Low Down
Noble Rot centers (for the most part) on the history (ancient and recent) of Chateau Yquem, the Sauternes-based makers of some of the sweetest, most expensive, and most intoxicating elixirs known to winemaking…
Similar to Hungary’s famous Tokaji, the sweet wines of Sauternes receive their special magic by virtue of the fungus Botrytis cinearea (aka noble rot). The fungus draws out the water and concentrates the juice left in the grapes while on the vine, and also imparts exotic hints of yeast to the final ultra-sweet wine. High in acidity and sugars, the wines of Yquem are typically capable of aging for decades, if not hundreds of years, while still retaining sweetness and fruity complexity.
Nature doesn’t always cooperate to provide the right environment year-on-year for noble rot – so sweet Yquem is not always produced in every vintage, and grape selection is a laborious (and therefore expensive) process.
[ On a side note, I’ve often wondered who the first poor schlep was that decided to ferment the grapes affected by Botrytis. Like lobster, there is nothing appetizing about their appearance; that person must have been really, really desperate at the time – “I don’t give a sh*t what they look like – throw them into the vat!”… ]
The result is an ultra-expensive, ultra-complex wine, from a Chateau with extreme cache factor (having been run by a single family of nobility for generations). Even at restaurants where it’s offered, Yquem doesn’t always make it onto the wine list.
“With a big spender who doesn’t know anything about wine, putting a bottle of Château d’Yquem on the table is like giving a Porsche to a 16-year-old.” – Aaron Brown, Sommelier of L.A.’s Ortolan restaurant.
The term “noble rot” could also be applied to the nasty struggle for power within the ranks of Yquem itself, to which Echikson devotes a good portion of the book.
Most interesting for me in Noble Rot was how Echikson skillfully details the work ethic of love-him-or-hate-him wine critic Robert Parker. It’s fascinating to watch how a small parcel of Right Bank Bordeaux land, modern winemaking techniques, and a rising Parker score can take a Bordeaux family from near-poverty conditions to fame and fortune (as was the case for the makers of Valandraud), culminating in bad blood between business relations. As Jacques Thienpont (the force behind the similarly meteoric Le Pin) says in Noble Rot: “Life is like a river… You follow it and it takes you on a strange course.” Some stranger than others, no doubt.
Buy It or Skip It?
This is a tough call for me. The book is certainly well-written. But I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer. If you can put yourself in one (or more) of the following categories, then you’re liable to love Noble Rot and should probably buy it as soon as possible:
a) You love you some Bordeaux wine
b) You prefer your history shaken, & with a twist of gossip
c) You are in the wine industry.
Otherwise, you may enjoy it as a decent read – or you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why Echikson is spending so much time dealing with stuffy old EU nobles fighting each other over stylistic differences and the merits of class. “Just pass the damn Le Pin already!” you may find yourself shouting. So, I hesitate to recommend this book to the casual wine aficionado – there are more accessible (and equally interesting) reads out there for the budding wine lover.
I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer.
Lur Saluces (who heads Yquem) has said that “Yquem basically belongs to those whom love it and no matter from whence they come… it belongs to its admirers.”
In other words, it’s not for everybody. And neither is Noble Rot.
(images: amazon.com, antique-wine.com, och.free.fr)