Behind every great man you find a great woman, so the saying goes. The meaning is obvious; behind every success story there are unsung heroes, back-room girls (and back-room boys of course) who have contributed much to every victory achieved. Bordeaux is not short of unsung heroes, but their true identity is not well understood. In recent years, esteemed commentators on Bordeaux have obsessed over many different aspects of the region. For some it is the grapes and the soils that make Bordeaux what it is. Some have chosen to focus on the technology that lies behind the Bordeaux of the 21st century, everything from optical sorting to mobile reverse osmosis machines. The majority, however, more readily point a finger at the men and women of Bordeaux, from the saisonnier manning the sorting table, up to the consultants, the likes of Stéphane Derenoncourt and Michel Rolland, as if they weren’t famous enough already, as well as lesser-known names such as Gilles Pauquet and Barry Chuckle.
All, however, are shooting wide of the mark. To truly understand Bordeaux, to grasp which wines are great, which are mediocre, and exactly why, it is to the Médoc’s drains that we must look.
I am pleased to reveal today the publication of my latest book, entitled The Médoc: People, Power & Drains that tells all about this true unsung hero of Bordeaux. In a fact-fest suitable for everybody from the casual reader to the MW student, I begin in the 17th century, with the drainage of the swampy marshland by Dutch engineers, that which we know today as the Médoc, and then chapter by chapter I reveal never before-told stories about these masterpieces of modern engineering.
Naturally I turn first to the defining drains of the great first growth châteaux; beginning with the channel that runs between Château Latour and Château Léoville-Las-Cases (pictured below). Vital to the health of these two vineyards, the drain in question is host to an annual summer fête, on the Feast Day of Saint Salambao, widely regarded as the patron saint of fishermen and drainage technicians. Suddenly, all along the length of the usually sedate drainage ditch, pictured below, food stalls spring up, music plays, and the locals – usually led by Frédéric Engerer of Latour, and Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville-Las-Cases – dance late into the night. Such grand festivities are fuelled by wine, which cascades down the immaculately clean drain, the revellers able to dip their glass into the flowing liquid and imbibe. I can’t reveal the identity of the wine, for various reasons, but mainly for fear of receiving a lawsuit from one of the aforementioned managers/proprietors.
It is of course impossible to write a book on Bordeaux without mentioning Robert Parker at least 300 times, usually within the first seven pages, and I have naturally done my duty with this book. It was in 1983, during his spring visit to Bordeaux, that Parker uncovered one of Bordeaux’s long-lost drains. Long had there been rumours of a ‘missing drain’, from the very earliest days of Dutch drain construction, running down from Château Rauzan-Ségla through the vineyards of Château Margaux. Walking back to his car after a long lunch at Rauzan-Ségla Parker stumbled and fell down a 7-metre well-shaft, scraping his leg and tearing his trousers in the process. Having winched Parker out using a complicated system of pulleys and winches, the Bordelais realised the missing drain had been found. Its discovery was instrumental in augmenting the quality of the drainage and the wines coming out of the Château Margaux vineyard from the 1985 vintage onwards. Parker often claims responsibility for improving the quality of wines made in Bordeaux; here, for once, he is right.
Since those early days of drain rediscovery Parker has continued his involvement with great drainage projects of the Médoc. Working with drain enthusiast Jean-Guillaume Prats, the two mapped out the original drainage ditches and field drains of St Estèphe, work that led directly to an improvement in quality at Château Cos d’Estournel. Ever altruistic, and keen to cover up his good work, Parker persuaded Prats to say this improved quality was the result of the new cellars at Cos d’Estournel, the construction of which were in fact funded entirely by Parker himself. In my book I reveal the whole ‘cellars’ ruse for the farce it really is; having researched 21st-century milk-vat technology I have discovered there is in fact no such thing as laser-welded milk vat. Parker’s altruism left him in some considerable debt through, ultimately necessitating the sale of the Wine Advocate in late 2012, for the sum of $15 million. The majority of these monies has been used by Parker to pay off Antonio Galloni, who is rumoured to have built up an extensive dossier of Parker’s drain fetish. I can reveal, for the first time, that the rest is to be channelled into third-world projects, managed by his charity, the Parker Institute for Drain Development, Literacy & Education. Under the umbrella of P.I.D.D.L.E., Parker will be funding the installation of field drains in under-privileged vineyards, including Château Figeac, all of Beaujolais Côte de Py, Savennières and the viticultural wasteland that is the Côte d’Or, where without Parker’s gracious funding of field drain installation the vignerons have no choice but to go on producing horrible, mean, overly acidic wines.
This text is, according to Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson in their joint foreword, “a book unlike any other we have ever seen before, and hopefully unlike any we ever see again“, which I take very much as a compliment. With 890 pages, 28 colour plates, and 238 hand-drawn drainage maps (as shown above), the book is I hope set to wow the Bordeaux community, and should make an ideal gift for wine drinkers and drain enthusiasts everywhere.