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Wine Books: William Echikson

Echikson is a wine columnist for Wall Street Journal Europe, as well as bureau chief for Dow Jones, based in Brussels. His major contribution to the little world of wine has been through the penning of Noble Rot.

William EchiksonNoble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution (2004)
William Echikson
W W Norton & Co Ltd
Available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)
ISBN-13: 978-0393326949

Echikson's Noble Rot was due for publication in UK and Europe in 2004, having already been released in the USA, but the book stumbled at the final hurdle, the obstacle in this case being a last minute legal action from Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, the paternal figure that headed up Château d'Yquem for so many years. It was reported that this wasn't his first attempt to stymie publication of the book. Freshly printed copies were pulled from the shelves, and release parties hastily cancelled. Such events give some clue as to the subject matter contained within this book, but with such objections now settled, we are all free once again to judge for ourselves.

Echikson is both journalist and wine lover, and the latter can perhaps be traced back to his visiting Bordeaux as a schoolboy, a trip which took in Château d'Yquem, although he admits it made little impression on him at the time. Nevertheless, it seems he is eminently qualified for an investigative examination of just how much Bordeaux has changed over the past few years. There is much of interest in the book, but first one must make it through the opening pages which have an overly sensationalist style, giving the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting in Bordeaux (in this case, for the 2000 vintage) the full tabloid treatment. At this point I groaned; is this style to persist through the whole book? Will this book tell me anything new or worthwhile?

Fortunately, things improve as you read on. Deeper in the book there is much of note, and Echikson moves into an affable, readable style rather than the sensationalism with which he opens. I began to enjoy reading this. Unsurprisingly, the juiciest detail surrounds the gradual diminution of Comte Alexandre's hold over Yquem, until the final coup when power was wrested from him by his family and handed on a platter to Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH. But there are other stories presented here, interwoven with that of Yquem, although that is obviously the most meaty and rightly has given the book its title. Echikson looks at the rise of the garagiste wines, again at a personal level, following the tales of Michel Gracia, Jean-Luc Thunevin and others. On the left bank, properties are revitalised by new blood, as Daniel and Florence Cathiard of Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Yves Vatelot of Lascombes are featured. The consultants take a turn, as Echikson follows the early-rising Michel Rolland around, crossing paths here and there with Stéphane Derenoncourt (incidentally the proof-readers have failed to spot the misspelling of Derenoncourt's name, which had me cringing). The "democratic Parker" is in there too, being graciously thanked by those who have seen the light, being unfairly criticised by journalists, attacked by vicious dogs and as a result scarred for life and generally, it seems, righting many of the wrongs of Bordeaux. Many other figures take their turn on the stage, although in each case they play a clearly defined role. Echikson's message seems to be that all Old Bordeaux was bad. Proprietors were old-school, paternalistic figures that made rubbish wines and then sold them on without a care, and they were unsurprisingly unseated as "newfangled" ideas swept through Bordeaux. But our newfangled boys are different; they wear jeans and sweaters, or baseball caps. They zip about in trendy BMW sports cars. They really care about their wine and the people who drink it, or at least all the talk of extraction, oak and regular consultation with well known oenologists suggests they care about something, but I suspect it is as much points and prices as it is people. These are good business practices (although we could argue all day about the merits of the style of wine that results), but it doesn't make them saints.

Echikson sums up, "Although the economics of fine wine may no longer look so bright, the quality of elite Bordeaux has taken a giant leap forward". This is Echikson's preconception, and if one can see past the biased representation of some of the most influential figures of relevance to Bordeaux, and maintain your own critical appraisal of the debated events and personalities, then this book makes an excellent and informative read.