Wine Books: Michael Edwards
Michael Edwards read for the Bar before setting out to pursue his true passion. After stints as a wine buyer and chief inspector of the Egon Ronay guide he established himself as an independent wine and food journalist, specialising in Champagne and Burgundy.
With any book, first impressions may sometimes differ from those formed later, when you have delved a little deeper. So it is with The Finest Wines of Champagne (Fine Wine Editions, 2009) by Michael Edwards, the newest entry into the global Champagne library. Edwards has a fine reputation for Champagne, despite being less prolific and having a rather lower profile than that other guru of fizz, Tom Stevenson, so we should expect fine things here. Indeed, a superficial appreciation of the book suggests this is the case. Attractively packaged, printed on firm paper with a strong but flexible card cover, the book feels reasonably weighty in the hand. Those first impressions then; this is very much Champagne through the eyes of Edwards, opening with thirty-or-so pages on history, viticulture and winemaking, before getting to the meat of the book which is page after page of Champagne profiles, divided according to region. The book closes with some notes on vintages, and Champagne gastronomy. Flicking through the book what you can't fail to notice is the stunning photography, occasionally of the region itself, but most often featuring the many personalities of Champagne, from the pensive Jérôme Prévost and avuncular Raymond Boulard, through to more famous names; Anselme Selosse, Christian de Billy, Hervé Augustin and so on. It is the photographer Jon Wyand that deserves the credit for these many and varied portraits.
So, first impressions are good. But what if we delve more deeply into one of these profiles? With a glass of 1996 Belle Epoque in hand, I took a look at Edwards' views on Perrier-Jouët, contained within a three-page missive accompanied by a full-page portrait of Hervé Deschamps. The history of the house is provided in brief, followed by details of Edwards' love for 1985 Belle Epoque and then a run-down of the wines. There are certainly some inaccuracies here; Edwards states the Belle Epoque bottle was inspired by the work of Lalique, when it was in truth based on a design created by Emile Gallé. It was launched in 1970 to celebrate Duke Ellington's 70th birthday, according to Edwards, even though having been born in 1899 Ellington would have been 71 that year. These could perhaps be brushed aside as minor points, but they were not difficult to find, and some simple fact-checking would have prevented this. And being cut from the same cloth as The World of Fine Wine, an erudite and cerebral publication crammed with articles of the highest quality, one would have hoped for better accuracy than this. Likewise, at one point Dom Pérignon's name is accompanied by dates which we would naturally assume relate to his birth and death - but there are 30 years missing. These ambiguous numbers in fact relate to his time at Hautvillers, the abbey to which he transferred aged 30. In addition, the Bollinger profile centres around Ghislain de Montgolfier, who no longer heads up the family firm, this role having been taken on by Jérôme Philipon in 2008; like all printed texts, this one is already out of date as it hits the shelves.
My only other gripe here concerns the tasting notes; turning to a profile to see what Edwards makes of a wine, I usually find he hasn't tasted it. What does he think of Pol Roger's Cuvée Winston Churchill 1993? We don't know, he only reports on a handful of vintages of the Blanc de Chardonnay. And what of Lanson's latest releases, the delicious 1998 and fine, acid-bound 1996 Gold Label? Sorry, only the 1988 and 1981 are tasted. And so on. I realise the book format naturally carries a limitation on space, but what is done to address this? Could there have been an online repository of notes accessed by a code acquired when purchasing the book? Or perhaps he could have focused on the latest release of each cuvée, rather than jolly mini-verticals of selected wines?
Overall, acknowledging these shortfalls, this is still an excellent book. The breadth of profiles is impressive, and it has certainly served to open my eyes to more than a few hitherto unappreciated producers. Edwards' tasting experience and knowledge comes through and what is more his enthusiasm and understanding of the wines in question is also plainly apparent. But this is no encyclopaedia; the profiles of some of the major houses are too brief for that term to be applied (I accept it doesn't claim to be), and the tasting notes section is usually rather sparsely populated. But as an opener to Champagne, a beautifully illustrated introductory guide, this André Simon-shortlisted tome (sadly for Edwards it did not triumph) certainly fits the bill. I recommend it!