Wine Books: Jacqueline Friedrich
Jacqueline Friedrich is an American journalist who settled in the Loire, and has made her name writing on the region, and its wines in particular, ever since. Her Wine & Food Guide to the Loire is the definitive guide to the region in print. Starting with the first of several volumes in 2011, this guide is in the process of a long-overdue and welcome updatte.
Can there be any more hotly awaited title in wine than that of Jacqueline Friedrich's updated text on the wines of the Loire? The original, A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire (reviewed below), is perhaps the only comprehensive work in existence which systematically explored the Loire, region-by-region, domaine-by-domaine, reviewing and rating all from Muscadet up to Pouilly-Fumé. Throw in some information on local delicacies, restaurants, hotels, street markets and the like and we had, in Jacqueline's original work, the ideal guide for not only the wine drinker, but also the wine-orientated traveller. It has, though, long been in need of an update, an update that has been long-promised. Here, at last, is that update.
Recognising the daunting nature of the task ahead of her Jacqueline has decided to split this new masterpiece into three manageable chunks (although I wonder, as the project rolls out, whether that number won't increase - there is a lot of ground to cover in just two more books). In volume one we are in The Kingdom of Sauvignon Blanc, as Jacqueline has named it, looking at the wines of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and all the lesser appellations of the central vineyards such as Châteaumeillant, the Coteaux du Giennois, Reuilly and Quincy. Those familiar with Jacqueline's previous work will recognise the format that follows; we have a run-down within each appellation of all the important domaines (and some not-so-important, perhaps). They are ranked according to the same (or at least only slightly modified) system used in 1996, with the leading domaines designated as outstanding or excellent, and so on down the ranks to those estates that are by the glass - worthy of glassful, but don't buy a whole bottle! The main modification is the new hypernatural category to allow for those domaines following a non-interventionist philosophy; where the wines are worthy such an estate can be ranked within an appropriate category, but otherwise they go here. In Sancerre, for example, there is one estate ranked as hypernatural (meaning too natural, perhaps?), this being Sebastien Riffault, of course.
Jacqueline describes herself as a wine humanist, and this comes through in the book; in some ways it feels almost like a diary, quite personal, documenting visits to meet vignerons and the selection of wines tasted. Reading it, the domaine reports come across as snapshots in time rather than anything more encyclopedic, perhaps as a result of this approach. Reading her profiles I'm never quite sure if we have looked at a slice of what any particular vigneron does, or whether we have the whole picture. This may in part be down to the very chatty style of Jacqueline's writing, as she leads us through a visit or a tasting. There are, as an example of this style, no formal tasting notes, not in the way they are usually presented anyway; instead Jacqueline's opinions on specific wines are buried within the text, usually preceded with a little background information on vineyard or vinification. That makes the text very readable (I know how dull lists of tasting notes can be) but it also engenders the feeling that we have a journal-style 'update' on a domaine rather than a comprehensive overview.
One other consequence of squeezing opinions on specific vintages into the text is that it will also make the book feel dated before its time; such were my thoughts on the 1996 version, which provided some good background information but it always came wrapped up in opinions on vintages from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which - by the time I was reading it - were thoughts that felt very old. And the wines were impossible to find at retail. Sometimes, in this book, we are even whisked into Jacqueline's residence for extended tasting reviews, looking at a wine's evolution over time. Under Alphonse Mellot, for instance, one-third of a page is dedicated to her evolving opinion on the 2008 Génération XIX Sancerre Rouge; having opened the bottle at her kitchen table on day one at 11am, we are treated to reports on the wine from tasting at opening and at 7pm, on day two at 6pm and on day three, again at 6pm. This is a very valuable exercise for a wine writer to undertake, and I applaud Jacqueline for tasting in this manner, but mixing it in with the text like this feels disjointed. My comments on integrating notes and text still stand; the domaine reviews would have more gravitas - and be easier to navigate - if the rich information within were a little better sorted and organised on the page.
There is no doubt in my mind that this book is a valued addition to the wine lexicon, especially if we narrow our focus to look solely at those books dealing only with the Loire. No other book deals with this region so comprehensively, and I am looking forward to reading what Jacqueline makes of the rest of the Loire vineyards in volumes two and three. There are some particularly fine nuggets of information within it, even for those already very familiar with the region. The comments from Edmond Vatan on how Sancerre, now part of the Loire, was once considered part of Burgundy, are particularly fascinating. Think about it; it makes sense. Sancerre is not that far from Chablis. The terroir, Kimmeridgian chalk, is a common theme, as Jacqueline explains in her introduction. And the grape varieties also provide some link; you can of course find Sauvignon Blanc planted around Chablis (Sauvignon de St Bris, anyone?) and there is Chardonnay planted in the Loire's upper reaches.
Coming back to her words on Kimmeridgian terroir, this is another delightful nugget. Jacqueline gives a few words on this terroir which runs across northern France, beneath Sancerre, Chablis and the southern reaches of the Champagne vineyards, terroir which has a huge impact on the style of the wines here. Sadly though, Jacqueline touches on this only lightly. For me, that was the major disappointment of this book; what it includes is of very high quality, rich in thoughts on wine and people. But, as one of the world's most Loire-knowledgeable writers, I was hoping for more background 'meat' from Jacqueline. More on the soils, the grape varieties, the history, the pros and cons of different harvesting techniques and different vinification methods, thoughts on natural versus conventional farming, more detailed maps (those presented are blocky, poorly printed and serve no real purpose) and more on terroir (there are some geological slices presented - but with no references or explanation in the text I could find). Perhaps I am expecting too much? It is just that, with Jacqueline's pre-eminent position as a Loire-resident (partly, at least) and queen of the Loire wine journalists, a 'magnum opus' approach (remember, there are at least three volumes planned) and a price that will - once you have bought all three volumes - exceed that of, for example, Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine, I was hoping for more than I received.
This book is the product of Jacqueline Friedrich’s stay in the Loire Valley, during which she did a little wine judging, including for the Guide Hachette, although it’s clear a lot of her time was employed visiting over 600 of the Loire’s vignerons. Friedrich writes very well, commencing with an appealing although brief introductory chapter, detailing the regions’ climate, soil, grapes and so on, as well as some comments on local appellation regulations. The bulk of the book, however, is given over to details of her winery visits, tasting the wines and rating the producers. She deals with the different regions of the Valley using a fairly standard, common-sense approach, starting with the Nantais, moving through Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, the Sancerrois to her final stop-off, the little known country wines of the Auvergne. Friedrich has clearly attempted to get under the skin of the local vignerons, and I think she has succeeded. Eloquent accounts of the producers themselves, their attitudes and practices, are accompanied by notes on some of the wines she has tasted whilst visiting them. She rates the producers in a somewhat Parkeresque fashion, according them outstanding, excellent, highly recommended and recommended status as she deems appropriate. Interestingly, however, she also makes note of domaines to watch, as well as those that she considers to be appellation leaders. In summary this format seems to work well, and I consider this a most useful guide to a fine yet sometimes neglected region of France.