Wine Books: Neal Martin
Neal Martin is a UK-based wine critic who started out as a wine trader, but whose writings on his website, Wine Journal, soon attracted a huge following. Today he writes for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate.
Wine Journal Publishing
Available from www.pomerolbook.com
Once little more than an underdog backwater, viewed as we might look at Fronsac or the Côtes du Bourg today, Pomerol is now recognised as one of Bordeaux's major communes, spoken of in the same hushed tones as Pauillac or St Julien. It has come a long way in the past fifty years or so, and yet it also remains distinctly different from the other 'big name' Bordeaux communes; with no classification system, and a patchwork of small, often family-owned vineyards, peppered with farmhouses rather than châteaux (it is not uncommon to hear it likened to Burgundy rather than Bordeaux), it is a world away from the grandeur of the left bank. And even now, in the early 21st century, while other appellations seem immutable, Pomerol continues to change and to grow. Neal Martin, one-time wine trader, writer for Robert Parker's Advocate, and - most importantly perhaps - Pomerol devotee, recognised that this change was ongoing. And perhaps he also saw that, truthfully, Pomerol has never been dealt with in print with the same respect so often shown to the châteaux of Pauillac, St Julien, Margaux and the like. The result of his devotion, and of his observations, is this book, a long-awaited tome; it has taken Neal at least three years to pen these 600 pages. I was delighted to recently receive a copy for review.
Once past the dark grey cover wearing its orange-red title (a colour scheme continued within), the first glance suggests there is nothing revolutionary to Pomerol; in its general layout it is quite typical, being divided into four sections. The first provides, as we would expect, an overview of the appellation, its history, the grape varieties, the terroir (a particularly impressive section which casts a new light on the appellation) and so on. The second gives a run-down of the top names of the appellation, from Beauregard through to Vray Croix de Gay. In the third part we are treated to an encyclopaedic distillation of everything Pomerol, every vineyard, cru or château not already covered in part two receiving a mention here, both those in existence today and those of purely historical significance. And the fourth and final section provides us with the miscellany, a vintage guide, glossary, acknowledgements and so on. And so it seems as though this is like any other wine book you have opened. Except, of course, that it isn't, as what matters is not the format, but the content, and in this respect the book is unique; begin to read and a portal into Neal's world opens, and the Pomerol of today, in the opening years of the 21st century, an evolving Pomerol undergoing evolution (if not revolution), is laid out before your eyes.
So what is it that makes this tome so unique, so worthwhile? There are many different notable facets to the book, and I will try to touch on as many as possible, in the order in which they struck me. First and foremost, Neal explores Pomerol in detail. A great amount of detail; this is no light-hearted review from a distance; Neal has travelled to the region many times in writing this book, that is clear. He has met and interviewed many proprietors, including all the leading figures of the appellation. This work has generated profiles of huge depth and scope; Petrus, for example, is the subject of 26 pages of discourse, largely a historical account taking in the estate's evolution under as well as the Moueix and Berrouet families, but also a description of the vineyards, vinification and Neal's opinions on the wines. This is one of several profiles to be blessed with a hand-drawn map of the vineyards (I picked another at random to show here - pictured above is Clos du Clocher). In all cases it is the proprietors who have drawn these for Neal, that for Petrus having been the work of Olivier Berrouet. These maps certainly help to enhance the connection between the reader and the men, women and vines behind the wine, and are perhaps one of the most attractive and innovative features of the book.
Although detailed and information-rich the text throughout the book is also very personal in tone. The book is journey-like at times, albeit a fractured and dancing journey as we flit from cru to cru in alphabetical order, nevertheless it certainly engenders the feeling that Neal is in Pomerol, meeting and discovering, rather than writing from a mahogany-lined study lined with dusty manuscripts (which was often the sense I had with some other authors who have written at this level of detail about Bordeaux). There is a real honesty to the work, as Neal brings the words of the winemakers he has interviewed direct to the page rather than presenting only his own interpretation. The tone remains fresh and open throughout, one example being the description of his truffles faux pas which opens his discourse on La Fleur de Gay. These more light-hearted moments do much to enhance the readability of the book, breaking up and illustrating the information within.
I also found Neal's inclusion of a number of fictitious vignettes to be worthwhile for the same reason. Significant events in Pomerol's history, such as Madame Ducasse on the telephone in 1990, discussing the sale of Château L'Evangile, or the in-car conversation between Jean-Pierre Moueix and his friend Maurice Malpel after the frost of 1956 had laid waste to the vineyards of Pomerol, are played out for us on the page. Some sense of Neal's personal journey through Pomerol, which of course began many years before writing this book, is given in his reports on the region's landmark wines which appear in little side-boxes. And Neal's sense of mischief also comes across in a secret (un-indexed) inclusion of one château not within the boundaries of the Pomerol appellation, but which perhaps should be (I shan't give the game away; you will have to figure out which it is for yourself). All these features help to lift Pomerol above the status of reference book, or text book, and make it readable. Considering the encyclopaedic level of information within, that's quite an accomplishment.
Search as I might, I failed to identify any downside to this book. Each profile is illustrated with a single black and white double page photograph of the proprietor(s), each one the work of Johan Berglund, otherwise photographs are used sparingly. This doesn't really feel like a problem though, the balance of text to images and side-boxes feels about right. At first I rued the absence of a map, until I found it on page 37, my stupidity on not locating it earlier only amplified by the realisation that every major profile provides a grid reference for the map in question, and cites the page. Having said that it is not a detailed map with regard to the châteaux, but then as Neal points out were he to plot every château the map would become a useless sea of little red castles. A map focusing on a broad representation of the terroir is perhaps more useful, and one is provided a few pages later. And in other areas, even when some elements of the book surprised me, Neal was there with his reasoning for the offending inclusion or omission. I was, for example, confused by the appearance of the unknown Clos Saint-André in Neal's major profiles, but there was relief when I turned to it to find that in his opening paragraph Neal admits he had never heard of it until recently either. And I was also surprised to see Château Hosanna not included in his regaling of the major châteaux, but instead relegated to the 'other estates' in part three. But then as Neal explains in his account, it is there because of "so many missing reels in its history." I felt as though Neal was one step ahead of me at every turn, which of course as an author who knows his subject matter inside-out he should be.
This is a very valuable text, from which I am sure I will learn a lot, partly because it is so detailed and novel, partly because Neal's writing style makes it so easy to read. I am sure Neal, who already knew Pomerol like the proverbial back of his hand anyway, has also learnt a lot about the region in writing it. It is, for Pomerol, a ground-breaking work, one which firmly cements this appellation and its wines among the Bordeaux greats. It is a treatise on this small but very important commune which, I believe, will not be bettered within our lifetimes. Clear a space on your favourite bookshelf as soon as you can.