The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide, by Neal Martin
The iconic Simon & Garfunkel album Bridge over Troubled Water provided me with many listening hours as a student. It was also once the foundation of my life’s greatest spontaneous pun, more than a few years ago, when relaxing in a hot tub on a family holiday.
“Wouldn’t it be great”, piped up one of my children, who were all fixated on holiday games, “if we could play cards while we were in the jacuzzi”.
“Sure”, I replied, as quick as a flash (honest), “we could have a game of bridge over bubbled water”.
I was suitably pleased with that off-the-cuff response, but it is believed people in the next county heard the ensuing groans.
What has this got to do with Neal Martin’s newest creation, The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide? To answer that question, we need to delve a little deeper into this book’s genesis.
Back in prehistoric times, or at least pre-Covid times, in the days of his Wine Journal website, Neal – who (just in case you have been living under a rock for the past fifteen years) subsequently went on to write for Robert Parker at the Wine Advocate, before joining Antonio Galloni’s team at Vinous – maintained a guide to Bordeaux vintages, complete with details of the growing season, the harvest and the wines. And, in typically quirky style, he included a few historical details for context; a notable film, music release or memorable event that characterised the year.
That vintage guide disappeared from view as Neal moved on, but it was never lost. It was merely pushed into a corner of the Wine Journal office, shrouded in dust sheets. Come the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic Neal made good use of his enforced isolation; those sheets were whipped away, and the guide greatly expanded and embellished. It has now reappeared, not online, but in print. The breadth of vintages covered has increased to describe a pleasingly round 150 years, from 1870 to 2020 (which is in truth 151, but let’s not split hairs). And those historical trivia snippets remain, now expanded with more reasoning and detail. Put it all together and it makes for a weighty tome, and while it has some informative introductory pages describing life in the vineyard and a basic guide to the Bordeaux region, the meat of it are those vintage reports, divided into decades.
What has all this got to do with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over
Bubbled Troubled Water? Well, I challenge you to open this book and not turn first to the vintage of your birth. So I went to 1970 (yes, I know, I look much younger…..no sniggering at the back please) and was shocked to not find my own arrival in this world recorded as a monumental moment in the history of wine (oh come on, it’s obviously a joke). Instead I found Neal’s words on this album, released in the year of my birth and his choice for 1970, along with the year’s notable event, the disruption of the Miss World competition by feminists, and his favoured film, the unsurpassable M*A*S*H. The latter certainly resonated with me; like many I was addicted to the spin-off television series which dominated the comedy airwaves during the 1970s. I felt suitably confused when I finally got around to seeing the original film only to find several of the main characters played by different actors, a head-scratcher for any innocent ten-year-old.
And then there is the vintage report (see, I haven’t forgotten this is about wine), a detailed description of the climatic highs and lows of 1970, with Neal’s words on the wines, all tasted during his many years spent tasting, buying, trading and eventually writing about wine. Having absorbed every word I now know which wines to look out for, including a number of the usual suspects such as Palmer, Domaine de Chevalier and Ducru-Beaucaillou, but also some less obvious choices including Greysac, Potensac and Poujeaux. If only some benevolent godparent had laid down a few cases for me all those years ago (if anyone reading this knows the identity of my godparents, please raise your hand) I would be able to check in now to see if I concur.
Mention is made of numerous significant figures pertinent to the little world of wine, more specifically the little world of Bordeaux, perhaps most poignantly Michael Broadbent MW. His tome Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting over Three Centuries of Wine was published more than twenty years ago now, and while that text was broader in terms of vintages and regions covered its peremptory style has always meant it is most useful as a work of reference rather than pleasure. The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide is a worthy successor to that work, but being written in Neal’s incomparable style, with more depth and detail on the character of each of the vintages along with Neal’s cinematic, historical and musical vignettes it all makes for a very different and much more engaging read. I know I shall certainly enjoy dipping into my copy in future years. Probably when the cases of 1945, 1947 and 1949 cru classé Bordeaux arrive from anonymous benefactors keen to enhance my knowledge of these vintages (address available on request).
I couldn’t resist checking in on Bridge over Troubled Water while scribbling these words, the first time I have listened to this album in more than a few years. Now I’m off to see if I can do the same with Neal’s corresponding film choice, so hopefully I can find M*A*S*H on Netflix or some other streaming service. I mean the original 1970 film of course. You know, the one in which Hotlips Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman, not Loretta Swit, just in case you were wondering. (11/3/23)