Book Review: Lewin on Claret & Cabs

Benjamin Lewin MW, Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Vendage Press (to be published May 1, 2013).

What is it about the tension between Burgundy and Bordeaux that casts such a spell on wine enthusiasts?  I’m not really sure. They say that in Bordeaux you talk about wine and in Burgundy you drink it. Bordeaux is cerebral — you feel it above the neck according to popular opinion — while Burgundy arouses the senses down below. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

Jean-Robert Pitte wrote a great book about the “classic rivalry” between the two wine cultures and Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin seems bitten by the bug, too.

That’s So Typical!

Lewin (a renowned scientist — he was the founding editor of the journal Cell), has written a lot about wine in a short time. He began with What Price Bordeaux?  (2009) followed by Wine Myths & Realities (2011), which I use in my university class.  In Search of Pinot Noir appeared last year and now this book on Cabernet Sauvignon.  What prodigious output. Amazing.

Lewin values typicity in wine, so it is not an insult for me to say that Claret & Cabs is typical of his work. Extraordinarily well researched and written, the facts and insights jump off the page in a way that draws the reader deeper and deeper into geography, geology, history, economics, viticulture and so on through all the senses that wine embodies.  The discussion of clones that appears early in the book is a good example. It taught me so much in just a few pages — outstanding.

And I like the way that Lewin tells part of his story through the voices of the dozens of winemakers he interviewed on his fieldwork travels. As always, I appreciate that he doesn’t hesitate to take on difficult questions, weigh the evidence, and reach a bold conclusion.

The books on Pinot Noir and Cabernet are as different as, well, Burgundy and Bordeaux.  The conventional wisdom (at least on Route Nationale 74)  is that Burgundy is Burgundy and everything else is [merely] Pinot Noir, so  Lewin scoured the globe for the Holy Grail — a Pinot Noir made somewhere else in the world that could match the highest Burgundian standard, especially in terms of ability to age. He discovered a lot of great wine in the process, but the verdict he reached is that Burgundy reigns supreme, at least for now.

A Different Premise

Claret & Cabs starts with a starkly different premise.  It’s not really clear that Bordeaux is now or ever was the uniquely best place in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. The center of the Cab world may well be California’s Napa Valley — or perhaps Bordeaux and Napa should uncomfortably share the global spotlight in the same way that Burgundy and Bordeaux compete for attention  in France.

The book divides itself in various ways.  There are about 300 pages of generously illustrated text followed by 200 pages of detailed tasting notes. Napa and Bordeaux are the main foci, although the analyses of the other important producer areas — Washington State, the Mediterranean arc that reaches from the Languedoc to Tuscany, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa — are very thorough.

I haven’t done a formal page count, but I’d guess that Bordeaux and Napa get about equal space in the book (including the fascinating closing chapter on “Cults and Icons”.) But I think that that Lewin leans in on the Napa side of the debate just a bit, infusing it with a palpable (to me) electricity and excitement.

A Burgundian Bias?

Maybe it is Lewin’s Burgundian bias creeping in? Yes, I think that’s it, but not in a the way you might expect. Every Burgundy fan that I have ever known has had a detailed map on a wall somewhere in their house that shows the famous vineyards and climats and so forth. The complexity of Burgundian terroir is reflected in the wines — the best wines, at least — and is an almost irresistible muse.

The Napa Valley is a complicated place from a geologic standpoint. Pressures from three tectonic plates shape the landscape and expose a variety of different different soil types from gravel to clay to volcanic residue and different specific characteristics including the alluvial fans that apparently account for some of the qualities of my favorite wines from Rutherford and Oakville.

If you love the diversity of terroir, as Burgundians do, then I guess you have to love Napa — isn’t that an unexpected thought! And although Cabernet is not generally classified as a “terroir wine” (Riesling and Pinot Noir are usually cited as the defining “terroir wine” varieties), you can tell that Lewin believes that in Napa it really is (or can be in the right hands).

Lewin puts Napa on a pedestal at least as high as Bordeaux’s but — significantly — he doesn’t deny the possibility that Cabernet wines from other regions might rise just as high in their own particular way.

Claret & Cabs is a great read and I think will prove its worth down the road (“age well”) as a reference, too. Bravo!

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Did you know that the British nickname for Bordeaux blend wines — Claret — comes from the fact that they originally were light (clair or clear), low in tannins and light in alcohol (less than 10%)? Nothing at all like the image of Claret today!

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