Bordeaux book is love letter to region

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

Like many a British wine writer, Oz Clarke earned his spurs with Bordeaux reds. In his entertaining new book, “Bordeaux — the Wines, the Vineyards and the Winemakers” (Sterling Epicure; $35), Clarke recounts his “first love” in wine — a memorable bottle of 1962 Château Léoville-Barton at an Oxford University Wine Society tasting.

The enthralling aromas of black currant, cedar wood and tobacco, the austere, dark-fruit flavors and the dry, yet furtively sweet, finish of that first bottle startled Clarke with delight. He enjoyed the wine so much that he forgot to take his date for the night to dinner.

Clarke went on to taste more great Bordeaux, “the most intellectual of red wines, the most ascetic and the least frivolous.” He traveled frequently to Bordeaux to learn its landscapes and producers in depth. He even worked as a harvest picker wallowing in early rains and mud near the Gironde River.

The passion and commitment paid off, eventually, as Clarke helped lead Oxford to a well-publicized upset over Cambridge University in a wine-tasting competition. It marked an impressive accomplishment by any measure, let alone for a lad coming from a family that drank no wine with meals.

The success bolstered Clarke's confidence to pursue professional wine interests in writing, radio and television. Using his other skills as an accomplished actor and singer, he developed a direct, energized and entertaining style novel in Britain's hidebound wine world. Dozens of books later, he has won numerous international prizes recognizing his unique talents as an informative and entertaining communicator.

Through the decades, Clarke witnessed rapid changes throughout Bordeaux. So, while his new book reads partly as a love letter to his abiding passion in wine, it also marks Clarke's assessment of Bordeaux in the contemporary wine world.

His nuanced, comprehensive narrative depicts Bordeaux's vast wine production from every conceivable angle. The unique terroir, dramatic history, byzantine business practices, hearty cuisine and leading personalities all come into clear focus.

Clarke pulls no punches discussing contemporary Bordeaux's problems. The region still churns out oceans of indifferent, cheap wines at the lower levels. And some top-level producers have fallen prey to modern fashion by creating concentrated, highly alcoholic “fruit bombs” calculated to gain international cult status and quick cash flow.

To navigate the contemporary shoals, Clarke provides informative, opinionated profiles of producers within Bordeaux famous subregions such as the M é doc, Graves, Sauternes, Pomerol and Saint - Émilion . True to his unpretentious approach, though, he also highlights nifty, noteworthy producers in the lesser-known subregions.

A slew of outstanding maps and evocative color photographs enhance Clarke's guided tour of Bordeaux. Many photographs depict discrete, highly personal views of the surrounding countryside that Clarke has visited — and occasionally camped in — so extensively over the years. In this sense, the book has a highly romantic and even wistful feel.

But never fear. Clarke's incisive, yet humorous and self-deprecating voice resonates throughout to move the story along briskly. All in all, “Bordeaux—the Wines, the Vineyards and the Winemakers” would make a terrific holiday gift for any wine enthusiast.

Meanwhile, decant these tasty Bordeaux reds for a couple of hours before enjoying them with braised lamb shanks:

2009 Château Perron Lalande de Pomerol, France (Luxury 36435; $23.99): Located on the so-called “Right Bank” where merlot-dominated wines prevail, Château Perron traces its roots to 1647.

The 2009 wine's dark color offers plum, tobacco and chocolate aromas. Dark-plum and currant flavors with spicy notes balance with fresh acidity. The deft use of only a third new French-oak barrels resulted in smooth tannins carrying through the elegant finish. Highly recommended.

2009 Les Fiefs de Lagrange Saint-Julien, France (Luxury 36572; $35.99): The well-regarded Château Lagrange from the “Left Bank” crafts this “second” wine for early drinking. Yet, the wine has plenty of classy flavor and texture in its own right. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot grown on gravelly soils, the wine's penetrating color offers subtle cassis and leather aromas.

Ripe currant and mint flavors with understated French-oak notes lead to fresh acidity and smooth tannins. The elegant finish lingers pleasantly. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone is the wine columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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