Revisiting the Classics – Alexis Lichine and The Wines of France
Recently, I have been reading older wine books – most of them written by legendary wine writers. Perhaps my new found enthusiasm for the classics has been born out of a desire to understand current trends in winemaking and preferences by consumers. In addition to satisfying my inner history geek, works published decades before the rise of Parker and the Wine Spectator are, frankly, more interesting reads. For consumers, the Wine Advocate, the Spectator, Wine and Spirits and countless other magazines, newsletters and blogs, can be invaluable. However, a growing number of wine writers today fail to incorporate the rich history of their subjects into their content unless it relates directly to their scoring system or opinions of the wines they review. Books, especially older texts written by the masters, should be mandatory reading for anyone looking to understand the origins of not only their favorite wine and/or region, but also the roots of their sense of place.
Last week, in between working, running, watching the American League East pennant race and sleeping, I managed a few minutes to burn through The Wines of France, written by AlexisLichine and originally published in 1951 Alfred A. Knopf. In the 1950s Lichine cut his teeth selling estate produced wines from Europe. And in the 60s, as William Bolter writes in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion, Lichine“left the commercial world to make wine and write books.” And the latter is what we concerned with for today’s purposes. The Wines of France is one of the first exhaustive treatments on French regions, wines and wine makers. Lichine doesn’t write specifically about too many individual wines, but each of the wine making departments of France gets its due. A few winemakers, especially those in Burgundy, receive additional attention. Lichine’s France compares well with Clive Coates’ work, The Wines and Domaines of France, first published in 2000. I am not sure if Coates and Lichine ever spoke about the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but if they did, I certainly would have enjoyed being in the same room.
As is the case with any book I read, I mark up whatever I am reading for easy future reference. I understand that underlining, dog ears and scribbling notes in the margin can also be performed on an iPad, but I’m not yet ready to give up on my method. Anyhow, personal preferences aside, below are a few of my favorite quotes from The Wines of France. There isn’t a particular rhyme or reason to what I have chosen – these are passages that stand out to me as they communicate their message in a manner that jumped off of the page to me and might be enjoyable for you to discover as well.
“The most elementary details about wine history and wine drinking form a basis for understanding the wonders that wine possesses. In the excitement of drinking wine these simplest elementals are often forgotten.”
“There is probably not a hill, slope, or plain in France where vines can grow that has not been planted at one time or another, and it is through the trial and error of the past twenty centuries that today’s vineyards have gained their greatness.”
“Wines are living things. Each has its own distinctive character, and most of them are good to drink. The enjoyment is there for everyone, sparkling in the glass. The difficulty comes in trying to talk about it.”
“A great wine is usually defined as one that is true to type, excellent year after year, and long-lived. Such qualities as being distinctive, consistent, and long-lived may seem at first to be arbitrary, but they are not. A great wine should be expected to reflect the outstanding qualities of the soil from which it comes, and to do so whenever the weather gives it a chance, year in and year out. A wine has characteristics that take years to develop (balance, bouquet, and finesse are three), and if a wine cannot live long enough to reach its prime, it is not considered great. That is why those who make their living from wine think of wines as individuals and constantly personalize them.”
“The Abbé [honorary director of the Wine Station of Bordeaux in the 1940s] thought that no specific classifications of wine can be made, for wine is not arithmetic. There are no sharp standards of measurement, just as there are none for paintings or the perfumes of flowers, and he pointed out that the rose has one smell, the lilac another. The only standard is your own taste.”
“Destroying great wines by blending, or by planting poor plants in great soil so that a lesser wine is made, is inimical to the perfection for which vintners strive. The wines are reduced to the lower common denominator. When such wines are fraudulently sold as great wines at double or treble their worth, the buyer can notice nothing in wines to get excited about and dismisses them at a howling pretension. Such wines are.”
“And Dumas is said to have declared that Montrachet ought to be drunk kneeling, with head bared. Almost everybody has something commendatory to say about great Burgundies, and usually the same thing, several times.”
“It is Morey-Saint-Denis that one begins to discover the wonder there is in wine.”
“It is in Chambolle-Musigny that you again notice the startling differences in the wines of Burgundy.”
“The great wines of Vosne-Romanee are, to many, the supreme examples of great Burgundy. Their balance is magnificent, no one characteristic standing out, but all being superb, and together forming a wine that has a perfection almost unequaled.”
“Burgundians say that when the wine is in the vineyard, you must be a good lover, and when it’s in the barrel, you must be a good father.”
“In Burgundy, wine is made neither for profit nor for entirely and purely altruistic purposes. Making wine is something inevitable and irresistible, and it is not merely because of the endless risks that vintners are realistic. The making of wine is absorbing, and the vintners know it.”
“These wines of southern Burgundy are different from the great Cote d’Or wines in another way: you swallow them, you don’t sip them… By the time you get down to Provence, the wines are guzzle wines. It’s not a quest of temperament, but of geography.”
“The Loire peasant is as gentle as the country he tends, easy-going and cheerful, a farmer interested in the wonders of the land as well as what it produces, and that sets him apart from his Burgundian counterparts, concerned with more earthy matters. ‘Vieille France’ is what the French call the vale of the Loire, and if Paris is the heart of France, the Loire is its soul.”
“The vineyards of Muscadet lie far down the river, near the city of Nantes. They are the only classified vineyards in Brittany. All of the wine is white, pleasant and dry, these wines are most appealing with oysters and seafood. Prior to the control laws, they were openly blended with Chablis, to stretch the supply of that scarce and famous wine. Now these wines have achieved great popularity not only in French restaurants but also abroad. The constant price increases of white Burgundies coupled with greatly improved winemaking methods have helped to give Muscadet a justified vogue.”