A stunning piece of wine journalism

Monday Book Review

December 30, 1991|By Michael Hill

BORDEAUX. By Robert M. Parker Jr. Simon & Schuster. 1,027 pages. $35. JUST in time for festivities of the solstice comes a new, thicker, more expensive, second edition of Robert Parker's "Bordeaux," an encyclopedia of tastes and smells of the wines from this most famous grape-growing region of France.

This is really a stunning piece of wine journalism. In just over a decade of serious, professional tasting, Parkton resident Parker, who publishes the internationally influential "Wine Advocate," has sampled, evaluated and cataloged virtually every wine made in this area over the past two decades. For the better estates, the evaluations go back 30 years or more.

It's amazing. Before Parker, tasting reference works tended to be broad, general guides that would steer the reader toward favored regions or chateaux. Not only does Parker rate each wine he tastes, he gives it a grade just like the one the strictest teacher you ever had in high school handed out. Right there, in cold, hard numbers, is Parker's judgment as each wine is rated on a scale of 50 to 100.

This new edition of "Bordeaux" contains almost twice as many pages as its predecessor, published in 1985. Parker does include a few new pages of observations and musings about the state of wine in general, and Bordeaux in particular, at the beginning of this edition.

But the bulk of the added pages is taken up with tasting notes on six additional vintages -- bringing the judgments up to 1989 -- and including many, many, many more wines, a lot of them the lesser known, less expensive labels that plenty of wine lovers have been driven to by the ridiculous escalation of prices for the products of Bordeaux.

It is also stunning how many tasting notes from the first edition have been updated, often substantially changed. Parker is no slacker in this wine-tasting game.

The second edition is better organized. It's still arranged by the various sub-regions of Bordeaux -- Paulliac, Margaux, St. Estephe, etc. -- which means that if, like many of us, you can't remember which label goes with which appellation, you'll spend a lot of time in the index.

But unlike the first edition, the appellation in question is printed at the top of each page. And within each appellation, the chateaux are listed alphabetically, not in order of prestige. So, it's much easier to thumb through this volume and find what you're looking for.

And thumbing through is exactly what everybody does with a book like "Bordeaux." Whether you're planning your next purchase at the local wine store or trying to evaluate the condition of the cases aging away down in your cellar, you scan the pages of evaluations, looking for those scores in the 90s, those scents of truffles and cedar, that lush fruit, the lingering finish.

Parker's palate is not only sensitive; it is impeccable in its consistency. Try looking up his notes after you have opened a bottle from your cellar and see how often he puts into precise words exactly what you were trying to express about the wine.

Unlike so many in the wine evaluation business, Parker is also a man of complete and absolute integrity. You know he's reporting what a wine tastes like, not what nice accommodations he got from the chateau owner on his last visit.

But the strength of these evaluations -- their objectivity and precision -- is also their weakness. Winemaking is an art, not a science. There is no absolute scale. To give each wine you taste a numerical rating between 50 and 100 would be like going to the Monet show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and grading each painting in a similar fashion.

Parker includes disclaimers, admonishing readers to make their own judgments. But these brief statements are overwhelmed by page after page of numerical grades. What should never be forgotten -- and oft is by those who take books like "Bordeaux" too seriously -- is that wine is not made to be judged or graded, but to be enjoyed.

Michael Hill is The Evening Sun's wine and television expert.

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