I cannot recall how I got to know about Bouquet. I purchased a copy from a dealer on Amazon for $30.00. I read books like this to gain a better idea of how wine was thought about prior to say 1950-1960, before it exploded in popularity in the English speaking countries and turned perhaps a simpler pleasure into the scientifically studied beverage of today.
I also wanted to compare Bouquet with, 'In Search of Wine, A tour of the Vineyards of France' by Charles Walter Berry which details a round trip of France that this famous winemerchant undertook in1934. Our review of this book is here.
I did not expect a lot from Bouquet but how wrong I was. There are many beginnings to the modern dream of spending an extended holiday in France or Italy, or even living there for a year or so, a dream which later spawned its own publishing segment with many best selling triumphs.
Today touring around the wine regions of France is commonplace and has spread to travelling in many of the world's wine regions, so much so that the topic of wine tourism is now studied as a segment of wine marketing courses.
Two English couples, Johnny and Gladys and Rosemary and Humphrey came together in Avignon on September 5th, 1926, and with a newly purchased Fiat spent the next five weeks touring the vineyard regions of France.
They were quickly into a Chateaux Rayas 1920 and the author developed the first of many doubts: "There really are no words to describe wine, its aroma and flavour and aftertaste, beyond those commonly used in wine-merchants catalogues. I had hoped to invent an entirely fresh set, each term as vivid as it was original: but I soon learnt humility."
Then the traveller's, not the author who was unsure, were detecting gun-flint in the whites of Cote du Rhone-a St. Peray, a term now more commonly reserved, unconvincingly, for sauvignon blanc's. Times and fashions change though recently I was drinking a Saint Joseph (Guigal) 2005 and I reflected on Sterns note and indeed they may be right as marsanne does have a smoky-mineral like back palate (although at times this group also use the term for Rhone red wines).
You will warm to Stern's scepticism about wine tasting vocabulary as soon she notes; "We dined at Saint-Remy, on the open veranda over the garden, and drank a Chateauneuf du Pape which tasted like nice chewed grass. This was Rosemary's description, and Johnny and Humphrey said she was right. Personally, I found as little suggestion of chewed grass, even of nice chewed grass, as I had found of rose-petals in Tavel, or of gun-flint in Saint Peray. By this time I was growing humble about my indiscriminating olfactory nerves, and content to accept the verdicts of my friends."
Fortunately she soon forgets her own advice and from a Chateau Grillet 1874 we are given this evocative description: "..silky as poppy petals, with a marvellous new witchery in its flavour: so that I felt like saying haughtily, when offered wine in the future, that I never drank anything less than fifty two years maturity!"
It's soon apparent that these traveller's know there wines and visited; Chapoutier, Delas Freres, M. Louis Calvet, Ch Lafite, Ch Margaux, Ch Yquem, Chateaux Vignan [? perhaps Ch De Rayne Vigneau], Chateaux Filhot, Chateaux Latour Blanche, Ch Ausone, M. Jaboulet-Vercherre of Pommard, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, as well as touring the hill of Cote Rotie. They loved wine with bottle age though they began most meals with the local white wine and finished with an aged cognac.
In the age of grading we take a star or point classification of wine, restaurants and hotels for granted. They were guided by a newly purchased Michelin which until 1926 only graded hotels. In that year Michelin introduced a one star system for the best restaurants. While many of us have travelled to France and dreamt of discovering an unknown sensational restaurant the reality is, it's not going to happen.
Well they still could; "When we left Le Puy the next morning, we saw by the Michelin that it was a run of 45 kilometres to Sauges; there at the Hotel de France, marked only with an egg cup and spoon, we might be able to have a tolerable lunch."
Nine courses later they left in silent awe.
"When we went down, we spoke a few dazed words of thanks and praise to Mme Anglade, the proprietress, a thin, quiet wisp of a woman. Ah madame, she replied, "I was perhaps a good enough cook once....But one gets old and one loses courage.."
[Both Elizabeth David and Mrs Fisher had similar experiences and I thank all that I was at Alain Chapel shortly before he began his rise to fame]
Madame and Her Staff at Hotel de France, Sauges.
In Bordeaux the introduction they had to M Calvet, one of the trading aristocrats, produces perhaps the finest passage is Bouquet. This in turn led to Stern displaying her dislike of sweet wines: At the Hotel de Lion d'Or for a lunch organised by M. Calvet they began with a Cheval Blanc 1923; "It was hopelessly sweet, of course, sweeter even than our apprehensions." And next a Ch Siglas-Rabaud 1922 which made the first wine seem dry. And after a trip to Y'Quem when discussing the importance of the discovery of botrytis we are told; ".. which might have produced wine fit for gentlemen to drink-ay, and even ladies,... produced instead this clinging, highly perfumed, luscious, and full-blooded horror known as the great wine of Sauterne!"
At Chateau d' Yquem. Chauffeur of M.Garosse (was M. Garosse an associate of M.Calvet?), Humphrey, Rosemary, M. Garet (Manager? at Yquem), Gladys. Probably Johnny took the picture.*
This is one of several passages that reveal the reason why Stern does not like sweet wines. Long ago she got fed up with men assuming she would like something sweet and feminine. In wine tasting emotions play a strong role.
Midway, Stern unfolds a lovely tension between the couples. Johnny and Gladys had a wine experience with Chateaux Margaux 1899 which confirmed that the greatest reds come from Bordeaux. Rosemary and Humphrey, built around experiences with the wines of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, are equally certain that Burgundy reveals the real truth of wine. So as they travel to Bordeaux the start of the showdown looms and my enjoyment of this book moves up.
Rosemary makes her displeasure of Bordeaux known with, "It's so acid!" she complained. "It pulls my mouth together, and afterwards my tongue feels like blotting paper." And this outburst leads to a series of fine arguments about the merits of each which interestingly make Burgundy seem the reliable choice, somewhat the reverse of recent times.
The case for Bordeaux was put by Johnny.
"The whole trouble about Burgundy is, to my mind, that it's just a straightforward, sound wine...It has a good Burgundy bouquet, and a good Burgundy body, and a good Burgundy aftertaste. It keeps well, and is very rarely disappointing, and that's that.......But Bordeaux........It simply gets you, so that no other wine can ever mean the same again; and if the bad clarets are fifty times worse and fifty times oftener bad than the bad Burgundies..." "They are," interrupted Rosemary.
With lunch they had a Chateaux Petrus 1913. "......it just did not appeal to me: the Petrus was too like Burgundy, and not enough like Bordeaux!" says Gladys though Humphrey and Rosemary liked it.
Later Gladys and Johnny had their hearts broken. "But at dinner that second night at Libourne, we gave the Bordeaux region its last chance, and in a spirit of desperate defiance ordered a bottle of 1887 Latour, not chateaux-bottled, but still perhaps..Perhaps, and maybe, and yet-might-it-be-possible...
Rosemary shook her head. "Rather poor!" was her verdict. "It makes my tongue feel as though it had been sandpapered!"
From Bordeaux to the Loire and Burgundy and as the end of the trip looms they check into a hotel in Macon noted for a fine Burgundy cellar; alas it has changed hands and is being renovated. The mood is dirty. Rosemary then gives us one of the great wine passages of all time: "I'm never going to recommend any place again!" said Rosemary, vehemently. She was not very far from angry tears. "Never again! This is what always happens if I do. I wish we hadn't stopped. I expect the cooking's frightful. I don't suppose there'll be any Romanee-Conti. This is what always happens!"**
With only a few nights left together they spend the evening in Vienne. If only they had dined at La Pyramide. Fernand Point opened in late 1922 and surely would have been in the 1926 Michelin. Maybe not, yet so near and how valuable the description would now be.
As for the enjoyment and meaning of wine and food Stern makes the case fairly well: "There are moments in your life, not of massive importance, not determining your future this way or that, elusive to catch, and still more elusive to describe, which are nevertheless so complete in their utter rightness-every small accessory settling down into its place without hitch or angularity-that you feel, remembering such moments, a glow of gratitude."
*Who is who is not said and I have made assumptions.
**This is a little out of context.