NOBLE ROT

A Bordeaux Wine Revolution

By William Echikson

Norton. 302 pp. $24.95

The title of this account of revolution and reaction in the Bordeaux wine-producing region of France is derived from an organic process that is essential to the production of Sauternes and (in Hungary) Tokay, perhaps the world's most famous sweet wines. Of these surely the most renowned is Chateau d'Yquem, the maker of which, according to author William Echikson, adds no sugar to the ripe grapes but "lets the fruit go rotten, and a fungus called Botrytis cinerea attacks it, shriveling the grape skins into brown pulp. Water escapes, concentrating the remaining sugars and flavors in the juice, producing the singular bouquet of sweetness for which Yquem is noted."

In French it is pourriture noble, and in that country the use of it to make sweet wines dates back at least to the 17th century, and several centuries earlier in Hungary. But though noble rot can yield magnificent wines -- if your taste runs to sweet wines -- "getting the right amount of rot is never a sure thing." The vintner who uses it is wholly at the mercy of the weather. A frozen crop is a dead crop. "If it rains too much, the vines will be swamped and the fruit diluted." Grapes bloated by rainfall rot, all right, but this is "pourriture gris -- an ignoble condition called gray rot."

In Bordeaux noble rot is important to the makers of Chateau d'Yquem but not to many others. For Echikson's purposes it is less important as an ingredient in winemaking than as a metaphor for what has happened in Bordeaux. The old, established order has been challenged by men and women who believe that traditional ways of winemaking are not necessarily the best ways, and who have put that belief into practice. The details of these conflicting views and the debate they have stirred cannot be of great concern to anyone who doesn't care about (or can't afford) fine wine, but the story of Bordeaux does shed a small amount of light on the eternally interesting question of what happens when old and new collide.

Bordeaux is a famous name and a big deal. As Echikson writes: "Most of the world's famed wine regions are crammed into small, compact valleys such as the Moselle and the Napa, or circle even smaller villages such as Chablis and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Bordeaux is different. It's huge. France's largest high-quality wine region stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Dordogne Valley, producing almost a billion bottles a year. That's a lot of wine to sell, particularly since it ranges in quality from the simple to the sublime."

The overwhelming majority of it -- about 95 percent -- falls into the simple category: plain albeit often delicious table wines, mostly red, for which the British long ago coined the nicely descriptive term "plonk." Echikson writes a bit about this large but low end of the market, in a chapter about growers who have formed syndicates to market their wines, but his focus is on the 5 percent that have made Bordeaux famous: St. Emilion, St. Julien, Pomerol, Margaux, et al. Himself a wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal Europe and the author, previously, of "Burgundy Stars," Echikson knows his wine but manages to eschew, for the most part, wine snobbery.

For the most part, that is, for "Noble Rot" is based on the implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with these wines not just as famous old names but also as gustatory pleasures. I felt a bit like the boy pressing his nose against the toy-store window since purchasing most of the wines so lavishly praised by Echikson would require taking out a second mortgage. You, dear reader, may well feel the same, leaving you to share my lament that Echikson did not devote more attention to the lower end of the Bordeaux market.

Still, conflict in the wine business is as amusing and occasionally as instructive to read about as conflict in any other business, and for several decades Bordeaux has had plenty of it. Echikson divides the participants in this little battle between those who work on the Right and Left Banks of the Gironde River. The latter have worked the same patches of land for eons, out of the conviction that the essential ingredient of good or great wine is terroir, literally "soil" but, in the minds of traditionalist wine-growers, the specific piece of earth in which only, say, Lafite Rothschild can be grown.

The winemakers of the Right Bank, by contrast, believe that what matters is how the grapes are treated on the vine, when and how they are harvested, how they are processed and aged. The "heart of the modern debate," Echikson says, is: "Are wines from certain parcels intrinsically better than others cultivated with greater care from less promising land?" The answer, the revolutionaries insist, is no, and there is much evidence to support them.

Known generically as garagistes, because many of them "are satisfied with, literally, garages" in which to turn their grapes into wine, they have found an incredibly influential advocate in the American wine critic Robert Parker, whose exceptionally high ratings for some of their wines in his publication the Wine Advocate have brought them to the world's attention, or at least the attention of that tiny percentage to whom vin extraordinaire is as taken for granted as winter in Gstaad and summer in Portofino. Parker's effect on the wine world is as hotly debated among those who inhabit it as steroids are in the baseball world, but Echikson tends to side with the rebels: "In Bordeaux the wine trade's more progressive elements view him as a savior of sorts. They have realized that the region has a lot of wine to sell and that Parker helps sell it."

Parker's approach is thoroughly modern, and American as well: "Tradition, history, and land count less to him than the winemaker. 'Owners and winemakers change,' he insists, 'and whereas some famous Bordeaux estates consistently make the best wine possible given the year's climatic conditions, others, because of negligence, incompetence, or just greed, produce mediocre and poor wine that hardly reflects its official pedigree.' "

As it happens, Sauternes is not much to Parker's taste, but the story of Chateau d'Yquem as told by Echikson certainly underscores his point. The tale is immensely complicated, but at its core it is that endlessly interesting old reliable, a family feud. For several decades there has been a certain stubborn integrity about the hidebound manner in which Yquem has been produced, but the quality of the wine has often been below par -- take it from Echikson, I guess -- and its sales have declined, despite its reputation. Trying to get the chateau back on track, some members of the family that owns it have pressed for change and have met determined resistance by the elderly count who has run it for years. Like a long-running soap opera, this tale has hardly seen its last episode.

Does any of this matter? Not a scintilla, in all likelihood, to those of us happily guzzling our mass-produced (and remarkably tasty) Lindeman's or Cousino Macul or R.H. Phillips. But it is always fun to watch the elite squabbling in their sandbox, and that is the chief pleasure provided by "Noble Rot."