Half a century ago, at the dawn of what could be called the modern wine age, a prescient voice warned we were heading pell-mell toward the mediocre.
“We are living in a world where, whether we like it or not, standards are concertina-ing,” British wine expert Michael Broadbent wrote in 1968, using a highfalutin expression to suggest collapse. He was worried that the improvement in winemaking around the world would create a large number of wines that all tasted the same.
Broadbent became famous as the head of the wine department for the Christie’s auction house in London. He specialized in finer vintages and rare wines, and so he had a vested interest in teaching wine appreciation skills to his clients.
“Although fine vintages cannot be created artificially, certainly poor vintages are less disastrous than they used to be. This is a mixed blessing,” he wrote. “Wine to be sold on a large scale . . . has to be innocuous — which is a fortunate situation for the marketing man.”
And an unfortunate situation for wine lovers eager to explore the wonders of the grape. “It is in this context: to maintain interest and positive standards, that critical tasting must be kept alive,” Broadbent wrote. “It would be a pity to allow man’s finer perceptions of tasting experience (and resultant range of pleasures) to atrophy.”
These quotes are from “Wine Tasting,” Broadbent’s seminal work, first published in 1968 and updated several times since. Abridged “pocket” versions were published in the 1970s and 1980s. A new commemorative edition has just been issued by the Académie du Vin Library in Britain. It includes essays by some of Britain’s top oenoscenti, including Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Steven Spurrier, about Broadbent’s influence on them and on the wine trade in Britain.
Reading this book for the first time, I was struck by how much the wine world has changed over the past half century, as well as by how much Broadbent, now 92 and retired, still influences the way we taste and appreciate wine. He wrote for the British gentry — well-heeled, affluent white males who still purchased claret from France in cask, to be bottled in their private cellars on demand. “Lady guests” were to be honored and respected in their own way, though rarely, if ever, welcomed into the serious practice of tasting and appreciating wine. (Robinson shattered that glass ceiling in the 1980s. Today she is arguably the world’s most influential wine critic, and there are many prominent female wine experts around the world.)
Wine was exclusively focused on Western Europe — France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal — in Broadbent’s time. Broadbent wrote when the wine world was much smaller than today, before the collapse of the Soviet Union opened Eastern Europe and the ancient wine regions of the Caucasus, and before the Judgment of Paris inspired a wine revolution in South America, Australia and New Zealand. He pooh-poohed California pinot noir as “not to be compared with burgundy,” because of its “stewed, earthy quality, almost totally devoid of the classic Pinot aroma and flavour.” Though he then added, “Nevertheless it can be rich and fine and long lasting.” He was somewhat kinder toward California’s Johannisberg riesling and Emerald riesling. Good luck finding any of those today. In later editions, he updated his original assessments with more enthusiasm.
Broadbent is a firm believer in tasting wines blind, without any hint of knowing what they might be, as the best way to develop one’s wine tasting skills. He describes, in a delightfully brief but concise manner, the method still taught today in wine classes around the world and used by the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Court of Master Sommeliers in their examinations. He describes the clues we learn from looking at, smelling and tasting a wine, and how to deduce what it is by eliminating what it isn’t. He tells us how to manage blind tastings at home, with an admonition not to make it too competitive: “Some people can no more guess wines in public than they can stand on a table and sing; their minds become blank as panic sets in!”
To develop our own skills, Broadbent urges us to read voraciously, starting with his book, and learn the classic wine regions and styles so we know what to look for in a wine. And take copious notes. Broadbent favored index cards. In the 2003 edition, he noted the advent of laptop computers, and huffed, “the clattering noise some of the machines make can be off-putting in a tasting room.”
Wine history buffs will recognize the Académie du Vin as the wine school operated in Paris in the 1970s by Spurrier, who arranged the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 that revolutionized the wine world. He used Broadbent’s book as a guide for developing his own teaching materials, and is publishing this commemorative edition to launch his new Académie du Vin Library. Let’s hope he has found some additional timeless gems to share.
“Wine Tasting: Commemorative Edition” is available in the United States exclusively online through Broadbent Selections, the wine import firm of Broadbent’s son, Bartholomew. The price is $39, about the cost of a bottle of a rich, fine, long-lasting California pinot noir.