Friday, 1 February 2013

From Bordeaux to Burpham: Neal Martin

“Kraftwerk,” says Neal Martin, “I’m going to see them.” in reply to my question of which live band he’s going to see next.  No big surprise there, perhaps, as the series of concerts by the Teutonic techno pioneers at Tate Modern has created an excited ruffle of feathers among (mostly, it must be said) men of a certain age.

As a regular-looking bloke of a certain age, Neal may pass unremarked by Guildford residents on his way up the High Street on a head-down bitterly cold day, but his is one of the most well-known faces in the wine business.  He the UK contributor to The Wine Advocate, creation of the world’s most famous, arguably the most powerful, wine critic of them all:  Robert Parker.  And he lives in Guildford.

He has been here for over five years now and, in between trips to London to be wined and dined at Michelin-starred restaurants (that’s all wine critics do, right?) he has written his first book, a hefty tome on Pomerol. 

Pomerol, the place, is something of an enigma.  Geographically it is firmly embedded within Bordeaux, but it is somehow not of it.  Textbooks usually slot it in alongside its neighbours, the other appellations of the Right Bank, such as Saint Emilion.  Merlot is the lead variety, with Cabernet Franc most often seen in the “Best Supporting Actor” role. But Pomerol doesn’t play the wider Bordeaux game – there is famously no classification here, no official attempt to grade the relative quality of the many, mostly tiny, producers.  The area is small, with little in the way of geographical features to delineate it, no palatial Châteaux worthy of the name – easy to overlook, hard to grasp.

And yet Pomerol is home to Petrus, Bordeaux wine royalty, a First Growth in all but name, and among the most expensive wines in the world – a bottle of the 1982 is currently £6,900 from Berry Brothers. Though as my 9-year-old son was quick to point out, it’s “much cheaper” to buy by the case of 12 bottles, which is a mere £68,427.36.  Good mental arithmetic there, son.  So there must be something special about the place, something that will reward digging deeper.

Neal Martin has spent much of the past three years of his life digging deeper into the soils, vineyards and lives of the vignerons of the area.  And what kind of book is Pomerol?  Thorough, comprehensive, informative:  you’ll find details on proportions of Merlot planted, size of vineyard holding and vinification techniques as you might expect.  But it’s also personal, sometimes fanciful and often entertaining. Throughout you are reminded that this is a book that could never have been written by committee – Neal’s voice is ever present, describing not just the vineyards and their wines, but telling us of his best ever goal at football (aged 9), or his fondness for KFC (yes the Colonel’s finest).  His focus on the people behind the wines reminds us that the human element is what makes places – and wines – special.  Do not go looking for scores out of 100 here.

Music is, as you might have gathered, important to Neal and he peppers his narratives with mentions of the songs he was listening to on his many visits to the area.  In fact, he has even produced a soundtrack (available on Youtube:  search for Pomerol soundtrack) of songs matched to each winery featured in the book, and more, so that you can listen along as you read.

We are not the same people as our parents or grandparents, but much wine writing doesn’t seem to recognize that fact and has a preserved in aspic feel.  This book, however, feels like it’s written by somebody alive and in the world now, someone we can recognize as one of us, who grew up doing the same things we did, informed by popular culture as we were. 

So although Pomerol is meticulously researched and written by someone who clearly has spent more time tasting the kind of rarified (and just plain rare) wines than most of us will ever do, it retains a personality, never straying into textbook territory.  Neal told me that he likes to read with a dictionary by his side – and it shows, as I had to fetch mine from the kitchen shelf a few times to check definitions.  His writing is lively and idiosyncratic, honed over his years as an online writer of his own blog,

Neal has self-published Pomerol, meaning that he has been (and continues to be) fully involved at every stage of the book’s production, from the photography to the design and even the paper that it’s printed on.  His lack of a budget to pay a cartographer to produce maps for the book was turned, by a stroke of genius, to his advantage.  Instead Neal spent a fiver on a sketchbook and some pencils in WHSmith and asked the winemakers to hand draw maps of their estates.  The maps add to the handmade feel of the book and it’s a ruse that I fully expect to see turning up in other wine books in future.

Neal was even there when the book was coming off the printing presses, signing off pages.  At the same time, the adjacent press was printing copies of Pippa Middleton’s learned tome, Celebrate – though apparently Ms Middleton herself was not there checking progress. And something tells me she didn’t deliberate over the type of paper it was printed on either.

Pomerol costs £50 and is available from - or from Neal’s front door. 

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