BOOK REVIEW / Silent villagers with a rare, high-pitched wine: 'Puligny-Montrachet' - Simon Loftus: Ebury Press, 19.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
BRITISH WINE drinkers don't know how lucky they are. For a century or more they have had access to the best and most honest wine writing in the world. It is something of a miracle that we have so many literate wine bores: for there is no reason why the ability to taste wine, to remember and compare the taste in your mouth with the thousands of others absorbed over the years, should be combined with an ability to write expressive English. Indeed there are all too many wine 'writers' around whose style simply does not match their technical abilities.

Oddly enough, the British tradition has always depended more on wine trade professionals who were amateur writers than on professional journalists. In Victorian times only Dickens's friend, the journalist Henry Vizetelly, could compare with the wine merchants-cum-writers such as Charles Tovey and Cyrus Redding. Then, for half a century, Andre Simon ploughed a double furrow as merchant and writer. Only in the last 25 years have the professional taster-writers emerged in numbers.

Now the trade is fighting back: one of the best wine-writers in Britain today, Simon Loftus, also runs an excellent wine merchants (Adnams in Southwold). His first book (Abe's Sardines) was a hilarious series of essays on the wine business today. His second, a travel book, was less well received. But now he has now written the first serious account of a single wine- making village - and what a village] Puligny-Montrachet may boast fewer than two thousand inhabitants, but it includes in its boundaries Montrachet, the finest dry white wine in the world, the Lord of all the thousands of chardonnays produced in lesser regions throughout the wine-making world.

The result is a unique volume, combining a brisk but perfectly adequate history of the village, a detailed analysis of the vines that stretch above it into the woods which crown the whole of the Cote d'Or and an acute, if extremely depressing, picture of a microsociety in economic bloom and social decline.

Loftus has done justice to the fundamental dichotomy behind the story of a village like Puligny - and there are a number of others in a similar situation along the Cote d'Or between Dijon and Chalons-sur-Marne: 'The horizon of the peasant growers extends as far as the next village: their traditions and habits are rooted in the immediate locality. But they cultivate vines which produce each year such precious grapes that millionaires in London and Tokyo, Paris and New York vie with one another to secure a tiny allocation of the treasured product.'

But the 'treasured product' must come from a precisely delineated spot, and of course Loftus the wine merchant can explain with commendable clarity the exact distinctions, geological, geographic and even climatic, between the tiny plots, each with a sacred name: Batard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, and above all Montrachet tout court, king of them all.

The fragmentation of the land, where growers count themselves blessed if they have half an acre of vines in precisely the right spot, is matched by the social fragmentation. Innocent outsiders, unaware of the extremes to which parochialism is carried in the French countryside, might assume that the inhabitants of Puligny would blend with those of Chassagne- Montrachet, a couple of miles south. Not so: after attending a frosty mass celebrated for both villages Loftus remarked that they 'have long ago decided that solidarity, fraternity and neighbourly good- will begin, like charity, at home. And they stick to their principles.'

So the book confines itself to a community that has decayed as a social unit as a result of the easy life over the past couple of decades, when possession of a couple of acres of vines in the right spot spelt a healthy income whatever the quality of the wine produced. 'Puligny's potential for social intercourse has diminished during the past half-century; there are now no cafes, few shops and fewer people. It has the air of a village turned inward . . . prosperity has not only dissolved some of the traditional hatreds which fissured society, but considerably weakened the sense of communal solidarity.' A universal moral tale.