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The Book that Defined Bordeaux

Editions Féret, founded 200 years ago, foreshadowed the 1855 classification and set the standard for wine guides

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: May 29, 2013

On a sunny morning in September 1897, Edouard Féret sat on a horse, watching the harvest in Bordeaux's Médoc region. Women and children cut the grape clusters, carefully discarding rotten fruit before depositing the ripe grapes in a basket, a work for which, Féret noted, they were paid half the daily wage of 1.50 francs that the men earned. As he visited each property, he took out a well-worn book, thickened by the addition of alternating blank pages, and carefully documented changes that had occurred since 1893, when the book had been published. It was the sixth edition of Bordeaux et Ses Environs et Ses Vins, Classé par Ordre de Merite, or Bordeaux and Its Region and Its Wines, Ranked in Order of Merit, and Féret was taking notes for the upcoming seventh edition.

Time has shortened the title to Bordeaux et Ses Vins, but Bordeaux wine aficionados know it simply as Le Féret. It may be the most influential book on wine ever published—it certainly has been the most influential in Bordeaux, where the original 1850 edition provided the blueprint for the 1855 classification of Médoc and Sauternes châteaus still in use today. The 18 editions of the book have also provided unparalleled historic snapshots of Bordeaux and its wine industry.

What started as a slim 84-page travel guide for 19th century gentlemen burgeoned into a 2,296-page bible for Bordeaux merchants, brokers, history buffs and wine geeks. It is the oldest book in France updated continuously by the same editor and publisher. Editions Féret celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2013, and the publishing house is celebrating by preparing the Bordeaux guide's 19th edition, which will be released in French, English and Mandarin and in e-book format.

“It’s really the reference for courtiers when they start in the business, and I’ve bought every edition,” said Xavier Coumau, president of the courtiers’ syndicate. “Of course today we have the Internet, but Le Féret remains very useful. It has information about the château, the owners, technical information about the vineyard and wine, how they sell their wine. And it’s really interesting to see how the vineyard surface area changes over time.”

Edouard Féret published 200 books in his 40-year career, but Bordeaux and Its Wines would define his work. He had a passion for wine, a zest for detail, and a skill for dogged, accurate reporting. The 1898 edition captured Bordeaux at the cusp of modernity, and each successive edition is considered required reading.

Origins in Politics and Erotica

When Féret's grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Féret, founded his business as a publisher and bookshop owner in Bordeaux in 1813, he didn’t immediately dive into wine. A 33-year-old Norman with a nose for salacious copy, he focused on what the post-Revolutionary French wanted to read: romanticized history books, inflammatory political tracts and erotica.

The Féret adventure nearly ended before it discovered the vine. “In 1822, the government took away his license and closed down his business, because he sold a book that eulogized Napoleon,” explained Féret’s current owner, Bruno Boidron. The Corsican was deposed and deceased, by then, and the neo-conservative Bourbon royal family was back in power.

Féret was also provocatively printing anti-clerical and anti-conservative political books, and his bookstore, like others of the era, was a hothouse for debating new ideas. When he reprinted a work of Voltaire, he chose the scandal-provoking La Pucelle de’Orleans. He reprinted a religious text banned in the 17th century. Unfortunately, running a publishing house and bookstore required a license from the Minister of Interior and a certificate of good morals, and after the Napoleon book, Féret had neither. He escaped the death penalty but spent a year in prison, then, perhaps wisely, fled into exile.

His son Michel-Edouard returned to Bordeaux two decades later, joining his uncle, who had steered the company away from controversy and developed a brisk business in wine-related publications. Bookshops remained lively meeting points, and not long after Michel-Edouard's return, an erudite young Englishman named Charles Cocks came to the shop with the idea of writing a travel guide for visiting English tourists and businessmen. Bordeaux: Its wines and the Claret Country arrived in English bookstores in 1846. It was an immediate success in England and America.

Michel-Edouard offered to do a French version. It appeared in 1850, but it was not a simple translation of the old book. It was less a travel guide and more focused on wine. And Féret and Cocks decided to publish, against the advice of Bordeaux’s powerful brokers, a classification of the wines according to their average price.

This was the first time a classification of châteaus ranked by merit was published. Past works had always simply listed wineries alphabetically, though courtiers had long employed a classification for their private use. “And something still more delicate," wrote the authors, "we have made a similar effort for the unclassified properties in the most important communes, with the addition of the average price of the main wines.” It was a noble effort to give credit to estates not included in the courtiers' classifications. Cocks and Féret relied on a monthly business periodical for the wine trade with maps and prices that Féret had been publishing for four years.

Their decision was vindicated not only by the success of their book, but by the creation of the famous 1855 Classification of the Médoc and Sauternes by the brokers at the behest of Napoleon III. The 1855 Classification is remarkably similar to the Féret rankings. Unfortunately, Cocks died in 1854. He lived neither to see the impact of his book nor the transformation it would undergo under the guidance of the next generation at Féret.

Reporting on Horseback

Edouard Féret was 22 in 1866 when he was charged with revising Le Féret, setting off on horseback as perhaps the first wine journalist. For that second edition, published in 1868, he focused entirely on wine, developing an expertise that would be perfected over the decades and in subsequent editions. It was Edouard who expanded the book until it became a comprehensive guide to the region and the wine industry.

The older versions are fascinating reading. For instance, Château d’Yquem (written Château Yquem at the time) was the reference for futures prices, and readers can see how the futures system works brilliantly when done right. In 1858, Yquem sold two-thirds of its wine as futures at 3,500 francs per tonneau (a 900-liter barrel). It sold the remaining third later at 10,000 francs. One can imagine that customers were content with their investment.

By the 1898 edition, Edouard covered 45 communes, 3,800 châteaus and 6,000 estate owners. He also regarded the Place de Bordeaux with an appropriately skeptical eye. His note regarding the 1868 vintage reads: “The wines of Château Lafite and Château Margaux were bought in February at 6,250 francs/tonneau. Unfortunately, one cannot say that the wines gave the commerce any advantage. Even though the quality is good, it is not in rapport with the prices paid.”

He added notes on the relentless march of phylloxera and the debate on its origins. He included all that he could find on vine diseases and their treatment, innovations in the growing field of enology and viticulture, detailed maps, futures prices, pictures of the châteaus, notes on the costs of running an estate, leading export markets and advice on everything from how to properly bottle wine delivered in a cask to the order in which to serve wines. (Young and lesser-known wines first, after a sip of Madeira to prime the palate; older vintages and famous labels mid-meal.)

Edouard would revise seven editions in all, dying at his desk not long after completing the 1908 version.

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