Thursday, May 16, 2024

Feret & Alan Spencer

In 1982, the 13th edition of  "Bordeaux and Its Wines," popularly known as the "Feret," was published in Bordeaux, along with an English translation.

No other wine book has had such an impressive track record, yet the Feret is a reference  few American wine consumers know about, even though it's now in the 17th edition. 

Remarkably, the first edition was published in 1850!  Subsequent editions of the hardcover reference boast 1,867 pages, references to 1,700 Bordeaux estates, and weighs a hefty 13 pounds.  Much lighter, but no less impressive, is the included large fold-out Carte Vinicole de la Gironde.  The price in 1982, for what then was likely the world's most expensive wine book, was $82, not including shipping.

My friend, the late Alan Spencer, was the translator of the 13th English edition.  Alan was an ex-pat Englishman, a man of many interests and passions, who spoke five languages and who tried tirelessly to play Bach piano pieces, traveled and wrote about wine and, according to his French son, Christophe, spoke very good French with a slight accent. The Spencer's lived in Castillon la Bataille, along the Dordogne  river.

There's more about how Alan Spencer, the Wine Spectator, Bordeaux wine, the Feret and I met and interacted, but first more on what the impressive Feret has meant to Bordeaux and its wines. 

Feret's "Bordeaux and Its Wines"

In the Preface, Hugh Johnson, the eminent English wine writer, briefly spells out the background and genesis  of the reference book. "It first sprang from the mind of an Englishman...Charles Cocks.  Not very much is known of him, besides what can be gleaned from his highly influential work."  Johnson notes that the first edition was titled "Cocks et Feret," a partnership Cocks had with Edouard Feret.

The name Charles Cocks rarely comes up in discussions of wine lore, yet his memorable contribution to wine,  besides the Feret, is the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, a ranking of Bordeaux wines that remains relevant today.  About ten years earlier, Cocks had published his own classification of Bordeaux wines, which led to the famous 1855 classification. 

The massive Feret, recognized by wine book collectors as the indispensable reference for Bordeaux wines, is in the 17th English edition and is now up to 2,336 pages.  Besides entries for all Bordeaux chateaux, with engravings of each property, the Feret contains chapters on Bordeaux Viticulture, Harvesting and Winemaking, Wine Production, the art of choosing and drinking Bordeaux wines, a comprehensive Bordeaux Glossary and more.  

Each entry contains basic information about the estate, including a brief history, and an engraving of each chateau; the engravings were first introduced in the 1881 edition. There's also a brief description of the wine, such as this over-wrought one for Ch. Lafite-Rothschild: "The bouquet of Lafite wines is very suave, and of incomparable delicacy; its savor brings together, at the same time, the taste of almonds and the scent of violets, without it being possible to distinguish whether one dominates the other."

Alan Spencer and the Feret

Unless you were reading the Wine Spectator or Decanter in the early 1980s, the name Alan Spencer won't be familiar to you.  Alan was living in Bordeaux then and traveling for Kalamazoo, a French computer software company, named for the Michigan city where it started, when he came across a copy of the Wine Spectator.  I was editor then of the Wine Spectator and we were looking for more coverage of French wines. 

Alan wrote to me saying he was interested in writing about wine.  Over the next few years, Alan wrote about all aspects of Bordeaux wine, from his home not far from St. Emilion.  And from his exposure in the Wine Spectator, he began to get assignments in Decanter, a British wine magazine that was looking for a different voice on French wine.

Word circulated around the tightly knit Bordeaux wine trade about Alan Spencer's knowledge of Bordeaux wines and his fluency with the French language.  Claude Feret, editor and and publisher of the Feret, offered Alan the huge task of translating the Feret from French to English.  There was an earlier English edition, but it needed a complete update, an undertaking that  Alan eventually discovered would last from 1983 into 1984.

By then, the collegial relationship between Alan and me had developed into a friendship.  We shared views on French wines and on one occasion, he told me, by telephone, of his mounting frustration with the translation and that Claude Feret tended to nit pick everything Alan sent him.  There was also the matter that Alan was not credited as the translator of the 13th Edition.  

The update and translation were eventually finished, the new edition published in 1986 and Alan moved on to other writing projects and practicing a Bach partita.

Not long after publication, I got a copy of the 13th Edition, with a red hardcover.  There are numerous  editions,  hardcover and softback, since the first one in 1850.  The 17th Edition, 2004, and others are available from eBay, Amazon, and even Walmart, for prices from $60, plus shipping, from AbeBooks, to the unexplained $394.95 for a 17th Edition in very good condition, from Amazon.

"Bordeaux and its Wines" is an unparalleled and indispensable guide to all Bordeaux wines and belongs in the library of all serious Bordeaux wine lovers as the ultimate Bordeaux reference.

Photos by Janet M. Boyd

Next post:  Rioja Rojas

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