Sherry – book review

sherry julian jeffsThis is a review of the 6th Edition of Sherry by Julian Jeffs. I have a review copy of the paperback, published by Infinite Ideas earlier this year with an RRP of £30.00. I think the hardback version of this edition came out a couple of years ago. It has 262 pages and, like other books in this Classic Wine Library series, the general design and physical impression is good. Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, including a map of the Sherry region. There is also a small collection of colour plates bound together in the middle of the book.

I already owned the 5th edition, and my first comment would be that the updates are relatively minor, so I wouldn’t recommend buying the 6th edition if you already have the 5th. In addition to making the book look a lot more modern and a number of editorial changes, the updates I spotted are: Equipo Navazos gets a few lines, as do a few other newer bodegas, and the Brandy de Jerez chapter has been ditched. Beware though, as The Twentieth Century chapter has been renamed The Twentieth Century and Beyond, but it doesn’t go very much “beyond” at all. While very limited, the updates are all welcome, and make the book generally more attractive. Regarding the mapping though, two very hard-to-read maps in an antiquated style have been replaced by one modern map that is even harder to read. Map regions are indicated by shading in white and four shades of grey, for three soil types, where the vineyards are, and something else. My issues are a) I cannot always tell which shade of grey is which, b) I have no idea what the “something else” is, but can only presume it is not relevant to Sherry, and worst of all c) the apples-and-pears colouring scheme makes it impossible to know what soils the vineyards are on, which is what you are most likely to want to know from such a map. Sometimes I despair – maps are meant to convey information, not act merely as decoration. Rant over.

On the positive side, I must say that this is probably the best specialist (as opposed to The Oxford Companion, for example) wine book I have read. It is a true classic of The Classic Wine Library. It is written well, and oozes authority that is backed up by a comprehensive section of sources and bibliography. Apart from the appendices and a section that gives a paragraph on each of the shippers, the book is roughly evenly split between history and production methods. There is no space given to tasting notes, which you may or may not see as an advantage. Whichever side of the fence you take, it is probably something that has allowed the book to work well across several editions.

But what about the excitement felt for Sherry by contemporary wine lovers? You cannot find it in Jeffs’ book. Even in the provincial North of England, where Sherry bars have not yet made much of an in-road, there are many enthused drinkers of Sherry in my circle of wine buddies. It is common to kick off an evening with a glass of Sherry, and sometimes to drink it at some point in the meal. Also perhaps a few sentences on en rama Sherry, currently gaining in popularity, would have been a good idea. Rama has an entry in the glossary (in the 5th edition too), where it is defined as wine bottled from the cask without further treatment. But that is the only mention I noticed and, even if strictly speaking the definition is correct, it is not necessarily what you always get if en rama is on the label. But maybe all this trendy stuff is a mere blip in the world of Sherry, and the weight of history, and large body of conservative imbibers, justifies its omission. If so, then there is definitely room for another more ephemeral Sherry book.

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Madeira: The islands and their wines – book review

madeira islands winesThe book is Madeira: The Islands and their wines by Richard Mayson. If you are expecting a wine book, don’t worry about the subtitle: apart from brief sections on tourism, it is actually about wine. The RRP is £30.00, but I was given a review copy. It is the paperback version, published by Infinite Ideas earlier this year, with 268 pages and, like other books in this series, the general design and physical impression is good. Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, mainly old engravings, but also some label images, and a map of the island. While not terribly detailed, the map is up to the task of identifying the regions discussed in the text. There is also a small collection of colour plates bound together roughly in the middle of the book. Sidebars (if that is the right term when the text goes the full width of the pages) are used in many places, usually to good effect. Though I failed to understand their place in the Vintage Madeiras and Historic Wines chapter, where the content was exactly the same as the main text – here they just served to confuse by unnecessarily breaking the helpful structure of the chapter. The structure was also initially a bit confusing as the first Madeira collection mentioned in the chapter happened not to have any tasting notes associated with it, but that is a different issue.

The timing of publication is important for this book, as a raft of new regulations and definitions relating to Madeira wine came into force in 2015. I am not sure to what extent they were adequately dealt with in the 2015 hardback edition of this book, but they are certainly covered in the paperback, and this in itself might be reason enough for Madeira enthusiasts to get hold of a copy. It also becomes clear from reading this book that in the last 15 years or so there have been many initiatives to improve Madeira quality and the standards of record-keeping, imposing more order on what was very chaotic production. Again, anyone with a serious interest in Madeira will find it convenient to have all these developments gathered together here. Personally I write as someone who also owns, and has great respect for, Alex Liddell’s 1998 book, Madeira published by Faber and Faber, but it is now woefully out of date if you look to it for a picture of contemporary Madeira. Without wanting to criticise either writer, I feel Liddell is more academic, while Mayson is briefer and perhaps more accessible to a modern audience. I am now motivated to reread Liddell sometime.

Mayson covers his ground well, with chapters on Madeira history, geography, vineyards, production and producers. The chapter on producers also includes tasting notes on selected wines that are currently readily available from each one. In a separate chapter there are also nearly 100 pages – over 35% of the whole book – devoted to the tasting notes of old Madeiras, many from the 18th and 19th centuries, and notes about the collections from which they originated. The chances of me ever getting an opportunity to try any of these wines is practically zero, which means my interest in them is very limited, and I would question the wisdom of devoting so much space to these wines. Not that I am averse to a good vintage Madeira, but old for me in practice means mid-20th century. The main thing I learned from the chapter was that, if you take Mayson’s star ratings at face value, you can get Madeira of equal quality for a lot less money if you look to the colheita wines currently available from the producers, and wines with older age indications.

There were a few places in the book that seemed unclear or confusing, which left me feeling I’d like to ask the author, or his sources, for clarification. But to an extent I suppose Madeira is still essentially rather confusing, and at least I felt engaged enough to care. One example was the statement that “Older vineyards are supported on latadas, low pergolas about a metre or so in height, under which other crops such as potatoes, cabbages and beans are frequently grown”. Wow, I thought, that is very low and it must be a real pain to work on the vines – not to mention the vegetable patch! Can it really be true? This was followed by a quotation from an 18th century description that I found difficult to follow, but laths 7 feet high were mentioned. Also colour plates purported to show latadas growing over trucks and the heads of people. I resolved this issue by referring to Liddell’s abovementioned book, and learned that latada heights vary: over paths and around houses you can walk under them, whereas in other places they are usually 1 to 1.5m high.

Despite any niggles, and with the exception of the vintage wine tasting notes which I largely skipped, I enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot, especially about the more recent changes on the Island.

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Winenous’ fables #1: The Naoussa and the Burgundy

On the face of it, this is a simple story of two tasting notes, linked only by the wines’ having been tasted and drunk within a couple of days of each other. But there is a sting in the tail, and a moral.

Naoussa PDO, Greece, 2011
Medium pale tawny garnet. Nose: Intense. Dark fruit with a slight caramel nature. Mature notes. High-toned with violets. Rose. Herby, vegetal and savoury. Edgy licorice. Complex. Very attractive. Palate: Medium high acidity. Medium high astringency. Coarse in a good way – like a thin paste, or fine coffee grounds. As nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty – crispy bits on the side of a roast. All in balance. Elegant, and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshing, savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak, also with Middle Eastern food. Also tried the day after opening, and it had not changed much ******

Premier Cru Burgundy, 2000
Nose: Pale tawny garnet. Huge nose, but rather too oaky for my liking. Warming, complex. Mature Burgundy lurking there somewhere. Palate: Medium high acidity. Smooth, gentle, ethereal. Merest hint of astringency. Oaky, yes, but the fruit comes through more on the palate. As mentioned before, warm, complex and mature. Still good Pinot fruit though, with delicate fragrance. Excellent length, with refreshing fruity finish. Oak got more obtrusive on the palate as the wine warmed throughout the evening. Drink now *****

So, two wines that I liked a lot, though I definitely preferred the Naoussa, produced by Boutari, which was the cheaper wine. I gave it my maximum score, which might seem over-the-top, but I reached the same conclusion on two occasions. I bought the Boutari Naoussa earlier this year from Booth’s Supermarket, when there was a 2 for 3 offer and 5% half-case discount, for £6.97. Full price was £11.00.

The Burgundy was considerably more expensive. In 2007 when I bought it, The Wine Society said its conservative market value was £75, but I got a 25% discount on that as I bought it in a mixed case, so I paid £56.25. Looking back on my tasting note, I wonder if my score was on the high side, as a result of being influenced by the high price. But despite its oakiness, I did think it was very classy and elegant.

But the scores not being reflected in that price difference is not the sting in the tail: a price difference of a different order of magnitude was the culprit. The Burgundy was Armand Rousseau’s Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos St Jacques and I checked current price on Wine-Searcher (after writing my tasting note). The asking price from the only listed UK merchant selling 75cl bottles was £640 (SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY QUID). That’s over 10 times what I paid for it, and about 100 (ONE HUNDRED) times the price of the Naoussa. And the bottle price of £640 might be regarded as a bargain, as another merchant was wanting £1,928 for a magnum.

burgundy naoussaAnd the moral? Well there are actually a number that spring to mind. The first one that occurred to me was “if you are going to check the current market price of a decent wine made by a famous name, do it BEFORE you open the bottle”. On later reflection the most screamingly obvious ones were “buying decent Burgundy is now a mugs’ game”, and “the Boutari Naoussa is a great wine that you really need to try”. I am sure there are also deeper morals lurking, on the subjects of price, value and quality, but I’ll let you figure them out for yourself. And feel free, if you must, to moralise about my plebeian taste – I can take it.

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The Wines of Austria – book review

the wines of austria bookThis is The Wines of Austria by Stephen Brook, a new book published by Infinite Ideas earlier this year. The RRP is £30.00, but I have a review copy. It’s a paperback of 294 pages, with black and white maps in the text, and several colour plates gathered together in the centre of the book. Like other books in this series, the general design and physical impression is good. As often the case with wine books, I found the maps disappointing, but I know good cartography is expensive and they are better than nothing. My only other criticism at that sort of level is the lack of a complete index – there is an index, but for wineries only. There is also a glossary, but that did not have an entry for the wine style I needed reminding about while reading.

This is a book that contains a lot of detail, and relatively short introductory chapters and sections, which made it heavy-going for me as a reader with no claim to any specialist knowledge of Austrian wines. It does not however lack clarity – indeed Brook writes very well. It is just that for someone who does not already have sufficient knowledge to hang the many facts on, the sheer number of different regions, sub-regions and producers is difficult to take in. Someone with more prior knowledge would doubtless get more out of the detail, but I decided that for my purposes it is a work of reference rather than a book to actually sit down and read over a few days.

I must admit though that I struggle to image how the book could be improved on from my perspective. At the risk of causing offense to Austria and lovers of her wines, I’d venture that part of the problem is that the history of Austrian wine as an international product is relatively brief, so there is not so much that can be written about historical context – compared with Port, Sherry, and Madeira to mention of vinous topics of other books in this series. The other sort of context useful for the organisation of knowledge is geography. Seeing precisely where villages, vineyards and producers are, down to the level of vineyard slope orientation, greatly helps, and I suppose that comes back to my point about the inadequacy of the maps.

So, an excellent reference book, and probably an excellent read if you already have a special interest in Austrian wines. For the more general wine lover there is still much to be gained from the book – I certainly learned quite a bit – but I suspect that much of it will remain unread on the first pass through.

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Grape Harvest (Vindima), by Miguel Torga

vindimaI have been doing a lot of reading over the last few weeks, so I am afraid my blog has been mainly book reviews of late – and there are more to come. But this is a bit different. It is a novel from 1945 by the great Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, so its nothing new but I thought it might be of interest to wine lovers. It is Vindima in Portuguese, but in English translation the title is rendered as Grape Harvest – a grape harvest in the Douro in fact. First, some practical details. I could only find electronic editions of the English translation, and I bought the Kindle version, though it is also available for Kobo. Check for the latest prices, and price-matching deals, but expect to pay well under £10. There were no major practical issues with the Kindle edition, though I presume that the nosy clarity of a dawn was an OCR glitch, and there were quite a few superfluous hyphens in words that must have corresponded to line breaks in a print version.

Let me set the scene. A lot of the action takes place at Quinta da Cavadinha, a property now owned by Warre’s, and one that makes a vital contribution to their Vintage Ports. I visited the estate a few years ago and found this plaque with a quotation from the book.cavadinho plaqueIn English: A vine-strewn slope gazing down at the river and up into the heavens, Cavadinha, its name writ in huge letters on an iron arch over the wide entry gate, is the most enchanting of estates. And here is that vine-strewn slope from the vantage point of Cavadinha. The river Pinhão, a tributary of the Douro that joins the main river at the eponymous town, is here just about visible in the trees at the bottom of the valley. cavadinha view

Sadly, the panoramic grandeur of the Douro is rarely expressed well in small images – you just have to imagine the vista below extending over 180º or so. But don’t be fooled by the quotation. Grape Harvest is no sentimental glorification of Cavadinha. It covers mainly the dark aspects of gritty reality. Very much not the sort of thing you would expect to be proudly displayed on a plaque.

As suggested by the title, the book does indeed cover events associated with a harvest. It starts with the harvesting team being hired from a poor farming village, and ends with their return home. In between, there is a depiction of many complex relationships, focussing on Douro society, but extending also to Porto and beyond. We have the exploited harvest workers; the uncaring nouveau riche quinta owner and his family; the more benevolent old-money family who own the neighbouring quinta; and a doctor visiting from Lisbon. There are deaths, love affairs, infatuations, broken hearts and illicit sex. Despite there being an awful lot going on, the writing is poetic, unsentimental, and life-affirming, where the human spirit rises above the literal blood, sweat and tears. A lot of it reminded me more of Victorian times than 1945, so the first mention of a motor car thus came as a bit of a surprise, but we must remember that Portugal was very isolationalist under Salazar, and the Douro was particularly backwards, even by Portuguese standards. At times, I also felt transported into the world of D H Lawrence, as a sexually charged atmosphere pervades a lot of the book. On reading that the treading of grapes was reminiscent of sensual copulation I was completely baffled, but by the end of the two-paragraph extended metaphor I was left in no doubt what the author had in mind, and my relationship with grape-treading will never be the same again. One dreads to think what Torga would have made of the robotic lagares at the modern-day Quinta da Cvadinha.

It’s fiction of course, but the author’s personal experience must have formed the basis for a lot of the novel. Torga’s humble roots were in the mountains just to the North of the Douro – precisely the area where the villagers recruited for the Cavadinha harvest might have hailed from. He was himself well-educated, but his profession as a doctor kept him in constant touch with all walks of life, and doubtless informed the character of the doctor, and the incidents of child-birth, illness and medical emergency. A little bit more about Torga, with medical excerpts from his diary, are available towards the end of this issue of the British Journal of General Practice. I decided I liked Torga so much that I have already ordered a collection of his short stories in translation, and would very much suggest that anyone with an interest in literature and Port should at least grab the free initial chapters of Grape Harvest – together with Torga’s 1988 introduction, they give a good feel for what is to follow.

The novel was written over 70 years ago now and, as Torga himself says in his introduction, the extremes of poverty and exploitation described in the novel no longer exist in the Douro. But it is sobering to realise that wine from that period still exists in Villa Nova de Gaia, and that if you love Port you may even have drunk some.

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Why four’s the aroma limit

four aromas

I recently had an article published in Circle Update (the magazine of the Circle of Wine Writers). It concerned the number of aromas used in wine tasting notes. If you are interested you can view and download a PDF offprint of the article here: Why four’s the limit.

It draws heavily on a four-part series of blog posts I wrote late last year. Compared with the Circle Update article, these contain more words – not necessarily a good thing – but also, in “the science” post, there is considerably more information about the scientific basis for the notional limit of only four aromas being identifiable in blends.
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the dilemma
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the science
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – tasting experience
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – my conclusion

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Port and the Douro – book review

port and the douroHere I review Port and the Douro by Richard Mayson. This is the 3rd edition, which was originally published in 2013, but I have a paperback version published by Infinite Ideas in April 2016. It has an RRP of £30, but I didn’t pay a penny of my own money as I was sent a review copy. This printing was apparently “heavily revised” – from the first printing of the 3rd edition presumably. But as I do not have the original 3rd edition, I cannot really comment on that, apart from to say that all vintages are described up to and including 2015, and the sales and production statistics now go as far as 2014.

The look and feel is very similar to Biodynamic Wine, which I reviewed in my previous blog post: a 234 x 156mm paperback with clear printing and a rather nice general feel to the book. But this is a bigger book of 308 pages and a slightly smaller typeface. Most of the illustrations are hand painted sketches, but there are a few diagrams and maps, and several colour plates clustered together in the centre of the book. The text is also broken up by boxes. This is something I generally do not like, as I would much rather the author figure out for me how best to incorporate everything into the flow of the narrative, but here I thought the series of boxes on the theme Men who shaped the Douro worked rather well.

The book is very much in the mould of many other specialist books on wine regions, and in that sense it works well – very well indeed, to extent that it is difficult to fault. Better maps perhaps? But I am very much aware how much good quality cartography costs. Tasting notes? Maybe, but I personally find them of very limited value. Another possible criticism is that it somehow fails to excite. But what sort of excitement can one reasonably expect from a book on Port and the Douro? For me, perhaps only in the sense that I regard the Douro region to be the most atmospheric wine region I have ever visited, with its vastness and haunting beauty, and it would have been nice to have more of that feeling communicated. Though I admit it is a big demand on a specialist wine writer – there are only so many Andrew Jeffords in the world 🙂 However, still on the subject of the feel of the Douro region, I was delighted to find that Mayson mentioned Miguel Torga’s novel Vindima (Grape Harvest in English translation). It is a novel I had been intending to dig out after visiting Quinta da Cavadinha, which features in it, but later forgot the name of the author and book –  now I am grateful to be reading it in translation on my Kindle, and it is giving me my required shot of Douro poetry. But I digress… there follows below a description of the contents of Port and the Douro.

The first chapter covers in some detail the history of Portugal – Porto and the Douro in particular. This is followed by one on the vineyards, vines, major grape varieties, and quintas (farms or estates). Then a description of the various types of Port, with a separate chapter devoted to Vintage Port. Port producers and shipper then get their own chapter, which is followed by one on Douro (unfortified) wines. Finally there is some guidance for the visitor to Porto and the Douro.

So – a very good solid book with very little to criticise (even if I seem to have spent most of this review writing about my criticisms).

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Biodynamic Wine – book review

bd wine monty waldinjpgThis is a review of Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine, published by Infinite Ideas on 4th July this year, and with an RRP of £30.00 (not to be confused with another book by the same author that has a very similar title, Biodynamic Wines, published in 2004). I read a review copy. It is a paperback, 234 x 156mm, and has 222 pages. The paper is a little coarse and the photographs are black and white, but the design is smart with clear chapter and section headings, and it feels good to hold.

After the introduction and a short chapter on the origins of biodynamics, we go straight into what effectively defines biodynamic agricultural practice: the nine biodynamic “preparations”. In what is by far the longest chapter, the preparation are described in detail, including instructions on how and when to make them, and with references to the original sources for the snippets of advice. This is then followed by shorter chapters on other subjects at the core of biodynamic agricultural: how to make compost incorporating the preparations, and how to dynamise liquids. Then we move onto the more optional parts of biodynamics: shortcut methods of composting, plant teas, decoctions, liquid manures, and oils. Finally in the main biodynamic-practice part of the book, there is a discussion of how the moon, planets and stars determine the best time for performing specific tasks. Then there is a discussion of the various types of biodynamic regulations and organic certification schemes, and (in appendices) a bit about Maria Thun’s advice on when best to taste wine, and how to learn more about biodynamics.

Do note that there are no profiles of particular biodynamic producers and their wines. I did not particularly miss that aspect, but other readers might find it disappointing as typical specialist wine books do tend to include that sort of thing. Details of what some producers really believe about biodynamics, and their actual biodynamic practices, might have been good, but I can easily live without a superficial round-up of producers giving their marketing spin on the subject.

Cards on the table here, with no mincing about the bush – I think biodynamics is complete tosh, but I have discussed the topic several times on my blog now, and see no reason to go over old ground to explain why. It is however a subject that I still find fascinating, and one that I am keen to continue to learn about. With that in mind I found Biodynamic Wine to be a very well-structured and clear exposition of the subject, and would certainly recommend it at that level. What I already knew about biodynamics was confirmed, and I also learned a lot from the book. The vast majority of it is unscientific nonsense that I would not want to endorse, but is as far as I know the book contains an accurate description of what people believe. I got the impression that Monty Waldin does not set out to proselytise, but rather set out the stall of biodynamics and let the reader decide, which he did well. I suspect that sceptics will come away from the book feeling even more sceptical, while believers will be further enthused and enthralled.

I have very few criticisms of the book, and all of them are rather superficial. For example, there were one or two sentences that could have done with some editing, and some turns of phrase were rather odd and lead me to believe that the author was a lot more familiar with viticulture than winemaking. And the last time I checked, contrary to what Monty wrote, I was convinced I found that the EU definition of organic wine did in fact have slightly tighter restrictions on wine production than non-organic wine. (If anyone is really interested I can redo my analysis of the regulations, but otherwise, even I am not feeling sufficiently motivated to double-check that sort of geeky detail.)

In summary, if you want to learn about biodynamic wine I strongly recommend this book. It takes a lot of effort to go directly to Steiner’s lectures and the work of his immediate followers, and no amount of reading magazine articles on the subject can in my opinion give a better feel for the subject.

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Exploring & Tasting Wine – book review

Over the last few months I have been reading introductory wine books, partly out of an almost academic interest in how different authors approach the task of communicating to beginners, and partly because I was (maybe still am) toying with the idea of doing the same. As a side effect of this, I think I now have a pretty good overview of the introductory wine books that are currently available.

I still prefer the book that I cut my wine teeth on, but it is sadly now out of print, and getting increasingly out of date. That book was Essential Winetasting by Michael Schuster, which actually covers a lot more than just tasting. Unlike many more modern books that rely heavily on graphics with bits of text scattered around in between the pictures, Essential Winetasting has a proper author who has taken the time to figure out how to present his subject in a more-or-less linear fashion to anyone that wants to follow him on the journey. It is still available second-hand and I would still recommend it, but to anyone who would prefer something more modern as an introductory text, I suggest Exploring & Tasting Wine by Berry Bros & Rudd Wine School. The £30 BBR themselves are selling it for is ridiculously expensive, but it recently became available from Amazon for the more reasonable £16.59, which was when I became tempted to buy it.

9781910904701Let’s get my negative opinions out of the way first. There is no single author, and limited editorial control over the text, so the book can seem disjointed, with occasional conflicts in what the different authors write, e.g. when explaining the French concept of cru. In one sense, it good to see different styles, and get different takes on the same issue, as that reflects the real world of wine, but I feel the beginner needs a more authoritative voice. I also felt the “fluff” images – artistic photographs of vineyards and the like – were overdone, and obstructed what remained of the flow of the text. And for me the graphics were annoying and generally unhelpful. Having said that, it is clear that this style of book is popular with many people, and compared with another introductory wine book I could mention (Wine Folly), I regard this book to be a model of literacy and good design.

More substantially, I found I was taking issue with a few things that were written. Perhaps nothing too bad about that, as none of the views expressed were far from the mainstream, but somehow I never feel that way when I return to Essential Winetasting. Most substantially, I found it very strange that sweetness was not considered to be a “component of balance”. How can you discuss balance in sweet wines, including many German wines available in the UK, without taking sweetness into account? I thought it also a bit odd that complexity was included as component of balance. Of course it is important, but is it really something to balance against acidity, fruit ripeness, alcohol, tannin and oak? Can you have too much complexity? As this concept of balance is used throughout the book as an important feature, what might be regarded as a minor niggle grated with me more and more as I read.

On the positive side, I thought it was good that the book did not attempt to cram in too much information. And the overall structure was good: based around 16 of the most important grape varieties while still considering geography. I also liked the idea of the background and discussion sections, which give the book more depth without cramming in dry facts.

So, on balance, if you want a modern introduction-to-wine book, this is the one I would recommend. But if you find your appetite is whetted, I would suggest that you additionally get a copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine as soon as possible – to extend your knowledge and resolve any outstanding questions you might have. Don’t be put off by the size of The Companion and its expanse of text. It might seem daunting at first, but each entry is quite readable, and very authoritative.

If you are considering any other wine book, introductory or not, you might want to take a look at a list of all my book reviews here. Do check back, as I intend to add more to my in the near future.

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How smell is like vision, and what that means for wine

Considering the very different impressions that vision and smell make on us, there are surprising similarities in how the two senses are processed before they reach the brain. And it is quite possible that these similarities may throw some light on how we describe the aromas we find in wine.

The olfactory bulb (we actually have two of them) is an elongated protuberance lying close to the underside of the brain, but attached only at the back end. The surface of the human olfactory bulb has on it some 6,000 spherical bundles of cells called glomeruli, each one being connected by neurons to several thousand olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity. When odorous compounds enter the nasal cavity, each glomerulus is activated to a greater or lesser extent, creating a pattern of activity on the surface of the olfactory bulb that is a representation of the odours. That pattern can be regarded as analogous to the pattern of activity on the retina of the eye when an image falls on it. In fact the similarity does not stop there, because just as the image on the retina is further processed to facilitate detecting edges and motion, the activity pattern in the glomeruli is also enhanced by subsequent layers of cells in the olfactory bulb. Examples of smell images, reproduced from Gordon M Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy (reviewed here), can be seen below – click to enlarge and make the text legible.smell images

In the same book, Shepherd proceeds to speculate that the smell images created by glomeruli activity are similar to visual images of faces. He suggests that this explains why smells, like faces, are difficult to describe in words but relatively easy to recognise. As a result, if asked to describe a smell we need to resort to comparisons with the smells of well-known objects. Also, neither smells nor faces are processed as the sum of distinctive component parts – we tend to recognise both of them holistically, not so much by the detail as a general impression. Only occasionally can we recognise a face if we only see a small part of it, and usually only for faces we are very familiar with.

This speculation of Shepherd’s can be plausibly taken even further, and related to how we recognise and describe wines. Regardless of whether we are nosing a complex wine or sniffing a single chemical compound, at one level in our perceptual system the result is a glomeruli smell image. I would propose that, in the case of wine, certain aspects of that smell image may remind us of the smell images of other objects – blackcurrant maybe, or lemon – which then become the descriptors we use for the wine. In some cases, the aspects of the smell image that cause us to identify other objects in wine may arise from chemical compounds in common, but this need not necessarily be the case and similarities might be coincidental. The aspects in common may be as simple as discrete fragments of the smell image, or possibly with their root in common relationships between different parts of each image. To continue with the face analogy, the identifying of blackcurrant in a wine could be like saying that a baby’s face has his grandfather’s eyes – the eyes need not be identical, but there is however something that seems somehow similar. Something else that has a counterpart in wine is the idea that if we are very familiar with a face is it easier to recognise it from a partial image. In a smell image of wine, presumably the other objects we may recognise in it are only partially represented, and that could explain why it we are more likely to recognise the aromas we are more familiar with, either in normal life or through other wines.

I totally accept that most of this is speculation, but nevertheless I think how we experience and describe wines is consistent with the idea of smell image recognition, and an interesting way of conceptualising it. Only time and more research will be able to refute or support these ideas.

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