This is a review of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting by Burton and Flewelllen. I bought my copy for just under £23 from hive, who were offering the best price at the time. Hive are definitely are worth checking out if you have ethical issues with Amazon, and also are one of the few online bookstores to accept book tokens as well as offering discounted prices.
One of the authors lead the Oxford University competitive blind tasting team, so I was disappointed that the book was a bit light on blind tasting. I was hoping for techniques and tips so I could amaze my friends by my ability to identify wines blind, but despite some pointers I fear my ability to amaze remains unaltered. It turns out that only about one tenth (including the appendices) of the 376 page book is devoted to tasting, and a lot of that is not specific to blind tasting. History, viticulture and vinification together gets a bit less space than tasting, and the rest is devoted to the wine countries and regions, with the usual focus on the old world and classic. Overall, the scope of the book is very similar to the wine bits of the WSET textbook for Level 3 – at least the editions I used 10 years or so ago.
On the subject of blind tasting, it is noteworthy that this book has many generic tasting notes for wines from the various regions, often comparing the wines with similar varietals or blends from elsewhere. Considering all the variation that can occur within any region I wonder how useful these generic notes are, but if they help win blind tasting competitions I suppose there must be something in them. These notes and comparisons are in the regional sections, but also gathered together in an appendix and published online.
The slight criticism hinted at by other reviewers is that the style is dry, and that it reads like a text-book. That is correct, but it did not bother me. In fact it was one of the factors that lead me to get the book. I think part of the dryness of style is due to the level of detail in the book. In more superficial works I think you can afford to be more chatty, and the few facts you convey can be selected to be particularly interesting and relevant. And in more detailed accounts it is often precisely the detail that is interesting. This book falls between the two stools in terms of level of detail, and suffers a bit for that. However, every now and then there is a hint of quirkiness which you may or may not like. So far so good as far as I am concerned. Now for the negatives. I’ll give some example, and you can judge for yourself if you think they would bother you.
The maps are in my opinion inadequate. Colour really would have helped with the maps, where a confusing combination of hatching, shading and text is used to identify regions, and the lines for regional boundaries and rivers sometimes just form a tangled mess. I do realise that colour printing would add to the cost of the book, and good quality map design would too, but maps are important in understanding wine. I don’t expect atlas quality maps, but something more readable would be good. And maybe it is just me, but I get frustrated if I am reading text describing the geography and flicking backwards and forwards to check a map, and then suddenly find mention of a place that is not on the map. That happened a few times with this book.
The section on pruning is far too short and confused. For example, without even a definition of spur and cane, all the stuff about cane-pruned vines being spur-trained and vice versa is pretty pointless. In fact I am not sure it is at all important anyway. If the book could just have explained the basics of cane- and spur-training it would have been great.
Then there were two specific errors I spotted. On page 21 we have what seems to have now acquired the status of an industry-standard factoid, namely that the EU bans the blending of red and white wine except for Champagne production. This is simply not the case, but the more books trot this out, the more people will think it is true. In fact a counter example is given later on p141, where it is explained that rosé Franciacorta may be made by blending in red wine. Secondly, on p72, we are told that Bourgogne Passetoutgrains allows up to 2/3 Gamay. Well, that used to be the case, but now it is actually 70%. Is it important? Maybe not, but if not why say it at all? My main concern though are the potential errors I did not spot. Rosé production and Passetoutgrains are merely a couple of topics I have had cause to research in the past. What about all the other subjects I know a lot less about?
Do these criticism sound familiar? They are in fact very similar to the ones I levelled at Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia despite the fact that they are very different books. Maybe it is just me. To be honest, I suppose there is little here that would raise the eyebrows of most wine people. The book offers a quick scamper through the subject, and will serve as a reference that is handier to access than more heavyweight books such as The Oxford Companion. But there are quite a lot of things that I found questionable at best – things that are said and repeated in wine circles, and eventually written down, probably in other places as well as here. A good example is the assertion that some vineyard soils are good because they absorb and reflect heat well. But heat doesn’t work like that. Any heat that is not absorbed is reflected, and vice versa. Do they mean absorbed and radiated at night? That would make more sense. What it really means I suspect, is that people think the soil has good heat properties, without really being too sure, or caring about any details. Welcome to the world of wine.