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I still prefer the book that I cut my wine teeth on, but it is sadly now getting increasingly out of date.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.
Let’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.