The Story of Wine – book review

This edition of The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £30 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

If the title of the book sounds familiar, that is because it has been around since 1989, published by Mitchell Beazley. As far as I can tell the text is identical to the Mitchell Beazley edition I have from 1999, so I will start by comparing the 1999 edition with this one.

Firstly, the Academie du Vin Library book has a good quality soft-covered binding, and the paper, rather than being bright and shiny, is a good quality matt. It is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 496 sides. The text is clear and well laid-out, and with no illustrations the page design is clean and uncluttered. I think one of the major selling points of the Mitchell Beazley edition was the sumptuous quality of the book, with its rich colour illustrations, but personally I can see the attractions of the new edition. Basically, I find this version a lot more inviting to read – it’s considerably lighter to hold, the text is not broken up by illustrations, and it still feels sumptuous (but in a different sort of way). These are not minor points. In the last few years when I got interested in the origins of wine after having visited Georgia, I intended to reread the earlier edition, but somehow it just seemed too much like hard work due to its look and feel. Yet I now feel motivated to try again with this edition. But perhaps that is just me?

Regarding the illustrations, I have just checked a few places in the 1999 edition, and I cannot see any place where they are particularly closely related to the text, let alone essential for understanding it. Admittedly they do sometimes add information, but my overall impression is that Johnson wrote his book with the intention that the text should stand by itself.

It was a while since the last time I read the text and, irrespective of my new-found enthusiasm, I am realistically not going to reread it in the immediate future, so what follows here are a just few observations about the text. I’ll maybe write a follow-up post with more detail.

The first thing to note is the author’s intention to write this book as a story, hence the title of the book. He does not pretend to be a historian, and Hugh Johnson’s classic style of prose is unencumbered by footnotes, though there is a bibliography for each chapter. And as a story, it starts in the mists of time, and ends in the late 20th century, in the decades when Hugh is getting engrossed in the subject of wine. As such, the story is complete, and did not did to be updated since it was first written, he explains in his preface. Hmmm… that sounds like a pretty thin excuse to me, and I immediately spot some details in chapter 2 that could do with updating in the light of more recent archaeology, and I also consider how wine has changed in the last 30 years or so. But I could just about be prepared to treat it as a story on its own terms – a story reflecting its time of writing.

As for the subject matter of the book, I don’t think I could do better than reproduce the contents pages. (Try clicking on the image to make the text legible.)
If illustrations in a book are important to you, try to find an older edition – Google reveals there are still new copies kicking about waiting to be purchased. Otherwise, for sheer reading pleasure, I’d recommend you get this new Academie du Vin Library edition.

Edit: Well, some time after writing this review I did start reading the book again. But I did not get far. I found Johnson’s expansive prose rather annoying, and would have much prepared something terser that concentrated on facts, rather than scene-setting. However, as mentioned above, maybe this is just me. Judge for yourself whether you are like me or not.

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! – book review

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Howkins, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £23 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

In a couple of sentences…  It’s an attractive book, both visually and tactually, and if you like an easy-going style of writing I think you’ll enjoy it. It covers a broad range of topics and, irrespective of other factors, will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know more about the trend towards en rama styles and the new generation of boutique bodegas.

The book is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 223 sides on a heavy glossy paper, in high-quality soft covers. The pages are nicely bound, so the book will open flat, and comfortably stay open. From a sample so far of two, the quality of the binding, seems to be common to all the Academie du Vin Library publications. These may sound like superficial details, but I am increasingly realising that a book’s touch and feel is important – in the same way perhaps that a wine glass is to the wine it contains.

The book is well-illustrated in colour throughout, the illustrations complementing the text without being too intrusive. But as usual with most wine books, I found the maps lacking – I think there was only one created for the book, and it had little detail. Old maps were also reproduced in places, but were so small as to be impossible to read. On the positive side from a practical point of view, the book did at least have a decent index.

The major topics covered are: history, vineyards, wine styles, and bodegas. Those are followed by a miscellaneous group of smaller chapters on various subjects: Ruiz-Mateos (the man who broke the Sherry bank), the general culture of the region, non-local cultural references to Sherry, tasting and tasting notes, related food and drink, and finally a collection of reflections on Sherry from 50 wine notables.

The author aptly describes his book as “a personal take on the current sherry scene”, seemingly contrasting it with “Julian Jeffs’ classic book Sherry“. I see what he means. Jeffs’ book is indeed excellent in its scholarship and detail, and Howkins is wise not to attempt to emulate it. Nevertheless, in my 2016 review of Jeffs’ book I did note that it failed to communicate the current excitement for Sherry. Also there was no mention by Jeff of the trend towards en rama bottlings, and only slight coverage of the newer boutique bodegas. Howkins’ book certainly addresses well all of those aspects.

But what is implied by what he says is his “personal take”? Well, he has spent a lifetime in the wine trade, including a period working specifically with Sherry, and that gives him rich insights into developments in the region over the last 50 years or so and, through personal contacts, further back into the 20th century. It also gives him a good understanding of attitudes to Sherry in its export markets. However, one thing that struck me, was that this perspective is rather privileged, as there are numerous stories of being entertained by owners and directors of Sherry companies – glasses of Sherry in meetings, late and long lunches, late and long dinners, home visits, flamenco evenings, bullfights.

Don’t get me wrong – the experiences are interesting and entertaining, as Howkins writes well, and it gives a good insight into how Sherry fits in with that kind of lifestyle. But my recent personal experience of Sherry as a tourist in Sanlúcar, was very different. I found that Manzanilla, while important, was viewed by locals as a rather ordinary everyday experience. I was told they used it for cooking, and you could buy it in any bar very cheaply. But each bar and restaurant I came across obtained all its wine from a single bodega and, while delicious, they were all basic level wines, so the vast range of exciting Sherry styles and bodegas mentioned in the book was not readily available to me. I am not complaining, as I had a good holiday, but it was not the wine-geek and cultural nirvana the book might lead one to expect.

When I started reading I was a bit unsure about the book, as I think I am naturally more attuned to Jeffs’ drier formal writing, rather than Howkins’ prose that is more relaxed, wordy and effusive. But as I continued, I got more and more into the style and subject matter, really enjoying the Sherry company chapters, and especially the one on boutique bodegas. I also found it very interesting to learn more about the cream styles of Sherry, which tend to get overlooked in more recent accounts. I was aware of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and must have drunk a few glasses in my time, but had no idea how important that one brand was to the British wine trade, and to the Sherry region.

After the bodega chapters however, I thought they got more piecemeal, disconnected, and of variable interest. In particular, I really did not understand the need for the final chapter of 50 personal reflections on Sherry. Each piece individually may have been interesting, but after the first 20 or so, many started to sound a bit samey.

Despite its weak finish, the book’s engaging mid-palate literally whetted my appetite for Sherry, and led me to crack open a half-bottle of Manzanilla brought back from Sanlúcar. I think the author would mark that down as a success.

The Wines of Georgia – book review

The Wines of Georgia by Lisa Granik MW, is published by Infinite Ideas in the Classic Wine Library series, with a recommended price of £30. I couldn’t find it cheaper at the usual discounting online booksellers, but it is worth googling for a discount code to buy directly from the publishers. As I write, there are substantial reductions available for WSET, MW and CMS students and/or alumni. By way of disclosure, I should point out that I was given a review copy.

In broad terms, the organisation follows the pattern of many wine books whose topic is a country or major region. Firstly there is background information, separated into chapters on geology, history, wine culture, and a rather large one on local grape varieties. Then, apart from some closing thoughts, each subsequent chapter takes a Georgian region as its subject. The size of each region’s chapter reflects the extent of its winemaking activity, so the Kakheti chapter is another large one, as Kakheti is responsible for the majority of wine production in the country.

My second reviewer disclosure is to declare how much of the book I actually read. Most background chapters were read carefully, but I skipped through the grape variety and regional chapters to get a general impression, pausing only to read in more detail where I was more familiar with the subject matter, or where something in particular otherwise caught my attention. I suspect this reading pattern would not be untypical, as the later chapters would be heavy-going if read in a linear fashion, and are a lot more suited for reference material.

My general impression is that the book is well-researched and detailed. Not only has Lisa travelled extensively in the country, but she has consulted organisational authorities, and read in some depth on the subjects she writes about. Thus for example, she avoids the retelling of Georgian history according to folk memory, and offers a more nuanced interpretation of Georgia’s Soviet period. There are but a handful of comments in the text that I find questionable, but they could be largely put down to emphasis and interpretation, and are certainly not significant enough to merit analysis here.

The tone is generally formal and serious, so you have to be on your guard or you will miss the occasional flashes of dry humour. One consequence of this tone is that Georgia’s romance is downplayed, along with its people, food and countryside. But that’s fair enough, the main topic after all is wine, and a single book cannot be expected to cover everything.

The regional chapters, which comprise around half the book, are packed with solid and interesting information. However, they might be easier to navigate if more structure were imposed on them. Thus, while they contained solid information on the geography, geology, PDOs, and producers, it was not always obvious where to find it. If structure  does exist in the regional chapters, then it is perhaps more a criticism of the publisher’s layout and typography than the author. A finer level of detail in the table of contents would have helped, as would a better index.  For example if you want to know about Kindzmarauli, a word you may find on a Georgian wine label, it does not have its own top level index entry; you have to know to look under Protected Designations of Origin, and then Kakheti.

Better maps would also have helped in some of the explanations in the regional chapters. Map quality in wine books is a constant complaint of mine, and actually the ones in this book are better than most. It is really only the Upper Kakheti map that attempts to cram in far too much information – but this is sadly the one that covers most of the country’s wine production.

On the positive side, I was very pleasantly surprised to see what I thought was a very balanced approach in any discussion of homemade and natural wines. This subject is usually divisive, and while a fair amount of writing on Georgian wine has come from cheerleaders of the natural wine movement, MWs seem to often adopt the opposite, very disdainful, stance. The cheerleaders may make my eyes roll, but it the disdain irritates me more. Anyway, I finished up unirritated, with eyeballs intact, and just a little curious as to exactly where Lisa draws the line between faultiness and acceptability in natural wines.

The blurb on the back cover claims that this is the definitive book on Georgian wine. I am not sure I agree, if only because I am not sure a definitive book can exist for a subject matter that is changing so rapidly. But I would go so far as to say it is the best book to date, without a shadow of a doubt. So if you want to learn about Georgian wine, this should be your first port of call.

Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine – book review

Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine by Anna Saldadze, hardback, available online from various places for £25.

My initial impression on opening the book was very favourable. It is not exactly what I would call a coffee-table book, as its dimensions (24.5 x 19.5 x 2 cm) are too modest, the images not dominating enough, and the text is too good. But it is certainly beautifully designed in a quiet sort of way, with the text nicely laid out, and excellent photographs and illustrations to complement the text. Even the maps, one of my biggest bugbears in most wine books, are both attractive and useful. The text also reads well, in a gentle and relaxed style, leisurely almost, in keeping with the general feel of the book.

The named sections cover the topics outlined here… The Quest gives background cultural information on Georgia and its wine. The Modern Pioneers is about the recent trend towards commercialising natural qvevri wines. Strangely, this section ends with a selection of label images from many different types of wine – not just the natural qvevri ones – each with a  short winery profile. The Qvevri is unsurprisingly about qvevri, and qvevri winemaking, and A Joyful Spirit is, less obviously perhaps, about the Georgian supra feasting tradition. This is followed by what for me was the most interesting section, as it covered ground I was less familiar with – The Estates describes the history of three large wine estates that were established in the 19th century when Georgia was part of the Russian empire, and tells how they introduced modern European wine technology into the country. The final main section is the longest –  Regions, Grapes and Wines, looks at the regions of Georgia, some of which are PDOs as the book calls them, or appellations if you prefer. This is where you will find the maps I referred to above, along with high quality ampelographic images of the vines most typically associated with each regions, and accompanying text. There follows 5 annexes, which seem to contain bits and pieces that were deemed not to fit into any of the other sections, and then a massive list of Georgian grape varieties, in both Latin and Georgian script. Presumably the point of this list is to ram home the vast number of native grape varieties Georgia has – 525 according to this book and many other sources, but it has never been made clear to me where this precise number comes from. And I am still none the wiser as to the source of that number, nor where the list in this book comes from. I note that it is not the same as the list at the back of Georgian Ampelography, and neither is it the same as the list of native Georgian grapes you get from the Vitis International Variety Catalogue database.

At the end of the author’s introduction, she writes “This book is a humble introduction to a complex wine culture. It is neither an ethnological study nor an œnological treatise, nor does it claim to be exhaustive. It merely aims to arouse curiosity, and to encourage the discovery of something which is at the some time very old, and yet also very new”. Those goals are certainly successfully achieved, and with a degree of aplomb.  I do wonder though if you, as a reader of my blog, might be expecting more of the œnological treatise that the book was never intended to be. But take it on its own terms, as an introduction to a complex wine culture, and you will not be disappointed.

The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova – book review

This is a review of The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby, published by Infinite Ideas. The RRP is £30.00 and it doesn’t seem easy to get it cheaper than that now, but I bought mine with a (now expired) 35%-off discount code from The Wine Society.

The single word that springs to mind to describe this book is professional. It is thoroughly researched, carefully and precisely written in a rather dry style, and I think largely aimed at other professionals – wine buyers, and winemakers and investors in those three countries, potential or actual. I suspect however there is little of direct interest to end-user drinkers of wine in the UK, as there are no opinions on specific on wines available over here. Nor is there anything about how we might go about visiting the countries to find out more, should our interest be piqued. Little of interest in a direct way at least, but I did find the history sections worthwhile, as they provided good insights into how the current state of wine production came to be what it is, and I expect a lot of the rest of the book to prove useful for reference. As a wine geek, I am more than happy to own this book, even if it does not enthuse me as much as I might have hoped.

I have already commented negatively on the author’s sections in this book on homemade wines, and I think those comments also indicate Caroline’s professional and industry perspective. While I am naturally inclined to defend homemade wines, I can absolutely understand that someone who wishes to encourage the development of commercial wine production might see things differently.

The book’s major division is by parts, dealing with each of the three countries. Then for each country there are chapters devoted to history, the current situation and possible futures. And those are followed by chapters on grape varieties, wine regions, and producer profiles. At the end of the book are three appendices of statistics, a glossary, bibliography, and index. All the text is very thorough. But illustrations, grey-tone and colour plates, are sparse, and in my opinion of very limited value. And as with practically every wine book I read and review, the maps are particularly lacking. I know good cartography is not cheap, but it could contribute so much to a subject where geography is so important to understanding.

So definitely a book to get if you have a professional wine interest in Bulgaria, Romania or Moldova, or if you are particularly geeky in your interest in wine. But probably not if you have a more casual interest in the wines of those countries.

Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils – book review

This is a review of Vineyards, Rocks, & Soils – The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology, by Alex Maltman, a book published earlier this year, by Oxford University Press which probably explains the unnecessary comma in the title. I picked it up recently from Wordery for just over £20.

My first impressions were very favourable. It is what I have come to think of as a classic-style book: with text organised in a logical sequence and designed to be read linearly from beginning to end. And the illustrations support the text rather than being the main focus of the book. Call me old-fashioned, but that is the way I like the world, and I already have more than enough books for the coffee table thank you. My only criticisms about the presentation is that the text on some of the illustrations is difficult to read due to its size and/or poor contrast, and that the colour illustrations are bound as plates in the centre for the book. I appreciate this is done to keep costs down, but it nevertheless makes the book less convenient to use. Close to the relevant bit of text, there are also grey-scale versions of the plate illustrations, but the grey-scale figure captions do not reference the plates, so I was more than a little bemused to see a grey-scale image used to illustrate the “striking red color” of the terra rossa soil, without realising the image also existed in colour elsewhere. Neither do the colour images reference the grey scale versions, or even duplicate the figure captions, so if you try browsing the colour plates you have no idea what you are looking at. (In case you are wondering, if there is a colour version of the figure it is the main text that links the two versions, by referencing both of them.)

The book starts at the atomic level, and works its way up in scale through two chapters about minerals (the chemical compounds that comprise rocks), then moves on to the three types of rock (sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic). That is followed by a couple of chapters about folds, faults and joints in rock, and how geology influences landscape. In this initial two-thirds or so of the book, there is little mention of how the geology influences wine, but the author does take pains to give examples of the minerals, rocks and landscape features under discussion in well-known wine regions and vineyards, and also notes how the geological terms are used on wine labels and in promoting the wines.

Building on that basis, the rubber then makes firmer contact with the road as we learn about how this geology affects vines and wines. Largely it is indirectly through the soil, so we look at how soils are created, mineral nutrients, minerals in wine, and a more general look and the concept of terroir. This is followed by a chapter on geological time, and the names of the geological periods. This seems like an odd place to discuss geological time, and to an extent the author seems reluctant to discuss it at all, as he maintains the age of the rocks has no bearing on the soils, vines and wines. But it is nevertheless a favourite topic of wine-writers, and of people promoting wines and wine regions, so he thought it should be mentioned. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue discussion of the  how the geology of the vineyard affects its wine’s taste.

At the end of the book, I felt I had grasped the broad thrust of the main geological content, but I must admit I skipped through some of the detail, and very quickly forgot some detail I did concentrate on. But I still have the book, and with its excellent index, and use of a bold typeface to indicate where new concepts are explained, it will be good as a reference work to help keep myself geologically sound in my writing.

Maltman seems to have become a bit of a bête noir amongst proponents of minerality and terroir, at least those who see things in black and white terms. But I think his attitude as expressed in this book strikes the right balance in a very measured and tolerant way. Nevertheless, and quite reasonably in my opinion, he does maintain a degree of scientific scepticism. I tend to agree with him on most of these issues of debate.

Also, while pointing out that wine people often do not use geological terms correctly, I think he is also very understanding, admitting that the subject can be very confusing, and that even geologists change their minds and do not always agree amongst themselves. However, when he sees important geological errors in the wine world he is keen to flag them up. A good example is the common confusion between the very different rocks called tuff (volcanic) and tufa (precipitated from cold water).

My final point is that Alex Maltman is an academic who has a wealth of experience in the teaching of geology, and it shows. He knows how to develop the subject in a logical way, how to explain topics that are likely to confuse, and how to lighten the mood with the odd anecdote. And he writes with authority. This is in marked contrast to the more journalistic style of writing where the author travels the world to “find out”, recording interviews with experts en route, and often requiring the reader to fill in the gaps and assemble everything to make a coherent whole. That journalistic style appears to be increasingly popular – but it is not for me.

Godforsaken Grapes – book review

Godforsaken Grapes – a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine, by Jason Wilson. I got my copy from Blackwell’s a few days ago, as soon as it became available in the UK, for £17.60.

The title of the book is a reference to one of Robert Parker’s more infamous pronouncements, this time about how godforsaken grapes like Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu and Blaufrankisch produce wines that are rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend. Parker’s actual sentence was rather long and rambling, but can be found here if you are interested. With the title of Godforsaken Grapes, Jason Wilson seemingly throws down the gauntlet in Parker’s direction, but in the book itself he generally avoids direct confrontation, and the focus is not always on the actual grapes. The book’s subtitle is a much fairer reflection of its contents: a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine.

Wilson’s slightly tipsy meanderings mainly take him to producers in Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy, but they also touch on France and Portugal, and towards the end he moves home to the USA to discuss people’s attitudes to unusual grapes and wines there. The geographical focus seemed a bit strange to me, but as the book progressed, I realised that it was essentially based on some of the more left-field trips and visits he got invited on in the course of being a wine journalist. And that leads me on to my main criticism – the book does not explore these godforsaken grapes in any sort of systematic way.

The descriptions of the locations and people he meets are often detailed and evocative, which is good in itself I guess. Although I don’t always buy into the idea, journalists and other writers are often encouraged to tell a story or paint a picture. But in this book I felt the background detail often overwhelmed the meat of the subject, and was not enthralling enough to stop me skipping through paragraphs, or even over them. But perhaps that is just me?

On the positive side, I found Wilson’s opinions to be balanced and well reasoned. He does not adopt an evangelistic tone, so more conservative wine-lovers would find the content inoffensive. And as someone who tends to seek out unusual wine anyway I was not embarrassed by how he fought my corner, as I am often by the preachers in the natural wine movement. I was also impressed that he addressed so many issues concerning these less well known grapes and wines. Some points I felt could have been made a bit more forcibly, but most were covered. For example, we were told: how the quality of the grape is not necessarily the reason it came to be a minor player; how some grapes seem obscure, but that is only from our Western perspective; how the even the names of some grapes can dissuade consumers in some countries; and how the popularity of different grapes and wines can be mere fashion. All this was of course in addition to describing his experiences with particular grapes and wines.

If you want a book to sit down and read, and are looking for something to pique your interest in more unusual wines, this might be for you. On the other hand, if you expect a reference book, or more structured presentation, to feed an existing passion for godforsaken grapes, you could be disappointed. I probably fall into the later category, and am a indeed little disappointed. But I still appreciate the good aspects of Wilson’s book, and will probably be referring back to it from time to time. It does at least have an index, which will be useful in that regard. Overall I certainly do not regret buying it.

The New Wine Rules – book review

The New Wine Rules – a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know, by Jon Bonné. This was just over £9.00 online from Wordery, including postage.

Right from the off I will say that a few parts of this book are obviously written for the US market, in terms of both language and content. But it is not a huge issue for me, and I note that Amazon UK are selling a version with a different cover that will published at the end of May. Perhaps this will be an edition more geared up for  the UK?

The book is of modest size, consisting of 89 “rules”, each one occupying anything from a few lines to two or three pages. I use quotation marks around the word “rule” because many of them are not so much rules as snippets of information about wine. I think it is fair to say that they are aimed at relative newbies to the world of wine. They might well appreciate a lot of the advice, but I was not so impressed, and took issue with a fair proportion of it, to a greater or lesser extent. I feel it is not only important to keep your target audience happy, but also to provide information that is appropriate, good quality, and clear, and although I accept these book was not written for us wine smart-arses, we are still entitled to an opinion on the quality of the content.

I actually thought the book got off to a great start. Rule 1: Drink the rainbow. Absolutely. Be adventurous, explore, and don’t be limited by tradition and traditional advice. At this point, I felt that the book my hands was the one I wanted to write myself, and this Jon Bonné chap had beaten me to it curse him. Rule 2: Forget “the best wines”. Drink the good. Spot on. Jon and me stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

But then things take a turn for the worse. Rule 3: A good wine-store employee is your best friend. This is advice I have often seen, but where are these wine stores, and how do you recognise them if you are a newbie yourself? I know one or two, but they are few and far between, and if you are not careful you can get really lousy advice, and even be lied to. Skipping a few rule now, brings us to … Rule 7: You can have all the corkscrew you need for under $10. Yes, I would agree with that, and the advice to get a waiter’s friend, or at least to try it. But then Jon goes on to slag-off winged (or lever) cork screws. Now I don’t like them either, but I know people that do. Why not simply suggest to try a few types of corkscrew and select your favourite? Then he goes on to say that if you want to go “really pro” buy an ah-so (or butler’s thief) extractor, or “splurge on a pro tool” like a Durand. So is he is really saying: stick to cheap corkscrews unless you want to swank around and pretend that you are a pro? I am really not quite sure. Durand’s are great for extracting old crumbly corks, and my advice would be to get one if you drink a lot of really old wines. But not just because you feel the urge to “splurge on a pro tool”. And I would add that if some bits of cork fall into the wine it is not the end of the world – just fish them out. I have read the whole book. Honest. But I chose to selected those examples from just the first few rules give a general flavour of the book and my objections

Other objections of mine are a bit more factual. For example, Jon implies at one point that white and red wines should be stored at different temperatures. I know some agree with him, but as far as I know (and I have just googled to confirm it) most people think it is fine to use the same cellaring temperature for all wines. Particularly in a book aimed at novices, even if there is some doubt on this issue, I think an author’s instinct should be to keep things simple. Another rather bizarre statement is that, in the 1855 classification, “all 5 levels” are considered Grand Crus. Perhaps by some, but I have not seen it before. I have seen them called Grands Crus Classées in one or two place, but usually they are simply Crus Classées. Also, according to Jon, Großes Gewächs wines no longer have to be dry. Really? It is the first I have heard of it, and I can find nothing about it when I google, but he might be right. But regardless of whether he is right or wrong, do his readers really need to know about this?

More generally, I am far from convinced that the best way to present information about wine is as a set of short rules. On the other hand that structure must be ideal from the point of view of the convenience of the writer, and it is duly noted for my book, which it seems I am going to have to write after all.

Overall, if I were asked to recommend a book for beginners I would suggest something with a more traditional format. I have a very high regard for Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting, which I used extensively when getting into wine. And if I return to it now I am still impressed by how accurate it is, even if it is written at an introductory level. So, especially as a new edition of Essential Winetasting was published last year, that is the book I would recommend.

Cork Dork – book review

Cork Dork – a wine-fuelled journey into the art of sommeliers and the science of taste, by Bianca Bosker. I bought my copy recently online for around £6.50 including postage.

A friend once told me that the best accounts of life in a foreign country were by those who had either recently moved there, or who had lived there a long time. Cork Dork has the advantage of being written after only a year or so of the author throwing herself into the foreign deep-end of wine-geekery. The experience is still very fresh, and its portrayal insightful, clear, vivid and lively.

I found this book enjoyable at two levels. It works well as a personal story of Bianca’s entanglement in the world of high-flying New York sommeliers – a story in which she starts by observing only, but eventually goes native, takes her Certified Sommelier exam, and ultimately works as a sommelier. On this journey she also gains access to La Paulée de New York, and interviews academics and scientists.

But I also liked the other level – where Bianca takes a reflective and sceptical look at wine expertise with its associated rituals and characters. The reflections are perceptive and accurate, and the scepticism is never heavy-handed and often understated. Indeed sometimes is not stated at all, but the mere recounting of a personal experience occasionally seems to function as a questioning comment on her new world of wine. I share all of her scepticism, and have written about it here many times, but this never descends into calling bullshit on wine expertise – neither my scepticism I hope, nor Bianca’s. I think we both agree that what we are looking at are human responses to a subject that is both intriguing and complex – and this is perhaps the main reason I think wine is such a fascinating subject.

Finally, an observation that the wine world entered by Bianca lies at the geekiest extreme of the spectrum. I know a lot of wine people, but very few of them are at all like her New York sommelier friends and colleagues. We did in the book get a small insight into an out-of-town sommelier desperate to pass her Certified Sommelier exam so she could better support her family, but she was I think the sole example of a more normal wine professional. Also, there are many amateur wine enthusiasts I know who do not indulge, or would even want to,  indulge, in exclusive Paulée debauchery. Neither do we aspire to be PXs (customers worthy of buttering-up and up-selling) at Michelin-starred restaurants. We are not all like that – honest. To that extent, there remain many alternative, more attainable, wine worlds worthy of exploration by anyone wanting to stick their toe in the wine water.

Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine – book review

Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine, by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, available direct from Vinologue for $26 plus shipping.

Very recently published, I think it is fair to say that this is the only book about Georgian wine to cover the ground with the depth and scope expected by most wine lovers. Quite simply put, if you want a book on Georgian wine this is for you. As the introduction claims, the format hits the middle ground between a heavy coffee-table book and a compact travel guide. There are 300 glossy A5 pages, richly illustrated with pertinent photographs. While the glossy paper does make the book rather heavy to carry around, the robust hardback binding will minimise any damage when you toss it into the back of the car for your Georgian road trip.

As implied above, the book has all the sections you would expect in an introductory guide to a wine region or country, and also has practical information for visitors. There is a General Info part with, among other things, sections on the language, history and cuisine of the country, and notably a substantial section on Georgian grape varieties. The official Georgian appellations are covered the 20-page part 2, with the remaining two-thirds or so of the book being devoted to the regions of Georgia. Each region gets a general introduction, including restaurants, shops, museums and other places that would be of interest to wine lovers. This is followed by profiles of its wineries, each profile typically taking a page or so of text. At the end of the book are winery contact details and GPS coordinates.

Given that whenever Georgian wines are mentioned the focus is so often on kvevri and natural wines, it is perhaps worth stressing that producers of all styles of wine are covered. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Georgian wine is what we might call conventional, and that this too can also have considerable interest for wine lovers.

So what did I not like? Well, map quality in wine books is a constant gripe for me. Here the problem is that the maps are so schematic, and literally devoid of scale, that they give no impression at all of the country and regions. You see items of interest associated with towns, villages and areas of Tbilisi, but that’s about it. For borders of the regions that are discussed, and the physical geography that is so important to wine, you really need to have access to additional maps. You could get them online, but shouldn’t the purpose of the book be to provide such things?

Also, in the winery profiles I think most readers would appreciate a stronger indication of the types of wine made, and their quality. A lot of opinion I have come across so far seems to basically consist of praising all natural kvevri wines and demonising everything else. I am sure a more nuanced approach is called for, and in this book a terrific opportunity has been lost.

My final gripe would be about the clunkiness of some of the language. Occasionally I found myself struggling to figure out what was being said, wondering if some critical words were missing for example. Even if the vast majority of the text was fine and there there was little loss of overall meaning, at times I really did find the difficult sentences got a bit tiresome. Maybe it was just me and my earnest quest for information, and a more casual reader would gloss over such things?

But enough negativity. Despite any awkwardness of language, I enjoyed reading my copy in a couple of days, and shall doubtless continue to use it for reference. I repeat that this is pretty much the only book that brings together such a complete range of information about Georgian wine, and the authors are to be congratulated for having the enterprise to make it available in such an accessible way.