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.

Online information about Georgian wine

As Georgian wine gets more popular, there is an increasing number of easily digestible online summary articles, and if you want to seek those out I shall leave you in the capable hands of Google. But more surprising for me is the large amount detailed and authoritative information out there. In English too. Here I point out some of the best of these pages, images and documents.

Wine maps

Vinoge.com has arguably the best overview wine map of Georgia, showing the locations of many wine producers, and the main viticultural regions. It is displayed in a rather annoying way in the top right of all pages of the website, but by right-clicking you can open the entire map at high resolution, as seen here.

The same site also has a good set of more detailed maps for individual regions, which can all be accessed from this page. You may need to scroll down a bit to find the first one, then keep clicking on the map you are interested in until you eventually you get the map as a high-resolution image.

From hvino.com, you may also find this map of interest. The information given is a mixed bag, with various items of interest for Georgian wine tourists. Personally I don’t think it works well as an overview, but is perhaps more useful if you are after something in particular.

Appellations of Origin

There is an official document available as PDF that describes the Georgian Appellations of Origin in English. Each delimited region is shown on its own detailed map, but you will need a more general map to understand where those regions are within Georgia. I found searching for village names on Google maps was a good way to get that context. (Update 16/07/20: A number of new appellations have been announced since this document was published, and significant changes to at least one existing appellation. See this more recent post for up-to-date information.)

The soils and climate of each zone are described in mind-numbing detail, but the requirements on grape varieties are only very vaguely expressed. The varieties are listed and described, but then you are usually left to assume that it is those grapes that are allowed in some proportion or other, and others are prohibited. (Update 16/07/20: The regulations regarding grape varieties are now much clearer.)

Georgian producers do not seem to be using these AOC names as enthusiastically as they might, but you do occasionally see them on labels so it can be good to know what they mean. Indeed it is good merely to know which AOC names exist, so you do not confuse them for grape varieties.

Grape varieties

When you have the Georgian AOCs under your belt, you might want to download the 456 page PDF tome Georgian Ampelography for further reading material. There are over 500 Georgian grapes mentioned in the list at the end of this book, but it focusses on the detailed ampelography of only 59, including 4 from France, the remainder all being native to Georgia. In the 1960 edition the main entries were restricted to 57 varieties – a nod to Heinz perhaps? – including 5 French ones.

Sadly for wine drinkers, the ampelographic descriptions include little comment on the style and quality of the wine produced by the various varieties. But if you need to grow or identify vines in a Georgian vineyard – or are a card-holding wine geek – this is definitely a book for you. Somehow, even if I am unlikely to read more than a small fraction of it, I feel my life is enhanced by this scholarly work.

Qvevri

Finally, for information about qvevri, including regional variations in usage, it is hard to beat the short PDF book Making Wine in Qvevri – a Unique Georgian Tradition.

Tasting Georgia – book review

This is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia – A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, hardback, Amazon price is just over £20. It is published by Pallas Athene, and will be available from 6th June. So in the sense that this book has not been published yet, this is more of a preview than a review. It is also a preview in the sense that it is based on a mere 2 hrs or so perusing an almost-final PDF version of the book – sadly I find it hard to read on-screen for longer periods of time.

Firstly, I was struck by the photography, which is also Carla’s work. It is of a very high standard, and the images nicely complement the text to give a feeling for the country and its food and wine. Many of them impacted me emotionally, reflecting the beauty and often-gritty reality of the subject matter. I have recently returned from a visit to Georgia, and my impressions are captured by Carla far better than my own inadequate photographs. At a much more prosaic level, it was also nice to see locations, faces and dishes I recognised.

After a general introduction to the country’s history, wine and food, with emphasis on the food, Carla devotes each major section of the book to a particular region. Each starts with a map and introduction, followed by a number of sections devoted to specific entities in the region – villages, restaurants, food shops, cooks, winemakers and, notably, recipes. There are 70 recipes in total throughout the book, each one attractively presented in a very practical way over a double-page spread, one page to illustrate the dish, the facing page describing how to make it.

The book smacks of good solid, almost classical, design. It is nicely presented in terms of structure and illustrations, and reads very well. A common bugbear of mine is the quality of the mapping in wine books, but I have absolutely no complaints on that score with this book. I could easily imagine going through it linearly from cover to cover – as there is no annoyance of boxes and side-bars to break the flow – and yet the division of the text equally supports diving in to take one section at a time. Finally, it has a comprehensive index. Two in fact, as there is a separate recipe index and meal planner. Am I getting over-excited by the presence of an index? It is something one should expect in a book of this type, but increasingly it is a feature deemed expendable by publishers, and one I miss if absent.

As I am writing on a wine blog, I would add just one note of caution. If you buy this book only for information about Georgian wine you could be disappointed, as Tasting Georgia is certainly no comprehensive guide to its wines and producers, and neither does it claim to be. Nevertheless, I am sure many wine lovers – especially those with foodie tendencies – will find a great deal of interest here.

So, as I said, this is a more preview than a review. I am not sure if I have convinced you about the book, but I have certainly seen enough to know want a paper copy for myself so I can read it properly. In the meantime, I shall be describing my personal experiences of Georgia over the next few blog posts here, so if you are interested in the country please keep in touch.

Update 02/06/17: Carla has added a comment to this post that I think you will find worthwhile reading – some background to the book, her approach to writing, and more about the wine-related sections.

Update 28/11/17: Just a note to say that since writing the above preview, I have read the  physical hardback book in detail, some parts more than once, and have also used a few of the recipes. My respect for the book has only grown, and I still agree with everything I wrote above, though I have just made a few very minor changes, including changing the RRP to an online price. I do however fear that my comment about the book not being a “comprehensive guide to its wines and producers” comes across as too negative. It was not meant to be; but just an indication that it does not follow the standard pattern of wine books, with sections on grape varieties, major producers, and tasting notes. On the other hand the book does cover artisanal qvevri wine production in considerable detail, and profiles many wine producers of that type. I should also point out that I obtained the physical book as a review copy from Carla, but already I have also put my money where my mouth is, and bought a copy of it as a present.

For the Love of Wine – book review

Here I review For the Love of Wine by Alice Feiring. I bought the hardback book online several months ago for just under £11.00. It is verbosely subtitled My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture and yet there is still no mention of the country whose wine culture gets travelled through. The only clue, and a rather cryptic one at that, is the stylised image of a qvevri – yes the country is Georgia.

As hinted at in the book’s subtitle, it is indeed an account of Feiring’s journey through the wine world of Georgia, including some regions that are about at remote as you can get in wine-production terms – ones that hardly produce any wine at all. I am about to embark on a trip to Georgia myself, and am feeling quite excited by the prospect of visiting the town of Sighnaghi in Georgia’s main wine production area of Kakheti, and yet Feiring seems to regard Sighnaghi with the same sort of disdain that I might have for Disneyland. As with a lot of the book, I suspect and hope this says more about Feiring than it does about what is on the ground. We’ll see – I’ll let you know. In terms of laying out the author’s emotional response to the ancient and deeply embedded wine culture of Georgia, this book succeeds admirably, and in a very engaging way. But do not expect any systematic description of the regions, producers and grape varieties. You will need to pick up such information as morsels along the way as you get carried along, something I found to be a difficult and relatively fruitless task. In fact, in places I had difficulty even in keeping track of where Feiring was and where she was going, as the narrative does jump backwards and forwards in time quite a lot. But perhaps that is just me – I seem to have a lot of problems with flashbacks in films too. But to be honest all that doesn’t really matter much, and I return to the fact that I found the book very engaging, and interesting. I am not sure I would agree with or get on with the author in real life, but it was very easy to set that aside when reading the book, and accept at face value that this was one woman’s response to what she saw, heard and tasted.

The main theme of the book is interesting and challenging: ancient wine culture, fought over for millennia, ultimately practically destroyed by the Soviets, but now being revived in the nick of time and yet facing new challenges of globalisation. I must say that I have a lot more respect for the idea of natural wine as part of an ancient culture than I do for its hip tree-hugging image, and certainly for any association it may have with Rudolph Steiner’s 20th century ideas. I really do feel the poetry of wine production being rooted in the past. Yet, at the same time, I do not share Feiring’s fiercely defensive stance when it comes to the introduction of new ideas. It is surely possible to preserve tradition while still allowing some producers to make small accommodations to modernity, and others to work on an even more commercial basis? The free market does not behave in quite such a draconian way as vine-uprooting Ottoman Turks, or the implementation of a Soviet-style five year plan. It might even turn out that the commercially smart solution proves to be the traditional way anyway. Let’s see.

Incidentally, next month a couple of new books on Georgian wine are due to be published: Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, and Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus by Carla Capalbo. Looking forward to seeing both of them!

Neuroenology, and I Taste Red – two book reviews

Here I review two recently published books that cover similar ground. Both describe the science of how we perceive wine. As is made abundantly clear in both books, we use all our senses in wine perception, not just smell and taste, and we integrate this information in our brain, together with memories of other wines, and what we think we know about the wine, to create the impression of what the wine “tastes like”. It is an important point.

Both books were worthwhile reading for me, and yet I found both annoying in places. They are a nice pair of books to read at roughly the same time, as Jamie Goode’s is written from the perspective of a wine writer who has read up on the science of tasting wine, while Gordon Shepherd writes as a neuroscientist making research findings relevant to wine lovers. As you might expect, the books are very different in style.

First off, let’s take a look at I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, by Jamie Goode. I got it for £10.77 including postage from Books Please, who seem currently to have the best price for books – well below Amazon prices. If I buy the book myself, I always quote the street price rather than the usually irrelevant RRP.

This is a generally very readable book, which will appeal to a lot of wine lovers, and covers the ground well, with a good emphasis on the importance of multimodal perception on wine tasting.

In my opinion though, some of this readability was at the cost of understanding the basis for a some of the information we are presented with. Jamie did explain that, in order to make the book more accessible, he did not want to include references in the text, but this meant I that I was unable to check out the evidence for a few statements that I thought questionable. In a similar way, Jamie did tend to talk about things that were assumed by wine experts as if they were facts, and I think a more critical examination of the assumptions would have been good.

Sometimes, I felt that the ground was covered a bit too broadly, in that the topics strayed well away from wine tasting, into the importance of smell for sexual attraction for example. It was interesting in a way, and I am sure deliberate, but I would have preferred a bit more focus.

Another criticism – and this seems to be increasingly common in wine writing, and journalism in general – is that there was a lot of reporting of what other people say and think, with little analysis and reflection. I would like to have seen more of an attempt to establish a consistent and reasoned view of where the truth lies.

Get this if you want an accessible book that has a broad mainstream overview of the subject.

Now on to Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Gordon M Shepherd, also bought from Books Please, this time for £13.85.

This book is tougher going, reflecting perhaps that it is written by a neuroscientist, and there is a lot more hardcore science, which might put off a lot of people. It starts at a ponderous pace, mainly telling us what we are going to be told about later, but picks up momentum as you get into the book. I found most of it clear, but I did get a bit lost trying to follow the pathways of information in the brain. I think I took a wrong turn at the Amygdala. Perhaps clearer diagrams might have helped? As with Jamie’s book, there is no formal referencing system, but I felt the informal system in this book would by-and-large make it possible for me to chase up the original research if I wanted to.

This book covers the ground very well too. Perhaps in a bit too much detail in places – I am not sure, for example, that we really need to know so much about the aerodynamics of the inside of the nose. In other places however, the detailed scientific explanations are both relevant and fascinating.

The author does not pretend to be a wine expert but he has clearly spoken to some, and one in particular: Jean-Claude Berrouet of Petrus, the meeting with whom is described in an interesting appendix. But I do wonder if that meeting was a little too influential in the image of The Wine Professional painted in the book. A lot of professionals taste a lot more informally than Gordon describes.

And in a way, that leads on to a general gripe. Gordon is always at pains to emphasise the importance of each stage of wine perception – from the first sight, sniff and sip, through the mouth and nasal cavity, and within the brain – but there does not seem to be any attempt to get a handle on the relative importance of all these factors. Thus, as everything is soooo important, the wine taster is advised to do all manner of things to get the maximum sensory input from the wine. However, I am far from convinced that this turning-up-the-volume approach is a good idea when tasting, and think that it may finish up emphasising aspects of the wine that are far less noticeable when drinking properly, and not necessarily in a good way. I personally have discovered, for example, that swilling young Barolos round the mouth causes the astringency to mask the fruit, which is more evident under normal drinking conditions.

You may not know, but the same author also wrote a book call Neurogastronomy, which I reviewed a few years ago. So one obvious question is: should I buy Neuroenologly if I already have the older one? And if I were only to buy one book which one should I get? While they share some material, they are very different books. Neuroenology being very much organised around tasting wine. It certainly would not hurt to get both books, but if you really want only one, I would say wine lovers should get the older Neurogastronomy. But do note that this is a big thumbs-up to Neurogastronomy, rather than a strong criticism of the new book. You might have to do a bit more work to relate it to wine, but Neurogastronomy gives a bigger picture, some of the additional information being relevant to wine too.

The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 – book review

Here I review The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017: Decoding the land of Dionysis, by Yiannis Karakasis MW. Note the year in the title – the author’s intention is to update the book regularly. Its 128 pages are available only as a PDF, and can be ordered here for €14. The presentation is attractive, but I might have preferred a simpler format that is easier to print and read on-screen, even if the result were not as aesthetically pleasing. However, I am sure others would beg to differ. The purchaser’s name appears on each page to discourage sharing and you are prevented from copying text from the file, but otherwise there are no physical restrictions on the copying and you are trusted to respect the author’s copyright.

This is no massive reference tome, but a great introduction to Greek wine that also gives a good update on current trends. It clearly focusses on the what is important, allowing the newcomer to Greek wine to focus on its most rewarding aspects. There is often a temptation to be too inclusive and comprehensive, even in short introductory wine books, but in my opinion that can easily confuse. Neither is Yiannis afraid to stick his neck out with his opinions. I would say that too is good in books of this type. If you already know something about Greek wine you may agree or disagree with the opinions, but at least there is a starting point for exploration and discussion. Often finding the starting point proves to be the main stumbling block in getting to grips with an unfamiliar wine region.

The two forewords in the book include a note from José Vouillamoz on Greek grape varieties. This is followed by Part 1, which has sections on history, current trends and challenges. Also, in a section strangely entitled Down to the basics, there are trends and opinions on the key grape varieties. Part 2 has a map of the Greek wine PDOs, followed by four sections, on Santorini, Naoussa, other islands, and the mainland, where “other islands” means islands other than Santorini, and “mainland” means everything apart from Naoussa. Part 3 is on the Greek grape varieties. It starts by classifying nine of them as Quality, Promising or Pleasant surprises. The same nine varieties are then illustrated and described using bullet points. I felt this used a lot of space and communicated little – I would have much preferred a short paragraph on each variety. Finally in Part 3, the vintages are rated by region, and the aging potential of the nine grapes is commented on, the latter being particularly useful for new buyers of Greek wines I thought. Part 4 has two sections: on sweet wines and Retsina. Yes, Retsina is making a comeback, though judging by comments I have received when praising new high quality Retsinas, they will be a hard sell abroad. Finally there is Part 5, with its classifications and scores. The top producers are divided into the classes of exceptional, excellent, very good and rising. Then there are the top 10s for Assyrtiko wines, indigenous whites, international whites, indigenous reds, international reds, and sweet wines; followed by awards for producer of the year, emerging producer, and red and white wines of the year; and ten profiles of new generation winemakers. Do these profiles really belong in this part on classifications and scores, I wonder? Then, after five pages of pictures of 40 or so producers who don’t get their own profiles, we arrive at something that seems to serve as an introduction to Part 5. The book ends with some 60 pages devoted to tasting notes and scores of some of the better Greek wines, both recently released and older vintages.

So, as you can see, I have a few quibbles about the structure of the book, but the main thrust of its content is in my opinion spot on. For me personally, what I gained most was confirmation of a few things I had suspected but not seen expressed explicitly before, and ideas for future exploration of Greek wine.

As a small footnote, I had some problems printing the PDF using the latest Windows version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. Yiannis assures me that most people do not have this problem, but if you do come across it, you might like to try one of these two solutions, both of which worked for me. Before printing in Acrobat, try clicking on Advanced, and check Print as image before printing. Unfortunately this results in extremely slow printing, and seems to give poor print quality. A better solution in my opinion is to download another PDF reader called Foxit, and use that to do the printing.

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.

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 understand completely, 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.

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.

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 Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, so it’s nothing new but I thought it might be of interest to wine lovers. The title is Vindima in Portuguese, but in English translation it is rendered as Grape Harvest – a grape harvest in the Douro in fact. Firstly, 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 “nosyclarity 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 not a 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 deep, 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 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 grape-treading will never be the same again for me. One wonders what Torga would have made of the robotic lagares at the modern-day Quinta da Cavadinha.

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 from where the villagers recruited for the Cavadinha harvest might have hailed. 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 in the novel, and the incidents of child-birth, illness and medical emergency. A little bit more about Torga, with medical excerpts from his diary, is 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 colheitas from that period still exist in Villa Nova de Gaia, and that if you love Port you may even have drunk some.