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 need 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.

Falling Leaves – Georgian wine under the Soviets

The documentary Our Blood is Wine, mentioned in my previous post, has a couple of clips from the 1966 Georgian film Falling Leaves, showing scenes of winemaking in Soviet Georgia. I was motivated to find out more about this film, and discovered it on YouTube with English subtitles. Edit: If you search you may find it somewhere online, but its availability is rather sporadic. The most reliable location currently (April 2022) is here. But beware – it seems they use cookies to allow you only one free viewing, so you need to make the most of it.

At a simplistic level, Falling Leaves can be used to illustrate the way that Soviet industrial winemaking trampled over Georgian rural traditions, and that might be all that is required of it by a wine-lover with an interest in Georgia. However, the themes of the film run deeper, and if you are interested in exploring the extremes of those depths I can only refer you to the analysis given in an this essay. Or you could just watch the film and enjoy what you can.

Tasting French Terroir – book review

tasting_french_terroirThis time, I review the book Tasting French Terroir, subtitled The History of an Idea, by Michael Parker. At Amazon it costs around £20.

Firstly, the title: I am not really sure why the word tasting features here at all, as it  has a surprisingly small role in the book, even if food and drink in general get more coverage. It is however very much a history of the idea of terroir in France, going back to the 16th Century, and with a few mentions of classical antecedents. There is little mention of terroir in other countries, but as far as I know it is a concept that is exclusively French in origin, so I suppose that is fair enough.

The book is serious and academic, so not a light and quick read. But on the plus side for someone with limited time, it is not as daunting as it might first appear, as the actual text finishes on page 164, the remaining third or so being given over to notes. This scientist-cum-engineer had to check on the meanings of quite a few words, but beyond that the language was clear, precise and nicely crafted.

My big lesson from reading it was the sheer range of historical views on what constitutes terroir and how desirable it is. Thus, it puts the modern idea of terroir firmly in its place: one interpretation amongst many, though an interpretation that was glimpsed at in various stages of history. I attempt below to give an overview of some of the ideas of terroir discussed in the book.

Even on very fundamental questions, there were widely divergent views. We tend now to see terroir as conferring different characteristics, all positive, on food and drink. But another perspective emphasised more the effect of terroir on quality. In this view, some terroirs were better than others, and if the connoisseur wanted the best produce, then only the very best terroir in France could yield it. Others saw terroir more from the farming point of view. Thus, when planting a certain crop, the correct terroir must be selected to get a good yield.

However, terroir had relevance to a lot more than food and drink. It was of course also about plants, trees and animals, but more significantly a lot of discussion also focussed on the terroir characteristics of people. This included their appearance, behaviour, dialect, and even the style and quality of their poetry.

There is also the issue of whether terroir characteristics are desirable or not. For long periods of French history terroir influence was regarded as negative, and something to be supressed in favour of good Parisian taste, and that of the French court. But at other times terroir was definitely positive, or it was more nuanced. For example a degree of terroir character could be positive, but it had to be tamed by Parisian culinary arts. Others were of the view that there were both good and bad terroir expressions.

There is little in the book about the mechanisms by which terroir worked its magic, so I presume it was not discussed much in the source texts either. As today however, it seemed that soil, water, climate and landscape were all important factors. There was at one point a rather literal interpretation of goût de terroir, which suggested that you could get it water that was first shaken with soil. Apparently the flavours in the water were also present in the produce of the land. Otherwise there was little indication of how to recognise the goût de terroir.

There is also little coverage of how early views of terroir contributed to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in the 20th century, and how ideas in the late 20th and early 21st century developed. Perhaps there is another book in those topics. I look forward to reading that book should it become available, and also to seeing future developments in the concept of terroir.

Stelios Kechris Domaine, Retsina, and the Tear of the Pine

The very first event of our North Greece wine trip was an evening tasting in our Thessaloniki hotel, offered by four wineries that we would not get the opportunity to visit.  We had many good wines, but the Tear of the Pine in particular grabbed my attention. It was not only good, but something markedly different to anything else I had tasted before: a high quality Retsina.

kechris_totpModern Retsina is generally a low quality white wine heavily flavoured with pine resin, which masks the quality of the base wine and any faults it might have.  It is uncertain how it developed from the ancient practice of using pine resin for sealing amphoras to help preserve the wine.  The evidence seems to be that the resin flavour was merely tolerated by the Greeks, it being left to the Romans to decide that it was a Good Thing, with Pliny the Elder writing about the best resins, and how he liked the bits of resin that got stuck in his teeth.  But how did Pliny’s connoisseurship of pine resin lead to the resinous Greek wine of today?  Apart from anything else, the resin is now added at the fermentation stage, which is necessary to extract the resinous flavour.  The above-mentioned amphoras were used for transporting wine, not for fermentation, so it is possible that if ancient wines did taste of resin it was because the fermentation continued a little or re-started after the main fermentation period.

I always thought that Retsina was a pleasant enough drink when sitting in a simple taverna on holiday in Greece; in that situation I think I tended to order it more than most people.  But for some reason the idea of drinking it back in the UK never appealed.  Then, a few weeks ago, I was at a tasting in central Thessaloniki on a rainy evening, and without wanting to sound too negative the atmosphere was probably closer to that of Manchester than a Greek beach.  The second producer at the tasting was Stelios Kechris Domaine, with oenologist Eleni Kechris presenting the wines.

eleni_kechriWe started with their Kechirabi Retsina, a wine they started making in 1939.  It is 100% Roditis and fermented in stainless steel tanks with top quality pine resin. Without having had  other Retsinas to compare with, it was difficult to evaluate, but I thought it was better than the Retsina of Greek beaches enjoyed many years ago.  The predominant flavour was without a doubt pine resin, and it had a nice clean and refreshing feel to it.

Then we moved on to the Tear of the Pine Retsina.  Like Kechirabi, the vintage was not on the label, but it was in fact from 2014.  To give you some idea of the price, it retails in Greece for around €12, which would probably translate to around £17 in the UK, and is over double the cost of Kechrabi. The Tear of the Pine is made from the highly regarded Assyrtiko grape variety, fermented in new oak barrels, and aged on the lees for 6 months. It demonstrated very well how good Retsina could be, if you start with the intention of making a good quality white wine and use carefully selected pine resin in a controlled fashion. Here the use pine resin was very subtle, to the extent that it was easy not to notice initially. But the strength of the resinous aromas did seem to build up, perhaps as the wine warmed, and was most noticeable on the finish.

Let’s attempt a tasting note for the Tear of the Pine… Intense, fresh, citric on the nose.  Almost Riesling-like with lime and maybe a hint of petrol. Herbs. Oak definitely. Aromatic resin in the background, sometimes contributing a spicy note.  Medium high acidity on the palate, and bone dry.  Citrus, oak and pine in that order of intensity, and with that order in time. More pine on the finish, then oak, giving an almost astringent finish.  Elegant, with the resin providing complexity and refreshment.  I drank the wine with dinner on a couple of occasions too, and the only slight negative was that after four glasses or so the wood flavours – the oak as well and the pine – started to get a bit much for me.  If only I was able to stop after three glasses… 🙂 *****