A QUESTION I get asked frequently by long-term wine-lovers and beginners alike: which books would I recommend to learn about wine?
There is one tome I consider as the best one-stop reference for all things vinous. It’s so approachable and well-written, it is as useful for complete novices as it is for seasoned experts. It’s The World Atlas of Wine, inset right, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley, £35). It is in its sixth edition and you can see why: it combines up-to-date potted information on each region of the world with excellent maps, illustrations and handy recommendations from the best producers.
A wine atlas does what it says on the tin, but it does not explore the art of tasting. For this, I recommend Essential Wine Tasting by Michael Schuster (Mitchell Beazley, £20) for anyone learning about tasting techniques. Schuster is an excellent teacher – I have experienced his style first-hand at his wine school in London.
These two books do fail in one area – to cover grape varieties in great depth. As wine consumers – and wine growers – are becoming bored with the same old international grapes, looking for new tastes and flavours is the latest thing. Now a new definitive book has appeared to fill this gap, offering us everything we want to know about the grape: Wine Grapes (Allen Lane/Penguin, £120: special offer at £75 until the end of December, tel: 0845 130 7778) is a phenomenal book in its detail and research. Writer Jancis Robinson MW has teamed up with two scholars, Julia Harding MW and botanist/grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz, to produce the definitive guide to grape varieties: made possible with recent advances and research in grapes, thanks to DNA profiling since 1993.
Wine Grapes might look indigestible in size (weighing three kilos) and layout, but it is an incredible piece of work, detailing 1,368 varieties (out of a possible 10,000 worldwide) with 80 beautiful colour plates – essential for all wine students, wine lovers, wine growers keen to experiment with new grapes – and anyone with a passing interest in grapes. It details everything from well-known pinot noir to obscure Russian pukhliakovsky, recently rescued onchette and the increasingly popular Turkish kalecik karasi.
Vouillamoz has discovered numerous unexpected relationships between grapes. A decade ago he helped identify the parentage of cabernet sauvignon (cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc), sangiovese (main grape of chianti) and discovered a surprising link between pinot noir and syrah.
For some years Californian zinfandel has been believed to be the same as southern Italian primitivo, confirmed by DNA profiling in 1994. Now in this new book, Vouillamoz shows that zinfandal and primitivo are identical to another grape – the little-known tribidrag – the original and oldest Croatian name for this grape from central Dalmatia. This is just one of many surprising finds in this book – another is on the parentage of one of Bordeaux’s great grapes.
If you prefer a more light-hearted look at the wine world, I have also just enjoyed Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine: 100 wines for the discerning drinker, above left, by Simon Hoggart (Quadrille, £12.99). As a parliamentary sketchwriter Hoggart’s day job is in the House of Commons, so he is not an acknowledged expert, but he writes about wine for a news magazine. He sees the wine world from an outsider’s view. It’s wittily written – he recounts the tragedy of selling off the Commons’ wine cellar and the MP blind-tasting team’s choice of tipple: Bergerac Blanc Chateau Grinou. In his 100 favourite wines he delights in Swiss Chasselas and rich, nutty Brezeme from the Rhone, and explains the horrors of modern Cahors and Rhodesian homebrews in anecdotal style.
Despite the recession, wine literature is booming. One series which deserves special mention for concise, well-illustrated books on specific regions is the excellent Fine Wine Editions (Aurum, £20): a must for any wine lover’s stocking. My favourites are Nicolas Belfrage’s Tuscany and Bill Nanson’s Burgundy. Happy reading.