Wine books of the year: Quality chat on the global grapevine

Share this article
Have your say

THE world’s grape harvests may be the lowest for decades but the wine scribes have been exceptionally busy in their output.

Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux (Octopus, £45) tackles arguably the most famous wine region of all. It is a complex subject with no less than 13,000 estates spread across 54 appellations. Brook has thoroughly revised his original work of 2007, examining wines from over 1,000 producers. He is particularly helpful in seeking out the lesser known, rising stars. His analysis of vintages spanning four decades will help many with their planning.

Bordeaux by Oz Clarke (Pavilion, £25) is an appealing though less dense book than Brook’s. It is a completely revised and updated version of his acclaimed 2008 original, which shows how much the region is changing.

Profusely illustrated – notably with labels – Clarke profiles over 300 estates, gives his best buys and practical information on visiting this key wine region. His short vintage assessments only go back to 1982 for reds and 1985 for Sauternes. This former actor and singer enjoys a worthy place in the critical wine world.

Burgundy is far more fragmented. Its rich heritage is discussed by Bill Nanson, a chemist by profession, in The Finest Wines of Burgundy (Aurum, £20). He recounts how the medieval monks noticed the slightly different character of each vineyard and ascribed appropriate names. This is the land of exquisite Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and its leading producers are individually profiled with charming photographs by Jon Wyand.

For anyone planning a holiday in a wine region, a new series of guides has appeared which give a brief background to each region, leading producers – including which are open to visitors – accommodation and local cuisine. The first two are A Traveller’s Wine Guide to Spain by Harold Heckle, a Madrid-based journalist, and A Traveller’s Wine Guide to California by Robert Holmes, who is a leading photographer (Armchair Traveller, £12.99).

Thomas Pinney’s The Makers of American Wine: a Record of 200 Years (University of California Press, £24.95) charts that country’s wine development through the lives of 13 people. Mondavi and Gallo could not have achieved their fame without the work of Nicholas Longworth, who made the first popular US wine, and Frank Schoonmaker, who championed the grape varietal concept over wines with misleading names.

Pinney, a retired English professor, traces the story back to Jean Jacques (or John James) Dufour, who arrived in the US in 1796. He made it possible for the first commercial American wine to be made. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of wine history.

Dying on the Vine by George Gale (John Wiley, £27.95) chronicles 150 years of scientific warfare against the grapevine’s worst enemy: phylloxera. This philosophy don from Missouri-Kansas describes the biological and economic disaster that unfolded when a tiny, root-sucking insect invaded France in the 1860s, spreading throughout Europe and journeying across the oceans. Phylloxera laid waste to vineyards wherever it landed. The story of how it was tackled, bringing a rollercoaster of emotions to the world of wine, makes a good read. Sadly all the footnotes for both Gale and Pinney are placed towards the back of each book which makes reference cumbersome.

For a more reflective view, Gerald Asher has brought together essays written over the past 30 years with an introduction and endnotes. A Carafe of Red (University of California Press, £14.95) invites the reader to open a simple red and join Asher in a Parisian cafe or a stylish Napa Valley Cabernet with its vintner. From Barbaresco to Zinfandel but taking in Armagnac as the spirit of d’Artagnan, Asher travels the world. His pithy comments on organic and biodynamic wines and his discussion of the most memorable wine in his life made the reader want to learn more and be entertained in the process.

By far the largest tome of the season is Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Swiss geneticist Dr Jose Vouillamoz (Allen Lane, £120). For generations the French have regarded location rather than the choice of vine as the essential element in selecting one wine from another.

This book seeks to show that the answer is far more complex and reveals the family tree for 1,368 vine varieties, helped by DNA profiling since 1993. Such “founder” varieties as Pinot and Nebbiolo have spawned dozens of familiar names; the former alone has 156 relatives. If a holiday wine has ever stumped one as to its parentage, this book should answer the question. The illustrations have quirkily been taken from a century-old publication.

Whisky Classified by David Wishart (Anova, £16.99) claims to be the first book to compare and classify single malt whiskies by their flavour. Originally published in 2002, this is the revised edition. Written by a St Andrews academic, Wishart uses 12 cardinal dimensions of aroma and taste for scoring. The new book covers over 250 single malts produced in the UK and Ireland. Whisky producers are increasingly launching new “finishes”, applying special casks or double maturation to enhance the character and increase complexity and Wishart is a splendid guide. He calls single malts “the diamonds in the blender’s crown jewels”.

Finally, 1001 Whiskies You Must Try Before You Die, edited by Dominic Roskrow (Cassell, £20), takes the reader on a global tour from Springbank to emerging greats in Japan. It’s an excellent and beautifully illustrated source book.