December 14th: Great reads for Christmas
- Tuesday 13 December 2011
Larousse Wine, Various, Hamlyn, £40
This big, glossy, lavishly illustrated book is subtitled ‘the definitive reference for wine lovers’. My first thought was more effort had gone into the production than the content. The pages look fussy, each entry accompanied by twiddly icons and clever graphics. I didn’t want to pre-condemn it though, so opted to test it against the benchmark, the Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson MW. I chose four terms I had recently looked up: St-Chinian, Empordà, Gavi and Château d’Yquem. For the first, the OCW has a paragraph with a map. It strikes the right balance of nerdiness (hectares, blends allowed) and description, with a note on the ‘arid, spectacular, mountainous terrain’ of the region. In the Larousse there’s nothing in the index, St-Chinian appears on a map of Languedoc-Roussillon, but isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text. Empordà, Spain’s most north-easterly appellation and neighbour to Roussillon, gets a small, informative entry in the OCW, and nothing in the Larousse. Gavi gets a lengthy column in OCW but no mention in the Larousse, which devotes two pages to Yquem, telling us it ‘is now controlled by a large company’. That would be luxury goods giant LVMH (Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton), information which the OCW supplies, with a date. So the ‘definitive reference for wine lovers’ tells me precisely nothing about three noteworthy regions, and omits an arguably key piece of information about Yquem. But there’s a double-page image of corkscrews, with the caption: ‘Although they are tools for a very specific task, some corkscrews are a pleasure to look at, hold, or even collect’. Stone the crows!
The Wild Vine, Todd Kliman, Broadway Paperbacks, £9.50
It would be easy to conclude that there is little truly new to say about wine. Not so – and it’s a pleasure to welcome proof, in this book, subtitled ‘a forgotten grape and the untold story of American wine’. The grape is Norton, which certainly lives up to its billing, and its picaresque, sometimes melancholy saga is as fascinating as it is illuminating. In 1821, Daniel Norton was a family doctor in Virginia, a shy, deeply reserved outsider, who found solace in a happy marriage, cut short when his wife and daughter died together. He took refuge in horticulture, turning his small farm into an experimental garden. A wine lover, he concentrated on grapes, cross-breeding European and native American varieties. The best result was dubbed Norton’s Virginia Seedling, a dark red grape that made a palatable wine, without the rank muskiness of the native vines that had horrified settlers dreaming of a new Eden. Norton’s grape was a success at first. Shipped to midwestern states, it became a foundation of the early American wine industry, thriving in Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri. In Europe, it won gold medals in several international expositions. But success also breeds challenges, and there were many: to its authenticity; to the quality of its flavour; and most of all to its breeding. It was native and ‘local’, possibly rustic and unsophisticated; it was, above all, not the European Vitis vinifera. For aspiring American wine snobs of the day, it was inappropriate, as much of an outsider as its creator. (In many ways, it reflected the tensions of American culture in the mid-19th Century, on a tightrope between the reference points of Old and New World, Europe and the US.) It stalled, faded as vinfera grapes took hold, and was nearly obliterated during Prohibition. Still, this oddball has persisted, an emblematic, hardy perennial kept going by a few idiosyncratic vintners happy to go against the grain. California tends to dominate the narrative of American wine but this dynamic, well-written tale reveals how much more there is to the story, which is clearly not over yet.
Brian St Pierre
Wine, A Cultural History, John Varriano, Reaktion Books, £19.95
The 16th-cent ury Pope Paul III was one of the first wine lovers to appreciate a modern tasting note. The cellar book kept by his cellar master Sante Lancerio assesses colour, texture, taste and aroma of 57 wines using such descriptors as ‘round’, ‘powerful’ and ‘smoky’. But, as John Varriano tells us in this 5,000-year journey through the history of wine, he wasn’t the first to note vintage and appellation. That was down to the Egyptians: ‘[In] the tomb of Tutankhamun… 26 of the jars buried with the pharaoh are labelled with his regnal year, the location and proprietorship of the vineyard and the name of the winemaker.’ Varriano, a professor of art history in Massachusetts, takes a new approach to wine history by looking at its depiction in art. Most notable is the change in attitude as the Christian church took hold and appropriated wine as a symbol of Christ’s passion. Pre-Christian Romans and Greeks were enthusiastic imbibers, as Varriano illustrates with everyday images of jolly priapic figures on vases and bowls. But by Medieval times that sort of thing was frowned upon. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The great reformer Martin Luther, for example, advised a young friend to overcome his unsuitable thoughts by seeking out ‘the company of men, drink more, joke and jest’ – and worse… Wine, A Cultural History is packed with interesting anecdotes, it’s beautifully illustrated and exhaustively researched, and romps along at a great pace.
A Vineyard in My Glass, Gerald Asher, University of California Press, £20.95
For the better part of three decades, Gerald Asher was the wine editor of Gourmet, America’s foremost food magazine, writing illuminating essays on a range of wines, and bolstering the magazine’s recipes and menus with an astute array of recommendations that helped people rise above the mantra of 'red with meat, white with fish'. The commentaries collected in this book are mostly from that now-defunct magazine. They are anchored in European and Californian vineyards, and are the sort of ruminative and informally erudite narratives that have lately been pushed aside by advocacy, tabulations and ratings, from which we learn little but the writers’ opinions. This is real storytelling, in the tradition of entertaining polymaths such as George Saintsbury. There are 27 classic regions profiled, with incisive notes and asides on hundreds of winemakers. Describing the ‘almost religious austerity’ of Chalone in California, he describes ‘a twisting road through miles of parched mountain landscape resembling … a Dutch primitive’s idea of St John the Baptist’s habitat’. Introducing one of Burgundy’s greatest sites, he notes, ‘the glow of a Corton wine has origins that go back farther than any of us can begin to imagine’, and then explores its history that shines a light on the present. Sometimes the past is his own, as when he recalls his days as a young man in the wine trade and returns on not-always-sentimental journeys (the road from Paris to Bordeaux is ‘now an autoroute imperiously abstracted from its surroundings’… ‘Vouvray is now in danger of becoming what Chaucer is to books… edited, adapted, abbreviated and generally pulled about’). These essays were written over the past 20 years, and have been updated slightly. They exemplify what we most appreciate in wine: balance, elegance, finesse; best of all, there’s another tranche to come.
Brian St Pierre
The Finest Wines of California, Stephen Brook, Aurum Press, £20
Thirty years ago, American wine writer Bob Thompson described writing about California wine as akin to ‘taking a census in a rabbit hutch’. If that was the time of Genesis, we’re now deep into Deuteronomy, with corporations, dynasties and a thriving market begetting away, multiplying from 320 wineries then to more than 3,000 now, and counting. In this book – another entry in the well-made series from this publisher, enhanced by more than 100 evocative photographs by Jon Wyand – Decanter contributing editor Stephen Brook makes some sense of this fecundity with a magisterial cull that, taking a long view, isn’t as ruthless as might seem necessary. In all, 97 wineries and their winemakers are profiled, with a dozen or so honourable mentions in passing, woven into a tapestry of regions, vineyards and histories. (It’s fascinating to follow the fortunes of some survivors, such as Dick Arrowood, Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, Randy Dunn, John Williams, Mike Benziger, David Ramey, Leon Sobon and other grizzled but still-smiling veterans of what the author calls ‘style wars’, still pressing on.) There are no ‘virtual’ wineries included, nor entries for iconic wineries hobbled by time, fashion or corporate neglect; most importantly, terroir and track records are to the fore – some larger wineries offering consistent quality and value are favoured over boutiques and collectibles. ‘The greatest wines of California are now international classics,’ Brook writes. ‘No industry could ask for more.’ There are a few grounds for quibbling, as there always will be with personal choices and the confinements of ‘bests’, but this is a balanced, judicious and immensely readable rendering of the people and places that have created the often improbable saga of an aspect of California that the author labels, approvingly, ‘a democracy of wine’.
Brian St Pierre
The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels, Tanya Scholes, Santa Monica Press, £32
This collecti on of 284 wine labels is a handsome tome with lavish illustrations and informative, erudite notes. Tanya Scholes sets out to demonstrate just how inventive, stylish, witty and downright off-the-wall wine labels can be. It’s a resolutely modern collection: very few French labels – a single first growth (guess which one); the vast majority New World. I’d have liked to see some more from Spain, whose bodegas favour achingly minimal label art. The selection veers towards the wacky. Non-wine lovers given this book might be forgiven for thinking the industry was run by a bunch of gifted hippies (which of course isn’t far from the truth in some parts of the world). But what a collection it is. There’s elegant (Clos du Val), tasteless (François Lurton’s De Puta Madre), cute (Mendocino’s Tusk ’N Red), classic (Chateau Montelena) arty (Mouton-Rothschild), wild (tattoo artists PJ and Nic Ferrante’s The Traditions Collection in Santa Barbara), witty (Manfred Krankl’s noirish etchings for Sine Qua Non) sinister (Warrumbungle’s Blowfly), arch (Cloof’s black and red The Very Sexy Shiraz), and creepy (Charles Smith’s Kungfu Girl Riesling)… Artist Ralph Steadman’s wonderful watercolours of the Atacama desert for Montes are there, as are Bonny Doon’s whimsical labels. Many I’d be delighted to have on my wall, like Andreas Tscheppe’s exquisite damselfly. But I missed some particular favourites – where is Ridge? What comes across strongly is the celebration of wine, and the pride that goes into every detail, the delight in finishing with a unique signature. Do recording artists, or writers, have such control over their covers? They may once have done but I don’t see many CD cases nowadays that could hold a candle to the designers in this book.
Real Men Drink Port, Ben Howkins, Quiller Publishing, £16.95
In the middle of this jolly tribute to the vinho generoso, Ben Howkins announces that he can’t wait to try a 10-year-old bottle of pink port. ‘That’ll get the armchair wallahs gasping.’ It’s a shock, I must say. I never had him down as an iconoclast. Howkins sets the tone pretty early on: there are no women but ‘ladies’, no men but ‘gentlemen’, in which latter category there are ‘Port people’, the highest accolade. A Port person seems to be an amalgam of Decanter’s Hugh Johnson, actors Oliver Reed and Leslie Phillips and cricketer David Gower: a sort of erudite, sporty, moustache-twirling, devil-maycare British imbiber. The patron saint of Port people is the appalling, eccentric 19th-century squire John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton, who opened his first bottle of the day while shaving and makes Shakespeare’s Falstaff seem like the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s full of good jokes, such as the teetotal don who said he’d rather commit adultery than drink Port: ‘The provost replied, “so would we all, my dear sir, so would we all, but since we cannot, let us drink a glass of Port”.’ But above all this book is a paean to a vanishing age, and a version of England that had all but disappeared with Robert Smith Surtees’ sporting cockney grocer Jorrocks, its vestiges remaining in the Port houses of the Douro, long lunches and all. And it’s tinged with melancholy. I shed a tear as Howkins described the misery of the smoking ban. ‘But no more; no more cigars. Speeches seem twice as long.’ Never a truer word spoken.
For more Christmas present ideas, see our Ultimate Wine Lover's Gift Guide