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Anson: Great novels for wine lovers

Jane Anson recommends five wine-themed novels that she has enjoyed recently - perfect for a rainy afternoon with a glass in-hand, or as a Christmas present.

It’s not even Black Friday yet and I’m about to save you a tonne of money.

If you’re not sure what to buy your wine-loving friends for Christmas – and they already have the latest World Atlas of Wine plus a back-catalogue of wine books – then make them happy by choosing a novel where wine is weaved into the story so effortlessly and brilliantly that it puts professional wine writers to shame.

I would still give AJ Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris as my gift of choice to any aspiring wine lover, or writer, but as it’s not fiction, it doesn’t make this particular list.

You could start with the classics like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Roald Dahl’s short story Taste.

But you can also find plenty of more recent novels where wine sneaks into the plot and becomes an essential part of the story. Pairing while reading is definitely encouraged.

A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towse (2016)

A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towse

A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towse.

Easily one of the best novels that I have read this year and one where wine is deftly written into the fabric of the story, becoming an essential part of building the character of the wonderful Count Alexander Illyich Rostov.

Set in 1922, which was not a great time to be a member of the Russian aristocracy, we follow Count Rostov during his enforced arrest within the Hotel Metropol as Moscow falls under Bolshevik control.

He learns to live with, and then take pleasure from, his reduced circumstances, and wine is used along the way to illuminate politics and character.

All the labels, for example, in the hotel’s 100,000-bottle wine cellar are removed in order to uphold the spirit of communism.

Each one is to be sold at a single price as merely red or white, even though, as the Count points out, ‘the contents of the bottle in his hand was the product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man’.

Among the wine regions and bottles that you’ll find here are Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rioja, Pouilly Fumé, Muzakani, Barolo, Champagne and a 1921 Château d’Yquem.

I would name-check more bottles but the truth is that I was given this book by a friend who works in wine, and as soon as I finished it I sent it on to someone else who does.

That’s how good it is; you just want to share it with people you know will love it as much as you do.

The paperback version came out in March.

The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester (1996)

The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester

The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester.

For foodies and wine lovers, this is one of the all-time great books and is Lanchester’s first novel.

It revolves around main character Tarquin Winot – real name Rodney – who is travelling from the Hotel Splendide in Portsmouth down to his Provence home, and along the way is revealed to be both a sociopath and psychopath.

This is not a spoiler, by the way. You get the idea pretty quickly, mainly because of how he talks about food and wine – also making this an equally brilliant gift for anyone who has ever been overbearingly smug in their wine knowledge.

You’ll know what I mean when you read Winot’s take on rosé wine, which includes this snippet:

‘ “Ooh that looks nice,” she would say. “Lovely and pink,” she would sometimes add, a weakness for the colour pink being an infallible sign of the defective taste one associates with certain groups and individuals.’

This is dark humour at its darkest and most delicious. It runs from the opening when he warns us that ‘this is not a conventional cookbook’ to the ‘rapturous gloating’ in finding the perfect mushrooms in the closing pages.

I know this is an old one to recommend, but it has lost none of its power.

Lanchester’s latest book, The Wall, came out this year.

A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin (1998)

A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin

A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin.

Part of a series of crime novels based around the fabulously-named Italian detective Aurelio Zen, this is the sixth book in the series, but you can definitely get away with reading it on its own (like I did).

It is set among the hills of Alba, where the son of prominent Piedmont winemaker Aldo Vincenzo is being charged with his brutal murder.

A famous film and opera director is determined to get him released in time to make what looks to be an exceptional vintage – not because he cares about his innocence, but because the 30-year-vertical of Vincenzo wine that he has been collecting would be under threat if any other winemakers got hold of the grapes.

Along the way we get lines like ‘Barolo is the Bach of wine… Barbaresco is the Beethoven… Brunello the Brahmns’.

His descriptions of white truffle hunting will make you want to jump on a plane while they are still in season. There should still be a few weeks after Christmas if you’re lucky. I can’t give you many more recent novels, because Dibdin died way too young, aged 60 in 2007. But this is a brilliant tribute.

My Italian Bulldozer, Alexander McCall Smith (2016)

My Italian Bulldozer, Alexander McCall Smith

My Italian Bulldozer, Alexander McCall Smith

Here is a change of pace, courtesy of McCall Smith, who you probably know from the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

This is a romantic novel, also set in Italy but this time in Montalcino, Tuscany.

The main character Paul Stuart, a food writer, is a handy device for McCall Smith to knowledgeably weave food and wine into the story, as Stuart travels through the Italian countryside to research his latest cook book and get over a bad breakup with his girlfriend.

There really is a bulldozer that is central to the plot, and that plays a particularly useful role in converting a Rosso di Montalcino vineyard into a rather more valuable Brunello di Montalcino one.

McCall Smith apparently got the bulldozer idea after a particularly frustrating wait at Rome airport for a hire car.

Funny, as well written as you would expect, and extremely easy to enjoy.


The Templars’ Last Secret, Martin Walker (2017)

The Templars’ Last Secret, Martin Walker

The Templars’ Last Secret, Martin Walker

Set a little closer to home for me, I had read about these books for years before I finally opened one.

This is one of the most recent and is set in the Dordogne in the fictional medieval town of St-Denis, although anyone who has been to the Dordogne will recognise every detail.

Walker’s series follows Bruno Courrèges, the local chief of police, as he investigates the death of a young archaeologist who was searching for a religious artifact that is linked both to the Knights Templar and Islamic terrorists.

A good story, but you really read Walker for the food and wine, and he does a brilliant job here.

Courrèges does everything that you imagine you would if living in the Dordogne – cooking lots of stews and terrines, tending to his vegetable garden and his chickens, and sampling the local wine.

There are several namechecks in the book, including the brilliant Domaine de L’Ancienne Cure.

 According to New York Times columnist Eric Asimov, Walker keeps a rooster named Sarkozy and makes his own liqueur from local walnuts.

If you want to be totally up to date, you have to go The Body in the Castle Well from earlier this year. I haven’t read that yet so, if you have, please let me know if I should.

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