With a wave of new wine books hitting the shelves, there’s plenty to keep drink lovers entertained over the summer months. To point you in the right direction, we worked our way through the latest releases to unearth the best new wine books to enjoy this summer. Some of the books in our selection have been penned by renowned wine writers and range from meandering memoir to in-depth wine guide. There are also reprints of books that act as a time capsule or a thought-provoking look into wine’s past – as well as books that chronicle the history of drinking itself. Finally, if you really want to get in-depth with your vinous reading for summer 2022, one of the books in our round-up has been written by biodynamic winemaker Gérard Betrand. Read on for nine of the best new wine books, reviewed and rated by the Club Oenologique team.
To Fall in Love, Drink This by Alice Feiring
Scribner, £13.80 (August 2022)
It surprises me that Alice Feiring became a wine writer; not because she isn’t a terrific one but because in this eccentric memoir she talks about trying plays and fiction first, and she is so compulsively readable that it’s amazing that it didn’t work out. Still, Broadway’s loss is our gain, and here, in a series of connected, highly personal chapters, each capped with a wine and a potted explanation of a particular terroir, she tracks the way a pale, red-headed American girl from an Orthodox Jewish background – a bookworm with an aversion to hiking whose fierce mother wanted her to be a doctor, or at least marry one – became a fearless champion of natural wine.
I have a much warier attitude to those wines, but I respect Alice’s passionate advocacy and it is interesting to trace its development – and its origins, because in her family squabbles, love affairs and encounters with winemakers, plumbers and (in one case) serial killers, she displays the same frankness and courage as she does when championing the low-sulphur, low-intervention wines that meet her definition of ‘alive’. Goodness knows, the natural wine movement could do with clearer definition: she may need these wines, in a profound way, but I suspect they need her more. There is lots of useful information here, but more useful than any of it is the cumulative description of how it is possible to feel about wine – how, maybe, many of us do feel about wine, without the crystalline awareness of those feelings that Alice Feiring so ably conveys.
The Life and Wines of Hugh Johnson
Academie du Vin Library, £30 (June 2022)
The great wine writers of the second half of the 20th century were amateurs; it’s no accident that neither Steven Spurrier nor Hugh Johnson bothered putting themselves through the MW course. Johnson (he does have letters after his name, though – OBE) is about so much more than wine – he actually prefers to be known for the arboretum and garden that he created at his then home of Saling Hall in Essex. It’s because of this (not despite it) that he’s so good. He approaches every glass with the wonder of a two-year-old finding a shiny stone. What is this wonderful thing? ‘Pale green, with a fresh, gentle, smoky fragrance and a flavour beyond words, sunny and strong, intense and tender with an echo of honey that sounded long after you had swallowed.’ That was the ’45, one of only two bottles left, which Egon Muller opened for him. That’s the other thing about Johnson: he’s been everywhere, met everyone, done everything. He’s made wine, and run a shop, he’s planted a forest, and designed a wine glass. He knows what he’s talking about, and because he started life as a jobbing journalist (at Vogue, later freelance for just about everyone, including the New York Times) he learnt early how to write with an easy, flowing (sometimes flowery, but always precise) style that’s a joy to read.
The Life and Wines, a reissue of Johnson’s 2005 autobiography, A Life Uncorked, is both incredibly old-fashioned – it’s a world of aerodromes not airports, and digs not flats; a world where wine merchants like ‘Uncle’ Ronald Avery would open yet another bottle at lunch in the Loire before driving 300km to Burgundy – and satisfyingly up-to-date. Johnson might be nearing 85, but he’s no dinosaur. Discussing grower Champagne he typically sums up the movement with a deft sentence: ‘Everybody learns from people like Selosse – if only, just occasionally, what to avoid.’ In the end it’s his skill with language that marks Johnson out. There may be people who know more about malolactic fermentation, but few who can present their knowledge in sentences that slip as felicitously through your consciousness as a draft of crisp Chablis over the palate.
Nature at Heart by Gérard Bertrand
Acc Art Books, £16.95 (March 2022)
‘Homo sapiens is in great danger,’ according to Gérard Bertrand. We – he calls us ‘enhanced humans’ – are slaves to technology. Our systems are overloaded; we have ‘online bulimia’. Bertrand, a former rugby international and one of the key figures in the renaissance of Languedoc-Roussillon over the past 30 years, owns a dozen major estates centred on his flagship Château L’Hospitalet in La Clape. He’s always promoted the primacy of nature, conducting large-scale experiments in organic and biodynamic viticulture. This book is simultaneously a paean to the ‘omniscience and self-sufficiency’ of the natural world, and a jeremiad against the depredations of humanity. Bertrand exhorts us to embrace the tenets of a new humanism – ‘an unorthodox framework of thought…based on five pillars: an expansion of consciousness, transcendence, the liberation of feelings, care for the earth and the challenge…in a new humanism.’ He calls for bold decisions to preserve biodiversity and asks (many times over) ‘Is humanity ready to change?’.
If at times it reads a little like the new-agey ruminations of Prince Charles (like the heir to the British throne, Bertrand is a proponent of homeopathic medicine), it can’t be faulted for its sincerity. And if, as a species, we adopt some of his practical suggestions – such as eating less meat and using less energy – ‘this small contribution…is a prerequisite for a spectacular success for humanity.’ There’s so much to be depressed about, but Nature at Heart has a positive message: we’re in mortal danger but it’s not too late. Humanity can change.
Wine Talk by Raymond Blake
Skyhorse Publishing, £20 (May 2022)
There are two kinds of critic: those who tell you what to think and those who want you to think for yourself. Raymond Blake has a light, chatty writing style and knows a great deal, including what’s good and what’s not: in this personal sweep through the wine world, some of us might find that jarring, except where we already agree with him. (Can a stemless glass even be called a wine glass? No, not by me, either.) From dull Crémant to sommeliers’ scary tattoos and overly complicated tasting menu matches, Blake takes aim; he seems not to notice that none of these complaints is original, nor to acknowledge that in all these areas, some people do get it right. He is also oddly shy of history, insulting Cava without mentioning Franco’s dire influence on Spanish wine and making amphorae sound like a new development on track to replace barrels. He ignores almost all innovation (although natural wine gets a look-in) and I did wonder who the reader might be who needs pruning explained but will invest £200 in a corkscrew. Nonetheless, his sincerity is unmistakable, and when being positive – about Ridge, say, or vintage port, or freshness – the pomposity evaporates and he is charming company. And the box-outs are an excellent idea, especially the last one, where the book Blake should write becomes clear. The year is 2222, Burgundy is made from Syrah and Canadian wine has supplanted French. This is inventive and fun: I hope he rolls with it.
Girly Drinks by Mallory O’Meara
Hurst, £14.99 (July 2022)
The author of this history of drinking from a feminist perspective tells us she wrote the book because she couldn’t find the answers to her questions elsewhere. The key issue at stake? How did something as functional as drinking – and, as Mallory O’Meara sets out to establish, something wrapped up in the human story since before records began – get to be so heavily gendered?
O’Meara explores the debate over the decades, across continents, through the ABVs and often via the medium of pioneering figures and key socio-political periods – from Cleopatra (loved a drink) to Ada Coleman (loved mixing a drink); from the Gin Craze to Prohibition – examining the intersections of race, class and sexual orientation along the way. She weaves a thread throughout to demonstrate how booze has been used through history as a means to control sectors of the population, and how drinking in public often came to be a subversive – even criminal – act for women (and continues as such in many of today’s cultures). With drink demonised, the women who drank it were often perceived as the devil’s workers. Just look to the alewives of Middle Ages Europe with their brewing cauldrons, pointy hats and broomsticks (‘Sound familiar?’, O’Meara asks).
This book would be an education for many regardless of the feminist slant – O’Meara has clearly done her homework on the alcohols of the world, spurred on by her passion for cocktails. Despite looping through the centuries, she never gets bogged down in detail; her quick swipes at the stigma and the equivalent of a literary side-eye in the footnotes provide levity throughout. She chronicles the female brewing rituals of the ancient tribes of Mesopotamia, or the complicated history of alcohol in South Africa, with equal confidence. In doing so she points to the fact that women have been central to the creation and dissemination of some of the world’s most beloved alcoholic beverages. As for those ‘girly drinks’, the breadth of booze that’s enjoyed by the women in these pages – despite the obstacles – shows that there needn’t be stereotypes around what goes in your glass. And whether you want it with a pink umbrella in the top or not is entirely your call.
Stay Me With Flagons by Maurice Healy
Academie du Vin Library Classic Editions, £16.99 (December 2021)
Academie du Vin’s Classic Editions are reprints of forgotten, sometimes out-of-print works, ‘selected for the way they capture the vineyards, wines [and] people gone by…’ Irishman Maurice Healy was a noted lawyer for whom writing – and wine – was a secondary pursuit. His love and aptitude for his part-time profession, though, is evident throughout this entertaining romp through the wine world as it was in 1940. So chapters are devoted to the only wines that mattered at the time: notably sherry, Madeira, brandy, port, the Rhône and Italy, with two chapters on Burgundy and three on claret, all delivered in anecdotal rather than academic fashion.
For some reason, the publisher of the time felt the need to have Ian Maxwell Campbell – himself the author of another of the Classic Editions series, though better known as a first-class cricketer and wine merchant – add editorial notes correcting or contextualising Healy’s prose. They come across, as Fiona Morrison MW says in her introduction, ‘like an indulgent schoolmaster trying to temper the unbridled enthusiasm of a gifted pupil’ (though I would replace the word ‘indulgent’ with ‘curmudgeonly’). They’re occasionally unintentionally amusing in their earnestness. The publisher of today could have added several further footnotes, not least to mitigate Healey’s less than egalitarian views on issues such as the female palate, for example, but the whole point here is that these are the unabashed observations of an amateur wine lover, very much of their time. The book’s worth lies in its historical insights, the elegance and charm of its writing and the easy, unforced humour.
So while Healy is not reticent in sharing his opinions, he never talks down to the reader. Indeed wine seems a simpler subject back then – the pages devoted to white Burgundy don’t even mention Chardonnay, let alone clones, trellising or pruning. Instead we learn that ‘the theory that you cannot enjoy a Claret with fish is perfectly sound when you are drinking something like Château Ausone 1899, which Monsieur Bouluestin once found his guests attempting to drink with sardines!’; and that the Château Haut-Brions of 1926, ’28 and ’29 were ‘hot and unpleasant and entirely unworthy of the name Claret’.
As self-declared admirer Hugh Johnson says, this is ‘wine writing that is elegant, informative, inspiring, often eccentric and frequently witty; some of it may feel dated now, but that’s part of its charm.’
Regenerative Viticulture by Jamie Goode
wineanorak.com, £16.76/Kindle edition £9 (May 2022)
Here’s a sobering fact: 800 million kilograms of Roundup are used worldwide every year – seven per cent of that on vineyards. Here’s another: Roundup (one of the trade names of the herbicide glyphosate) is routinely assessed by agricultural authorities as perfectly safe. Yet there are other studies which show glyphosate is anything but benign. The World Health Organisation has classed it as ‘probably carcinogenic’; Roundup’s manufacturer Bayer is facing a lawsuit; vineyard studies have found it ‘worrisomely’ harmful to earthworms.
Jamie Goode devotes a chapter of his new book to herbicides. Facts are presented without drama, and his paragraphs are seeded with unavoidable truths, like this from a New Zealand viticulturalist: ‘All herbicides have unintended consequences for non-target organisms.’ Roundup’s ubiquitousness shows that we still don’t get it, and that’s precisely why this book is so timely.
In fewer than 200 pages Goode examines the historical, geographic, viticultural and economic rationale behind regenerative viticulture, a system based on a branch of science called agroecology in which ‘biodiversity and soil health are the key emphases’. Regenerative viticulture can be seen as the logical next step on from sustainability. While the latter is about maintaining systems without degrading the land, the former seeks to restore to the land what agriculture takes out.
Goode, whose doctorate is in plant biology, discusses organics and biodynamics, never losing sight of his primary purpose, which is to make the case that regenerative farming ‘must be the future for winegrowing’. He’s a clear and unfussy writer with a knack for explaining complex scientific principles without losing the lay reader. His research is backed by a wealth of evidence: he’s trodden vineyards and questioned growers and winemakers from Canada to New Zealand, Australia to Napa to Champagne (he gives a gold star to Pernod Ricard-owned Champagne Mumm for its embrace of regenerative practices). He’s familiar with the theory, quoting pioneers such as the Japanese farmer Manosobu Fukuoka, or the early agroeconomist Miquel Altieri.
Above all he shows, without being dogmatic or tedious, that the proper business of wine is undergoing a mighty change. For decades the focus has been on the vine as the ‘organism of interest’, but now we understand that everything of any importance happens in the ground, and we ignore that at our peril. It’s the soil, stupid.
Doctors and Distillers by Camper English
Penguin, £15 (July 2022)
Powdered human skull dissolved in alcohol was a favoured anti-depressant of Charles II of England. The King’s Drops, as it was known, became quite popular in the 17th century, as did skull moss – ‘lichens or moss growing on skulls,’ the author helpfully elucidates. The chapter on ‘Corpse medicine’ (it might include powdered mummy), is just one of the pleasures of this enjoyable tour of the long and intertwined history of medicine and alcohol. From the development of Chartreuse (loved by ZZ Top, who rhymed it with ‘loose’), through snake oil and mithridate and Guinness (until 2009 Irish blood donors were given a free pint), pisco and wormwood, moonshine and soda fountains (which in the 1800s would deliver a shot of cocaine along with the fizz), English describes the myriad ways that for the last 10,000 years humans have been using alcohol medicinally.
There are times when it becomes more of a basic history of drinks (I already know how the gin & tonic came about) but it’s admirably researched, with 20 pages of bibliography and references. And it’s scholarly – Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo are namechecked as well as Marie the Jewess, who invented the bain-marie (who knew?). I, for one, am delighted to have learnt about the concept of mellification, popular in Arabic countries in the 16th century, a process by which old men sacrificed themselves by eating only honey. English quotes the Chinese author Li Shizhen (1518–1593): ‘Such a one takes no more food or drink, only bathing and eating a little honey, till after a month his excreta are nothing but honey; then death ensues. His compatriots place the body to macerate in a stone coffin full of honey, with an inscription giving the year and month of burial. After a hundred years the seals are removed and the confection so formed used for the treatment of wounds and fractures of the body and limbs—only a small amount taken internally is needed for the cure.’
A Contemplation of Wine by H Warner Allen
Academie du Vin Library, £16.99 (December 2021)
Herbert Warner Allen was a correspondent in the First World War and, at 58, too old to participate in the Second. His writing style and his subject matter (Romans, Chaucer, 18th-century topers) show him to be a man of his time, as do his frequent references to ‘the phylloxera’ – a disaster then still fresh in every wine-lover’s mind. This Académie du Vin Library edition is a reprint of his charming 1951 musings on wine and its foibles, and the book is a wonderful window on an era when mountain-climbers slaked their thirst with water pepped up with a dash of absinthe and when mine host could serve port as a post-tennis refreshment without anyone calling the police (although even Allen is horrified). His concerns are not always ours, but his fascination with language makes this book a treasure-chest for logophiles: if you have ever longed for a clever word for table talk, for an all-encompassing love of good wine or for the state of being as angry as an ant, this book is for you. And if, as wine-lovers, we suffer from a tendency to romanticise what is old, it is useful to read a man bemoaning modern austerity and hankering for the cheaper luxuries and pleasanter lifestyle of a previous generation… and then to remind ourselves that this man was born in 1881.