Wine books make the perfect gift, especially at Christmas – a great time of year to curl up in peace with a really good read. And luckily for the wine lover in your life, the second half of 2022 has been awash with new books about wine that have been released just in time for Christmas gifting. As a result, we had our crack team of Club Oenologique writers leaf their way through the latest and greatest titles – from memoirs by those whose lives have been greatly influenced by the humble grape to in-depth guides to niche regions and wine styles.
There are new books dedicated to topics as trending as the rise of natural wine and the impacts of climate change on the way we drink; find reviews of books about the ever-popular Champagne or the pink wines of Southern France; and discover new editions of top releases from the likes of wine writers Karen MacNeil, Stephen Brook and Andrew Jefford. Read on for nine of the best wine books fit for gifting any oenophile this Christmas.
Nine of the best wine books for Christmas
The Complete Bordeaux (4th Edition) by Stephen Brook
Bordeaux, Stephen Brook tells us, can be very depressing. ‘There is a gulf that separates the visitor from the insider,’ he notes. ‘The world’s greatest wine Mecca’ can be a ‘dismal destination’ for the wine pilgrim. It’s comments like this that make this magisterial encyclopaedia of wine so engaging. Brook’s style is direct, and while he enjoys telling us about the great and the good with whom he rubs shoulders (‘a magnificent dinner at Yquem…’, he murmurs), he makes it clear he’s not seduced by them. His self-deprecation is fun, and perfectly transparent: ‘The 61 Lafite is apparently notorious for its inconsistency’ (I love that ‘apparently’). But Brook knows his stuff. Over some 600 densely written pages he gives an efficient pen-portrait of 13,000 chateaux over 54 appellations. While he brings the entries to life with neat little vignettes – such as meeting a pair of flamenco guitarists at Domaine de Chevalier when the music-loving Claude Ricard was still owner – the incisive, acerbic tone of the introductory pages is disappointingly reined-in and the entries, especially those of the grandest chateaux, devolve into paragraphs of tasting notes: ‘The 1975 [Cheval Blanc] … had an intensely perfumed nose, but was still austere…’ and so on.
He’s best on the parade of interesting characters that populate Bordeaux. He captures the peculiar charisma of St Emilion kingpin Jonathan Maltus in a couple of sentences: ‘The Maltus wines are overall a fine blend of intuition, intelligence, boldness and manipulation. It’s clear that the market… is never far from his mind. It’s a game he plays exceedingly well.’ The Complete Bordeaux is in many ways an old-fashioned book – much of it, like the dozens of pages of vintage reports, are far more easily available online. But that’s not the point. It’s not so much a reference book as one to sink into your armchair with (it’s a handsome, heavy volume, nicely illustrated), poke the fire, recharge your glass (with the 61 Lafite, bien sûr), and lose yourself for a happy couple of hours.
Crushed – How a Changing Climate is Altering the Way We Drink by Brian Freedman
Rowman & Littlefield, £25
This is a serious (even earnest) examination of how climate change is affecting the wine and spirit industry worldwide. US journalist Brian Freedman anchors chapters on California, Israel, Patagonia, England, Texas and elsewhere with interviews with the men and women trying to understand and mitigate what is happening to our climate. There are figures already well-known in the drink world: in the south of England, consultant Dermot Sugrue, and Trevor Clough of Digby Fine English, Jamie Kutch in Sonoma, Nicolas Seillan at St Emilion’s Château Lassègue (part of the Jackson Family empire), Johan Reyneke in South Africa. And there are fascinating people I knew nothing about: Michal Akerman at Tabor Winery in Israel, Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards in Texas, and the burgeoning group of craft whiskey producers who are working with heritage grains in the US.
There are many discussions about how these producers might cope with the changes their regions are undergoing: Akerman, for instance, talks about her experiments in the Negev desert; Clough notes how, as the south of England gets warmer, the piercing acidity of Chardonnay has given way to the softer fruit of Pinot Noir; Yates faces increasingly unpredictable Texas weather. There’s a bit of over-explaining – a long intro on the history of apartheid, for example, and I couldn’t see the point in a page-long digression on Burgundy’s Domaine Coche-Dury – but the overall focus is sharp, and the conclusion stark. As Reyneke says, ‘I could see how we were encroaching upon nature. Where we used to be vulnerable, and nature was something we were supposed to protect ourselves from, the whole dynamic changed, and nature became vulnerable, and we became the aggressor. And one almost had to protect nature from ourselves, and from our worldview.’
The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition by Karen MacNeil
Workman Publishing, £31.99 (December 2022)
The latest edition of the Wine Bible – a comprehensive guide featuring a glossary of more than 400 grapes, a dictionary of wine terms, coverage of more than 25 countries and their major wine regions, with 8,000 wines tasted – shows Karen MacNeil digging in for the kind of long-haul, solitary research that makes her one of the most reliable (and best-selling) US wine writers.
Highlights from the veteran wine author include a new essay, In the Beginning… Wine in the Ancient World, which looks at how anthropologists and archaeologists talk about where and when wine first came into being. ‘The Neolithic time is different in China than it is in the Middle East. And are grape seeds enough to suppose people were trying to make wine?’ The origins of wine are a historical quagmire; MacNeil’s insightful comments are a useful guide. And for the first time in colour, a cache of new photos accompanies enlarged and updated chapters on major wine regions, including newly emerging hot spots – from Slovenia, which MacNeil notes has ‘30,000 grape growers,’ to Croatia’s Dalmatia region and its prized ‘Zinfandel-like red Plavac Mali.’ Her chapter on Israel tells us that ‘not all kosher wines are Israeli, and not all Israeli wines are kosher.’
She delves into hot-button topics like regenerative viticulture and climate change, and shares details on wines from less-likely regions: Japan, Croatia, or Tasmania, whose cool climate produces wines of ‘ravaging elegance’, and where the Pinot Noir in particular can be ‘every bit the equal of a Burgundian Grand Cru.’ Scrupulously researched, reliable and clearly written, this book belongs on the desk of every wine-curious person, from enthusiast to professional.
On Champagne is the wine book that every lover of the world’s most famous bubbles has been waiting for – whether they realised it or not. It is a ‘tardis’, containing far more information, opinion, reminiscences, facts and figures in its 279 pages than could ever be guessed at. And no wonder. Those pages hold the distilled wisdom of 29 writers whose enthusiasm for Champagne could be described, without exaggeration, as boundless. The contributors’ list is a roll call of the world’s most respected writers on Champagne (Peter Liem, Tom Stevenson, Essi Avellan, Serena Sutcliffe and many more), as well as famed names from the world of literature such as Jay McInerney and Evelyn Waugh. The former describes Bollinger as, ‘… rich and powerful and Pinot Noir-heavy – the Château Latour of Champagnes,’ while Waugh fondly remembers a visit to Reims: ‘Everywhere we were regaled with bottles, some of dignified age, some in turbulent youth. We had a thundering good time.’
The essays and articles are mostly contemporary (though Henry Vizetelly’s dates back to 1882), and are grouped into eight themed chapters. On Your Marques features a number of big name profiles, including Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart; and Eleven Eras of Champagne is a historical sweep across four centuries. One essay that caught my eye was Natasha Hughes’ Beyond the Ice Bucket, where she argues cogently for Champagne’s place at the table: ‘… it’s well past time to take a second look at Champagne’s diversity of styles and ask what the wines can offer in terms of food pairing.’
This book is both primer and comprehensive reference. The casual reader can dip in and out, while the serious student will revel in the scholarship compressed into these pages – and expertly corralled by a proper index. On Champagne is as good an assemblage of Champagne writing as could be imagined. Put it on your Christmas list.
Rosés of Southern France by Elizabeth Gabay MW and Ben Bernheim
Elizabeth Gabay has been a Master of Wine since 1998 and has lived in France since 2002, so she’s well qualified to give rosé the serious attention that it has not, so far, received. Four years ago, she wrote about the pink wine revolution; now she, and her son Ben Bernheim, focus on the South of France, burying the idea that all rosé is prettily tinted sunshine juice. They provide a mountain of detail on regional variations, styles, terroirs, grape varieties and winemaking techniques, all with enthusiasm and some quiet polemic (including discussion of the environmental problems involved in making wines fashionably pale by chilling the grapes before, during or after pressing). If there isn’t much humour, well, rosé is hardly in need of a frivolity injection.
Read this book and you will learn who is experimenting with oak and what the impact is; the influence of modern winemaking styles on Tavel; and on which kind of soil the aromatic scrub called garrigue is found (spoiler: it’s limestone). You will hear about Languedoc’s rosés as well as the more familiar pink wines of Provence, and will get to experience, second-hand, the flavours of older wines in a category which is not, generally, considered ageworthy. I built up a list of producers to try that will take me a long time to get through.
It’s just a shame that the care that went into research didn’t extend to the editing: there are repetitions, missing apostrophes and prepositions, and small infelicities (a slight misspelling of the international rosé advocacy organisation Rosés de Terroirs, for instance, and it seems unreasonable to talk about ‘supposed’ Roman settlers in Nîmes when they are a matter of recorded fact). Nonetheless, this is an important book and a labour of love – love of family, of southern France and of the best rosé wines, in all their fascinating variety.
Blood From a Stone by Adam McHugh
IV Press, £17.90
Adam McHugh, a former Presbyterian minister who had seen his fair share of death, was drawn to wine ‘because of the life in it.’ His memoir tells a personal resurrection story, from working the graveyard shift of hospice calls around Los Angeles – arriving to ‘listen or pray or sit quietly at grieving bedsides’ – to a new life as a ‘wine tour guide and writer’, as he describes himself, in the Santa Ynez Valley.
McHugh, a gregarious and self-deprecating character, upends his married life and goes to European wine regions to taste and soak up the history of wine. He gives short dissertations on the subjects he stumbles upon in a friendly, knowledgeable way that feels more like a TED talk than a lecture. It might be on Vincent van Gogh’s obsession with Provence, Noah’s efforts to plant vines after the Great Flood, or Pope John XXII’s desire to drink only local southern Rhône wine. On a trip to France, revelling in a long lunch, he wonders aloud, ‘If the reason the French sit at lunch for three hours is because they can’t move.’ In ‘Sense of Place,’ an early chapter, McHugh examines the history of the term ‘terroir’ and makes a comparison with his life as a minister. ‘I felt like a vine planted in the wrong place.’
The book’s title is revealed during a visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape when a guide translates the meaning of a local expression: ‘Making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.’ The notion that there was life in the stones beneath ‘struck me with force,’ writes McHugh, who takes it as a sign that his decision to change his life is justified.
He has gigs at Sandhi, the wine label owned by Rajat Parr, at Au Bon Climat, at the famous Wine Ghetto in Lompoc, two Whole Foods stores, and countless more, before finding a home and a new wife. This might be a story of a revolving door of jobs in retail and wineries, divorce, remarriage, and settling down in Santa Barbara County, but it’s also a journey of self-discovery made by a master storyteller.
Vino by Joe Campanale
Clarkson Potter, £20.63
The only time I ate at Babbo, Mario Batali’s legendary New York restaurant, was in 2007, so it would have been during Joe Campanale’s brief stint as a sommelier there. I don’t remember if I met him, but I certainly remember the superlative Italian wine list he had at his disposal: surely the ideal starting-point for a boy from Queens who had developed an unlikely passion for the wines of his long-dead father’s homeland.
Campanale, now one of New York’s acknowledged wine experts, is busy opening restaurants and bars that showcase Italy’s smaller, more artisanal producers. Vino, written with cookbook writer Joshua David Stein, is both readable and extremely useful given his specialised knowledge of a country with around 2,000 indigenous varieties (more, as he points out, than France, Spain and Greece combined). He talks about Italian regions, varieties, styles and winemakers in an accessible way, and his enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. He has even come up with his own grading system, the Vino Vero Venn, to replace Italy’s current system (a pyramid with Vino da Tavola or table wine at the bottom and DOCG at the top), which he reckons enshrines a post-war status quo that is badly outdated.
But this is where the trouble starts. The VVV focuses on terroir, artisanal winemakers and native grapes. Campanale claims it ‘isn’t meant to freeze the wine world at one moment in time, to enshrine it as a Platonic ideal’. But so certain is he of his ground (or, rather, terroir), that even though his Venn diagram allows for wines that don’t meet all his specifications, for me it is in danger of being precisely that frozen system. I love indigenous varieties – but I’m unconvinced that all the Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany should be pulled up. He makes exceptions for international varieties that have been in Italy for centuries but where’s the cut-off point? And there’s not enough space here to discuss the complexities of low- or no-intervention as a creed. He acknowledges that natural wine is a slippery term – but the solution, he feels, is to follow his criteria. To me, that’s a little slippery, too. But for all that, this is a very useful book. Read it to discover exciting small producers and to expand your knowledge of the vast and complex world of Italian wine. Just don’t regard it as definitive.
Drinking with the Valkyries: Writings on Wine by Andrew Jefford
I was amused to see that the foreword to this, a compendium of Andrew Jefford’s writing spanning the last 15 years, was contributed by the US novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney. The pair couldn’t be more different in both tone and temperament: McInerney irreverent, swaggering; Jefford intellectual, studied. But it’s instructive to read the American’s admiration of his British counterpart, whose elegant prose he describes as ‘writing, not wine writing’.
Doubtless the hedonistic McInerney appreciates the fact that the best of Jefford’s writing celebrates the associated pleasures that we derive from wine as much as it does the more intangible philosophy around it. But while Jefford’s lyrical, almost literary language is his calling card, I’ve long found the most impressive element of his writing to be the rigour. I always learn something when reading Jefford. The lyricism I take somewhat for granted – indeed there are times when it can almost get in the way of the facts.
There is a degree of scholarly wonder and awe in Jefford – he’s like a nerdy student delighted to find the answers to a fascinating thesis he has set himself. ‘Chablis shivers (undoubtedly) but does it really taste of stone?’ he asks. Of Tannat, he ponders how a single grape can yield wines both ‘as soft as a trembling jellyfish’ and as ‘resolute as a guardsman’. Subjects range from the practical (Palate Fitness) to the ruminative (Wine is Also a Dream, a quote from an afternoon spent with Philippe Guigal); the throwaway (Some Useless Notes) to the profound (Wine and Astonishment, which taps into various German philosophers’ insights). Crucially, everything is done, in his words, with that same ‘astonishment and discovery, not geekdom and mastery’.
Most of the content was first published in either Decanter or The World of Fine Wine, and chosen, adds Jefford, to be ‘not too ephemeral and not too geeky’ with ‘minimum overlap between pieces [which had to be] fun to read’. It makes for a coherent compendium. One wonders, though, why the excerpts aren’t clearly dated. Most have been revised from the original article, and a timeline of sorts does appear at the very end of the book, though categorised by year of publication rather than as an index of articles. As a result, it’s an arduous task to marry the two, which seems a surprising misstep from this most accurate of writers.
The World of Natural Wine: What It Is, Who Makes It, and Why It Matters by Aaron Ayscough
This is a guide for wine lovers through what is still largely uncharted terroir. The term ‘natural’ remains a loose descriptor, but Aaron Ayscough’s passion for his subject brings its own sense of definition: natural wine is ‘less a rulebook than a description of a shared value system … wine with nothing to hide.’
A former sommelier whose natural wine epiphany took him from Los Angeles to Paris to Beaujolais, the author describes natural wine as ‘a counterculture’ and ‘an ideological battlefield,’ and he might raise a few hackles by declaring that ‘most mass market wines are fraudulent,’ a reference to what he describes as ‘anonymous wine that could be made anywhere.’ The World of Natural Wine is a manifesto, of course, but Ayscough is a born communicator and his (mainly) objective explanation of vinous terminology and technique is among the best I have encountered.
This is no textbook, more a labour of love: a history of the origins of the natural wine movement and its heroes segues into a crie de coeur about the state of modern viticulture, leavened by a comprehensive guide to the producers making some of the world’s most exciting wines and also, usefully, where best to enjoy them. The book has a French bias – the natural wine movement took off in the backstreet bars of Paris during the 1980s – and, though I would have appreciated more about Italy, Spain and (especially) Georgia, this is a thought-provoking and often mouth-watering introduction to the subject.