Reports 18 August 2020

The best wine books to read this summer (part one)

Discover a selection of this year's best new wine books, with something to suit everyone from beginners to experts

Words by Adam Lechmere and Guy Woodward

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It’s been a bumper year for new wine books – in the first part of our round-up, we pick out the highlights for holiday reading, for everyone from beginners to serious wine buffs (click here for part two)…

Natural Wine for the People by Alice Feiring

£14.99; Ten Speed Press

This is a timely book. Natural wine has been with us now, in its modern form, for more than a decade, and still it is hedged around with misinformation, prejudice and good old-fashioned wine snobbery. Feiring, one of the foremost authorities on the subject, sets out to explain exactly what natural wine is, from vineyard to glass. First, she explores different types of farming, from biodynamics to organic to sustainable; then she lists all the different ways that wine can be manipulated, followed by a history of natural wine (I hadn’t heard of the Burgundian scientist/vigneron Jules Chauvet, who in the 1970s was looking for ways to make wine without additives).

Feiring is one of the foremost authorities on natural wine

The book is well-indexed – always a sign of serious purpose – and written with brio. Feiring is spiky and humourous (she labels reverse osmosis “a kind of torture chamber for wine”) and you’re never in any doubt as to where her sympathies lie. Her research is deep, and reference to classics such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is used to illustrate rather than show off. There’s a comprehensive section on producers to try, and where to find their wines. Natural wine started “out of a desperate need for authenticity”, she writes. You could say this book comes from a desperate need to clear away the fog. It should be an indispensible part of any wine-lover’s library, from billionaire Burgundy-collector to studio-flat dwelling student. (AL)
Best for: The open-minded

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson

£60; Berry Bros & Rudd

Jane Anson, who lives in Bordeaux, has been writing about the region for nearly 20 years. In 2012 she published the magisterial Bordeaux Legends, a history of the five first growths, for which she was given unprecedented access to the archives and libraries of the châteaux. With Inside Bordeaux she goes broad as well as deep. She has visited and/or tasted 800 châteaux, and while the great properties are covered in impressive detail, the smallest commune and property is also given due attention, from Lalande-de-Pomerol to Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. One strength is the coverage of the smaller AOCs; another is the weight of research, especially into soil. The author’s stated aim is to assess the region “as we more typically do for other fine wine regions such as Burgundy, Barolo or the northern Rhone – by its soils.” A subject that could be dry is sparked into life, contextualised and illustrated with a series of splendid double-gatefold maps.

Jane Anson
Anson has been writing about Bordeaux for nearly 20 years

Anson is an engaging writer with an informal style that makes her serious subject matter eminently readable. The book would have been improved by better photography, and editing could be tighter overall – the chatty style occasionally becomes too casual for a work of this authority – but that will likely be cleared up in subsequent editions, of which one suspects there will be many. With this definitive, entertaining book, Anson confirms her place in the front rank of international Bordeaux experts. (AL)
Best for: Bordeaux lovers looking beyond 1855
For the original, full review of this book, see here.

Wines of the French Alps by Wink Lorch

£25; Wine Travel Media

Wines from the likes of Savoie and Bugey have become increasingly recognised – and trendy – in recent years. But Lorch, who self-published a book on Jura back in 2014, is no arriviste. She visited her first Savoie vineyard in the 1980s, and has been chronicling Alpine wines ever since (a love of skiing helps). Her knowledge and enthusiasm shine through in a comprehensive work that relied on a kickstarter campaign for funding. It’s not just the geography that makes Alpine wineries challenging to visit – there are no well-funded generic bodies or multi-national conglomerates here to help with the logistics and bills that come with such enterprises. As Lorch herself writes, ‘Only a few of the producers have good, up-to-date websites and few are in English – many producers update their news on a Facebook page.’

The homespun look and feel of the book ties in with the nature of producers

The unpolished, unshowy nature of the region’s wine scene is mirrored perfectly – if not always intentionally – in this unpretentious but authoritative work. Unlike the region itself, this is not an aesthetically beautiful book, neither lavishly produced nor sumptuously photographed (despite the efforts of the established wine photographer Mick Rock, which are somewhat lacklustre). But the homespun look and feel ties in with the nature of producers, as do the engaging results. As well as the region’s history, appellations, grape varieties and techniques, Lorch champions the people behind its progress – and the manner in which they overcome such inhospitable conditions. There are 120 profiles of producers, many of whom were, until recently, as unknown as the obscure grapes varieties they cultivate. At times, Lorch assumes readers share her level of interest in an estate’s minutiae, which can make for an overly cliquey, insider-ish feel, but for the most part her style is engaging (a sidebar on Olivier Turlais, “The Yeast Whisperer”, filled me with dread, but was surprisingly accessible). And there’s some welcome opinion where relevant (“the law is an ass,” she says, on the limitations governing the use of indigenous varieties). Some parts are more textbook than riveting read (doubtless invaluable for MW students) but that’s a necessary evil with such a niche work, and the sections on travel and local food and drink – notably cheese – provide a welcome counterbalance. (GW)
Best for: Lovers of the recherché

The Wines of Georgia by Lisa Granik MW

£30; Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library

It says much about the nature of this book that the longest chapter is that devoted to grape varieties. There are, after all, in the region of 500 indigenous varieties within Georgia (the vast majority, one would wager, will be alien to most readers). From Akhaltsikhuri Tetri to Usakhelouri (which literally translates as “nameless”), the analysis of such varieties is a daunting undertaking in its own right. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your point of view – Granik is a Master of Wine – and it shows. The research and analysis is forensic, the scope all-encompassing, but the intricacies of a grape variety’s genetic heritage, bunch shape and leaf formation are surely of secondary importance to most readers to the flavours delivered in the glass, which are often given only a cursory line or two at the foot of each analysis.

Granik's work is without question the definitive book on Georgia

This is not to denigrate Granik’s achievement in compiling what is without question the definitive book (and there are several precursors) on this increasingly relevant country. The chapters on Georgia’s wine history and culture are fascinating, and she’s clear-sighted and dispassionate in assessing the country’s future path and potential  – as seen in this compelling excerpt that we reproduce here. Likewise, the dissection of the country’s regional diversity is unparalleled – though some photos and more maps to bring such eclecticism to life would have aided digestion. Georgia’s wines continue to garner fans and Granik has produced a work for them that is comprehensive in its scope, exhaustive in its research and unrivalled in its ambition. Just be prepared to put in similar commitment when it comes to reading it. (GW)
Best for: Hardcore wine nuts and MW students

Wine Simple by Aldo Sohm with Christine Muhlke

£25; Clarkson Potter, New York

I’d like to meet Aldo Sohm. His tone in this broad introduction to wine is so enthusiastic, so wide-eyed, it’s as if he’s literally just discovered this marvellous liquid, rather than being one of the world’s most decorated sommeliers. He deals with his early life in a few brisk pages (from surly teenager to World’s Best Sommelier, as he recounts, by “assigning myself the task of drinking wine from every village in Chianti”). Sohm and Christine Muhlkin cover every facet of wine from the basic “just because wine’s expensive doesn’t make it good” to how to run your own tasting. There’s enough serious detail about regions, grape varieties and winemaking methods to reassure, but not too much to disconcert. Facts are dealt out on a need-to-know basis: tech-speak around malolactic fermentation and canopy management is covered in single-sentence footnotes, never breaking the flow. Sohm mines every subject for its key elements without ever getting tedious, and he’s bang up-to-date (the Canary Islands are a “cult region”, natural wine merits the space he gives it, and orange wines are “super-popular right now”). He’s also pleasingly opinionated (“Sorry, Prosecco”).

Sohm and Christine Muhlkin cover every facet of wine in Wine Simple

There are strange omissions – it’s dismaying to see Australia dealt with in two cursory paragraphs; there’s not a huge US market for Australian wines but a sommelier of Sohm’s stamp should surely show more awareness of one of the world’s great wine countries. There is also the odd mistake (he should know there’s no “little village of Pomerol”, for example). But these are minor issues: this is a clear, grown-up guide written by someone who has never lost his delight in his subject, and that shines through. If you know a neophyte wine lover with a birthday coming up, there’s your present sorted. (AL)
Best for: Serious beginners

Vignette: Stories of Life and Wine in 100 Bottles by Jane Lopes

£16; Hardie Grant

There’s one thing that unites wine people – especially those who sell it – and that’s the importance of story. Behind every successful wine, whether it’s a thousand-dollar Burgundy or a mid-range Aussie Chardonnay, is a great yarn. Jane Lopes understands this. “Each chapter not  only proposes a style of wine and its exemplifying bottle, but also a vignette – a story from my life – that radiates the emotional truth of that wine”, she tells us in her introduction to this quirky romp through 100 bottles – wines and spirits – that have informed her life so far.

A cat called Bo features heavily in Lopes' chapter on botrytis

It won’t be to everyone’s taste – when I see a chapter headed “Botrytis” in a wine book, I expect more than a cursory nod to noble rot tacked on to five paragraphs about a cat called Bo – but Lopes obviously has much to say. A chapter on her mental health and her relationship with alcohol, and a moving postscript detailing the trauma of being stripped of her Master Sommelier title in the 2018 scandal (when results were invalidated due to an invigilator revealing test information the day of the exams) shows how serious she can be. As an effort to debunk the pomposity of much wine writing, it just about works – it’s readable, and fun to look at – but Lopes and her editors fall into the trap of thinking that the opposite of “elite” is “casual”, and that as long as you call Sauvignon Blanc “Savvy”, you’re speaking for the people. The table of contents looks like it was produced by a toddler playing with one of those fridge-magnet word games: Chenin Blanc followed by Blind-Tasting Wine followed by American Whiskey, then German Riesling, then Italian White Wine and so on. Still, Lopes is passionate, engaging and deeply knowledgeable. As a guide to the multifarious world of wine and spirits she’s more Willy Wonka than Jancis Robinson – you might not know exactly where you are, but you’ll have fun getting there. (AL)
Best for: Less serious beginners

For part two of our book reviews, click here.

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