In what has become a tradition on this website, Irish broadcaster and journalist Paul O'Doherty will be sharing his reviews of this year's crop of wine books with us this week and next. His views may not always coincide with ours but, being so close to the world of wine books and their authors ourselves, we value his independence and location highly.
Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, Third Edition
Fully revised and updated by Essi Avellan MW
Now in its third edition, and superseding what Stevenson produced in 1998 and 2003, this revised volume is 40 per cent bigger than the second edition. In the intervening decade, a lot has happened and this is reflected with an extended section on Champagne, a lot more to say about Spain and Italy, greater emphasis on the creeping importance of Canada, Argentina and India, and a reflection on the emergence of the south of England as a possible future gold-standard with lots of potential as climate change bites ever deeper.
Comparing the original 1998 edition and this one, there are minor changes in the first 50 or so pages to such sections as A Little History; How Sparkling Wines are Made; A Step-by-Step Guide to the Traditional Method; The Elusive Quality; and Putting on the Style, among others. But the changes really kick in when we get to the individual regions, where, for instance, websites are now de rigueur. To the section on France, for example, an extra 70-odd pages have been added since the 1998 edition. The information is much more up-to-date with changes affecting grape varieties, production figures and total volumes produced logged, sometimes additional pages added for coverage of some producers. There are also tasting notes on wines from selected specific vineyards.
The introductory section on Great Britain (now referred to as The British Isles) is surprisingly similar to what Stevenson had to say on this specific topic in 1998, although the chapter itself has clearly been expanded and the information updated. Sections on Europe follow with much larger sections on Italy and Spain. Topically, the chapter on South Africa contains a piece on the House of Mandela, which is fronted by Nelson Mandela's daughter Makaziwe and her daughter Tukwini. After that there are sections on the rest of Africa, Mexico, the United States, Australia and New Zealand with a lot more to be said about Asia, Canada and South America, for instance. If you haven't invested in a copy from previous editions, this is still the go-to-Champagne book to have on your wine shelf and an impressively glitzy one it is too.
For anyone wondering why Stevenson's name dominates a book that has been fully revised and updated by Essi Avellan, Stevenson explains in the foreword: 'I became overwhelmed with other projects, so the date of this revision got delayed. When the gap between editions threatened to be as long as 10 years, I had to do something otherwise a revised Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine might never materialise. It was at this juncture that I recruited Essi Avellan MW. She was my first choice and happily she immediately and enthusiastically agreed'. Stevenson goes on to say that they have a similar palate and is happy to have his name on a book revised by Avellan: 'If you trust my judgement, then you most certainly can trust hers'. Avellan, for her part, is from Finland and the editor of Fine Champagne magazine.
What should we make of this? Well, while the changes for the most part have been relatively seamless, the problem is that, reading the 1998 and 2013 editions side-by-side, you can't help wondering why Avellan didn't go the whole hog and just rewrite complete chapters in her own words rather than fiddling around with chapters, adding and subtracting a phrase or sentence there. Obviously, these sort of encyclopaedic adventures are huge endeavours [I can confirm that - JR] and getting one person to oversee everything can be a big ask. But presumably the rewards are also enormous - we are, after all, talking about a book that will set you back £50 ($70). At least when you buy the latest Sherlock Holmes or James Bond novel, you know that Anthony Horowitz or William Boyd has written the complete novel rather than played around with the words of Arthur Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming.
Uncorked, Revised Edition
Princeton University Press
When this was originally published in 2004 it won a couple of prizes for Gérard Liger-Belair, a physics professor at the University of Reims. This time around it's got a new foreword from chemist Hervé This (sic), who name-checks Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday, Galileo Galilei and Gustave Flaubert, along with discussing metaphysics, natural philosophy, molecular gastronomy, note-by-note cuisine, and nanotechnology.
By the time we reach Liger-Belair's own introduction we are therefore under no illusion that we are going down the science route. He begins by explaining his fascination with 'bubbles' from his master's degree in fundamental physics to his collaboration with Champagne Moët & Chandon which began with his photographic presentation of what champagne bubbles look like on film to one of its departmental heads. What followed was an investigation into the physical chemistry of champagne bubbles at his present university. That research prompted a book and now nine years later we get a revised edition of his earlier work.
As we push into the book, there are sections on the history of champagne; the making of champagne; glassware; the science of what happens when Formula One drivers shake open a bottle and spray the crowd; why champagne makes bubbles; the probable origin of the myth that suggests 'the smaller the bubbles, the better the wine'; an investigation into the difference between popping champagne corks at different temperatures; and, scientifically speaking, the best way to pour champagne. Along the way, we get practical nods to the charms of Henry's Law, Van der Waals' Forces, Archimedes' Principle, chaos theory, and their relevance to champagne production and how those gorgeous little bubbles fit so perfectly or 'imperfectly' into the laws of physics. There are also comparisons with the bubbles in beer and the 'fizz of the ocean'.
For the most part it's well-written and captivating, and Liger-Belair's accessible style easily blends the scientific with the entertaining, producing something that will change the way one observes champagne forever. The next time you open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine - and if this book is handy, it may be soon - you will feel compelled to follow each of Liger-Belair's pages by checking the accuracy of what you have just read.
I have a couple of very mild complaints. In particular, the layout of the book has made it bigger than it should have been. For instance, by reducing the large typesize and tightening up the line spacing, the publishers could have saved half the pages and the purchasers half the price. Also, Hervé This suggests in his foreword that the 'pictures in this book are beautiful'. I might have agreed with him more often if there had been a few in colour instead of black and white. But these are very minor trifles in what is overall a fascinating investigation into the nature of bubbles in champagne and this is certainly a book that captures the imagination.
The Little Book of Champagne Tips
Without doubt the publishers and author got the title right as this is without doubt the smallest book to come though the letterbox this year. And, despite its proportions (four inches square), it's a fine little publication with lots of uncomplicated titbits and advice from an author who has already produced over 100 similar titles. This particular one offers simple, sound recommendations that are occasionally a little tenuous such as 'champagne is a wine which bubbles when you pour it out. But there are hundreds of other varieties of sparkling wine - some as expensive, some much cheaper. Some bear comparison with great fizz, some are dreadful'. That said, it's clearly aimed at novice drinkers of champagne or sparkling wine, or those who have never been able to figure out why a bottle of champagne obeys the laws of science and inconveniently freezes when you've tried to chill it by putting it in the freezer between the frozen spinach and the ice cubes for an hour. He includes a good selection of tips on champagne cocktails and Buck's Fizz. Much of Langley's advice is of particular interest to foodies who want to know what goes with champagne. The best tip? Serving sparkling wine with fried food and, in particular, 'high quality fish and chips'. The worst? Save half-full bottles of sparkling wine for up to a week by resealing them with 'determination and cunning'. They both sound like advice you'd pick up in Blackadder from Baldrick. Overall, this is a harmless bit of fun that would easily top up someone's Christmas stocking.