My favourite 2010 wine books

31 Dec 2010 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Update 6 Apr 2011: Congratulations to Terry Theise for having his book shortlisted for the André Simon awards!

After a few rather lacklustre wine-book vintages, 2010 has yielded a number of titles that are either intriguing or particularly useful, and occasionally both.

The most uplifting wine book of the year is also one of the shortest, Terry Theise's heartfelt ode to the liquid to which he has devoted his professional life, Reading between the Wines. Theise has an established reputation among American wine lovers as a seasoned importer of fine, artisanal wines from Germany, Austria and Champagne, and as an impassioned writer about them. In fact when I first met him, over a mid-morning coffee in Washington DC, he was positively buzzing with the sheer pleasure of writing his very substantial catalogue selling Germany's 2006s, full, as usual, of anecdote and even more opinion.

My sense is that the 189 pages between the University of California Press's modestly sized hard covers contain only a small fraction of all the erudite and entertaining words he has provided free for his customers in his series of catalogues (now available online at www.skurnikwines.com/msw/theise_catalogs.html). But Reading between the Wines is important because it provides him and us with an excuse to consider his general principles of wine enjoyment. It is certainly unusual and significant to find a book that is so dedicated to the purity of wine appreciation.

In his trademark passionate, informed and italic-adorned style he explains lucidly, sometimes romantically and often philosophically just what is so special about fermented grape juice and the modest farmers from whom he has been buying it all this time. He is articulate about the beauty of wine, argues inter alia that blind tasting is a waste of time, and that, far from being demystified, wine should be remystified. He likens 'perfect' modern wines to 'luxury dining experiences' involving truffles and foie gras, describing them all as 'a membrane separating you from the world, swaddling you in a specious bliss, seducing your senses, starving your soul'. The book's opinions may sometimes be cranky but it is a wonderful antidote to the points-and-lifestyle wine coverage that predominates in the US.

Allen Meadows is another highly literate and articulate American who has carved out a reputation for himself as Burghound, the taster and writer lured away from finance by his love of burgundy and the minutiae responsible for it. His lavishly self-published 347-page monograph on arguably Burgundy's most celebrated commune, The Pearl of the Côte - The Great Wines of Vosne Romanée, is not the lyrical polemic that is Theise's but could hardly be faulted for thoroughness - at least as far as the vines and wines go. As for personalities, the dramatic change in personnel in the early 1990s at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy's most famous producer, is allotted one terse paragraph. But there is more than enough detail here, including maps and tasting notes, to nourish a burgundy lover for life. (See more about this and other self-published books here.)

Burgundy lovers are offered a surfeit of books this year to supplement Clive Coates MW's The Wines of Burgundy, the useful collection of producer profiles published in 2008. Less lavishly illustrated than Meadows' book but no less beautiful is British Master of Wine Jasper Morris's Inside Burgundy. As its subtitle The vineyards, the wines & the people indicates, Morris's book has rather more personal detail about individual producers, the precise extent of Burgundy's customary intermarriage, and their favoured winemaking techniques. In publishing terms, this is an interesting book, representing wine merchant Berry Bros' first foray into mainstream wine-book publishing. Segrave Foulkes has done a splendid production job for them.

The name of Remington Norman, for many years a rich source of Burgundian winemaking detail in particular, adorns two titles this year. There's a third edition of his The Great Domaines of Burgundy (Sterling), updated by Charles Taylor MW, and also the brand new Grand Cru - The Great Wines of Burgundy through the Perspective of its Finest Vineyards (Kyle Cathie), which takes the same historico-geographical perspective as Meadows but considers all of the most promising terrain of the Côte d'Or. Each one of these books can offer fine, very detailed maps that should act as a spur for me and my co-author Hugh Johnson to do an even better job with our Burgundy maps in the next edition of The World Atlas of Wine.

But the most riveting, richest wine book of the year is Wine Myths and Reality by Benjamin Lewin, a scientist (founding editor of Cell) who recently qualified as a Master of Wine and is currently shining the beam of acute scientific enquiry on the world of wine. Not all wine lovers see this as beneficial. He recounts in the introduction to this dense, self-published 636-page treatise the reaction of one fellow MW when he described the theme of this second wine book, a worthy successor to last year's What Price Bordeaux? 'Oh dear', said this disapproving MW, 'you don't want to do that. It will destroy the romantic image.'

I'm afraid I side with Lewin, who explains that in this hugely detailed, wide-ranging book he wants 'to set the record straight by throwing light on issues that have been murky or misunderstood. I believe in the value of transparency. And if the results are not always pleasing, the solution is to change production methods or to educate the consumer rather than to cover up.'

He touches on all manner of controversial topics du jour. The use of the additive Mega Purple to make red wine redder, the questionable quality of some of the judgements of the leading American wine magazine Wine Spectator, the alleged 'burnt rubber' odour in some South African red wines, Spain's unwise blanket adoption of Tempranillo, the 'stupidity' of Canadian protectionism, exactly how and when Constellation became the biggest wine company in the world, photographs of machines designed to manipulate wines even at top addresses - these are what I picked out of this marvellous book, full of useful charts and illustrations, completely at random.

But even Mega Scientist Lewin disappoints me by committing the common and careless fault of referring to grape varieties as 'varietals', as though they were adjectives rather than nouns, thereby making me wonder whether this particular rot can possibly ever be stopped.

(Lewin has since commented to me, '
You are of course right about variety and varietal, in fact I realized the error soon after the book was printed - I have corrected the error in the original file in the hope that the book will do well enough for a second printing.' Please buy this book, and tell all your wine-loving friends to buy it. It must achieve that second printing!)

For a guide to Paul O'Doherty's many 2010 wine book reviews see here. And for a recommendation of a wonderful book that has nothing to do with wine, see Jancis recommends.

Tags:  wine writing
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