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Blind tasting - book review

23 Apr 2014 by Richard Hemming

Writing about music, it has been said, is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said for writing about wine tasting. Words are a poor substitute for the electric reactions of your senses when experiencing taste for yourself.

I’m well aware that this book review demonstrates writing about writing about wine tasting, and I am therefore in severe danger of disappearing up my own nasal cavity – but read on, for The Concise Guide to Wine & Blind Tasting is a book worth knowing about.

As a primer for learning about wine, it joins an already overloaded bookshelf of titles, written by all sorts of people in all sorts of styles. None of the information it contains is new, nor does it purport to be. As such, it’s a book that doesn’t have the strongest raison d’être – the ostensible equivalent of yet another six quid Pinot Grigio, perhaps. Yet in practice, it’s a handy volume with some very useful applications.

It is split into three sections. The first is a condensed but sufficiently detailed explanation of viticulture and vinification. This is standard stuff, written in a brisk and readable but rather dry style, with nary a word out of place. It is well researched, with none of the ambiguity or inaccuracy that can beset a topic so complex and ever-changing as wine.

Indeed, this is a feature of the whole book – though it perhaps comes at the expense of levity. With its sombre cover and no illustrations apart from some functional maps, this is not a book meant to make you laugh. Nor would it be fair to criticise it for this, but its textbook style is certainly not intended for the casual reader. 

This is particularly true of the second section, which summarises the most salient points of each of the world’s major wine regions. For the wine student, this is a great boon – it presents a current, accurate, comprehensive and pertinent guide to everything important. I’d imagine it would appeal more to those already fairly well engaged with wine than to absolute newcomers.

The authors, Neel Burton and James Flewellen, are based in Oxford. The latter is known on these pages for his success in blind tastings, and their book is steeped in the academic tradition of that town.

The third section – the appendices – are perhaps even more useful as a study aid, especially the dry tasting notes. These are very carefully written descriptions of archetypal examples of various different wines. I well remember looking for such things when I was preparing for my MW tasting exams. Finding good generalisations about the specific taste and structure of wines – as far as that is possible – is surprisingly hard, and the ones in this book are invaluable. Of course, each taster eventually develops their own sense of how to identify and recognise the many and varied aspects of wine, but a resource like this is worth knowing about as a reference point for wine students at all stages.

It would be good to see this section expanded in future editions, since comparisons against the norm are such an essential part of blind tasting. As it is, the book is a trustworthy and valuable resource to have, and would doubtless become well thumbed by any serious wine devotee.

The Concise Guide To Wine & Blind Tasting, Neel Burton and James Flewellen. Acheron Press, 376 pages, RRP £25


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