This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Here are the Christmas presents I'd like to give in an ideal world.
For California Cabernet producers
A bottle of Chateau Latour 2004 apiece to demonstrate that tannins can be both chewy and delicious. Of course there are exceptions (like the Ridge Montebello Cabernet served blind last July to 250 delegates at the Masters of Wine symposium in Napa, all of whom thought it was an Old World wine), but typical California Cabernet is made from grapes kept on the vine for week after week so that the tannins soften to imperceptibility. This of course means that the grape sugar levels keep on rising, often so high that the resulting wines have to have their alcohol levels physically reduced, and they still tend to be uncomfortably high. Tannins can be refreshing, as can a little whiff of leafiness as in Cabernet that is not overripe. Perhaps they deserve a bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1975 too.
For those in search of a good read
A good book. Jay McInerney is a friend of mine and, as a hugely successful novelist turned wine writer, completely infuriating. Not only does he seem to be able to drink infinite quantities of wine without any physical ill-effects, he has managed to recycle his articles in the American magazine House & Garden into a second, best-selling, rapturously-received book. Even worse, I have to admit that A Hedonist in the Cellar is a rollicking read, and chimes even more with my own opinions than its predecessor Bacchus & Me. The boy can write as well as drink.
Another friend exasperatingly well qualified in both those important attributes is Hugh Johnson whose beautifully written statement of intent A Life Uncorked is now available in paperback. The British master gives us very much more to chew on than the American upstart, although it is the magazine format that has presumably imposed portion control on McInerney. Johnson deserves a whole day by the fireside; McInerney would do nicely as a series of nightcaps.
For (wo)men starting out in wine
A copy of each of two refreshing new guides to wine written by North American women. Following hard on the heels of Hugh Johnson's daughter Kitty's Wine: A Woman's Guide and Leslie Sbrocco's Wine for Women come The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine by Jennifer Rosen and Natalie MacLean's Red, White and Drunk All Over.
This is a great development. It seems so sad, when women are now proved to be such good tasters and so many of them are visibly interested in wine, that the bulletin boards and so much of the printed wordage is hogged by men. Rosen and MacLean cleverly insinuated themselves into the wine-drinking consciousness by launching their own email newsletters, details respectively from www.corkjester.com and www.nataliemaclean.com.
On the printed page too they bring their strong personalities to bear on their shared favourite subject. Rosen is sassy, brassy and could only be American. I love her introduction: "I'll be honest with you. I can't simplify wine. Frankly, wine is complicated, and gets more so every day. I can hardly keep up with all the new wineries and regions. Daily, people ask, 'What do you think of the new Wasted Walrus Pinot Blanc?' And I have no idea what they're talking about." She shares other dilemmas with us, such as whether she can send the wine back in one of those completely dark restaurants staffed by the blind (of course she does) and what to do when you boyfriend, a recent wine course graduate, orders a wine that turns out to be the wrong colour.
MacLean (whose book is published in the UK in April) is Canadian, in fact so energetically has she promoted her newsletter Nat Decants that outside Canada she may well be the best-known Canadian in wine. Her relationship with wine is sensual, very personal and she acknowledges, and occasionally embraces, an aspect of it virtually ignored by most wine books: its delightful effect on the nervous system. She has very cleverly wrapped a wine primer in such appealing anecdote that any reader, male or female, should find learning about wine completely painless.
TastingBuddy, a software programme for taking and sorting tasting notes on handheld devices such as the fiendish Blackberry. I find it maddeningly restrictive but that is probably my fault. It certainly imposes a structure on note-taking and could well be just the thing for those whose knowledge of PDAs is greater than their knowledge of pHs. The Fitzpatrick brothers who have designed the system have established links with such merchants as The Wine Society, Armit, Lay & Wheeler and Around Wine so that their customers are offered both preferential rates and downloadable lists of the wines to be shown at the merchants' tastings so that tasting notes can be fed straight into the database. Although my personal observations suggest that relatively few non-professionals take serious notes at such tastings, perhaps the advent of TastingBuddy will change this. More detail at www.tastingbuddy.com.
For wine stopper proselytisers
A bucket of cold water. There are far too many people around who campaign for either the natural cork or screwcap as though it were a holy war, ignoring the many arguments both for and against when they don't suit their personal agenda. I have seen countless examples of young wines which have tasted better from under a screwcap than under a natural cork but no-one knows definitively how a Chambertin or Château Margaux is going to taste after 50 years under screwcap. The cork producers are now, thank goodness, concentrating more on improving their product than rubbishing the opposition, and there are even some synthetic corks that seem to do the job adequately. I find it hard to believe, however, that either the bargain screwcap or a plastic copy of an already inconvenient stopper represents the last word in what man can devise.
For the optimistic
The Wine Diet by Professor Roger Corder. This is much the meatiest book of this genre, written by the measured and thoroughly objective Professor of Experimental Therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute. As chairman of judges of the Geoffrey Roberts Award (www.geoffreyrobertsaward.com) I am proud to have given him our 2002 travel bursary to study wine-swigging centenarians in Sardinia and to have effected the introduction that resulted in this extremely useful and informative book.