"Buy my book about the Roussillon on Amazon UK in paperback or eBook or black & white version, and Amazon USA: paperback or eBook or black & white. Also available in the US from Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback or eBook. For other countries, tap on the link below above the cover image." Richard Mark James

02 January 2000

Book reviews

Copied this page over from 'old' WineWriting, where I didn't put any publication dates down so don't really know when these reviews were done, apart from the South African guide at the bottom obviously. I've also browsed through / dipped into these titles over the years but never got round to writing up reviews, although they all look recommendable in their own different ways: Wines of South America by Monty Waldin, and his latest Biodynamic Wine Guide is a bit of a must-read for anyone interested in super-organics / 'natural' winemaking; Treading Grapes by Rosemary George MW (a personal tour of Tuscany), Les Grands Crus du Languedoc et Roussillon by Michel Smith (only in French), Families of the Vine by Michael Sanders, Wine Science by Jamie Goode, Calvados by Henrik Mattsson...

Oddbins Dictionary of Wine
This is a praiseworthy idea, as it combines simplified explanations of dull but must-know technical terms (ideal for those over-wordy Oz back labels going on about malolactic) with common words used to describe wine, regions and subregions, vine varieties, well-known properties and brands etc. The paragraphs at the front written by leading winemakers are also an interesting read.
Handy to dip into and on the whole competently researched; however, on more detailed inspection, Oddbins may regret putting their name to this. There are several misleading or incomplete definitions and even mistakes, which I won't bother listing here: they can spot them themselves! Pedantic perhaps as who's going to read it cover to cover, but what's the point in publishing it if it's not right?
Published by Bloomsbury (UK £9.99) www.bloomsbury.com/reference

Australia’s Liquid Gold by Nicholas Faith
It makes a refreshing change to lay your hands on a ‘proper’ wine book, rather than yet another seen-it-before, already-out-of-date buying guide (all due respect to the many other authors with interesting books out there that I haven’t read). Nicholas’ book isn’t your straightforward and familiar tour of vineyard regions, grape varieties, winemakers etc., but a more serious yet very enjoyable study of the history of the wine business in Australia and the reasons behind its undoubted international marketing success story (one or two current problems outstanding). So expect a lot of fascinating detail on the origins from the late 18th Century onwards, in depth analysis of the rapid development since the 1960s-70s profiling the key players and personalities, and honest reflections on Oz’s future potential and difficulties. Highly recommended although one for the wine enthusiast rather than casual wine reader and drinker!
Published by Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library (UK £20, US $29.95) www.mitchell-beazley.com

Le sol, la terre et les champs by Claude Bourguignon
Skip this unless you can read French (unfortunately there's no English translation yet, although I'd like to persuade a publisher), are interested in discovering the mysteries of the soil & plants, and have an open mind...
Claude Bourguignon, a highly intelligent and qualified agriculturalist & biologist/chemist, has become something of a soil guru at certain progressive wine estates in France and beyond. His controversial views, although actually hyper-traditional in their way, are gathering a following among grape growers who have realised that chemical farming has reached a dead end.
In his fascinating book, which actually hardly mentions vines specifically, Claude lays out his theories for a new agriculture - called 'agrologie' - based firmly on scientific research and understanding observed in the field. He recognises and explains the fundamental roles, needs and complex interrelation of the soil, bacteria, microbes, plants, animals and man as the caring exploiter. Agrologie pours scorn on the over-reliance on chemicals and yields over quality, resulting in the systematic destruction of the environment, many varieties and species. However, this rational scientist and green revolutionary is no eco-warrior, and puts forward philosophical yet practical ideas offering possible solutions for the productive future of sustainable and profitable agriculture.
The book is written for a non-specialist reader, so you don't need qualifications in microbiology to get to grips with the science and principles. On the contrary, as a non-scientist I found this very useful to gain a real understanding of the importance of the soil - structure, minerals, water, bacterial diversity etc. - and how plants feed, grow and produce successfully.
Published by Editions Sang de la Terre (€16) www.sangdelaterre.com

Rich, Rare & Red: a Guide to Port by Ben Howkins
The third edition of Ben's thorough book provides entertaining and informative coverage of all things Port. He looks at vineyards, history, people, production, wine styles, the Quintas and Houses, latest developments and also an interesting international perspective and stats, touring the region, local food and even Port-styles from other countries.
The preface neatly summarises recent changes in ownership - there's been plenty happening here in the last few years - and who now owns what in terms of properties and brands. It also touches on Vintage declarations since the last edition - 2000, 1997, 1994 - the development of single Quinta wines, world trends, viticultural and technological advances. I like the way Ben comments positively on these issues showing nostalgic humour yet realistic enthusiasm (there's no doubting the author's love of the product). For example:
"I am not often seduced by technology, but... eureka, when I saw my first robotic lagar... I was overcome by its simplicity and gleaming efficiency. They tread and dunk the cap - just as humans do. But unlike humans, they do not have to be fed and watered. I suppose they cannot play the accordian or sing, but who knows what the next generation will bring."
The detailed information on visiting Oporto, the Port lodges, restaurants etc. and touring the wild and wonderful Douro Valley and selected Quintas should prove invaluable for those considering a wine holiday in the area. My only gripe is that you can't help feeling the writer goes on rather about the British Houses and history - for sure you can hardly ignore their importance, but how many times do the words Symington and Fladgate/Taylor need to appear in a sentence - although he does pay great tribute to the likes of Ferreira and Noval.
So, all in all essential reading on many levels and topics for anybody who likes Port or needs to brush up on their knowledge (like me on both counts).
Published by The Wine Appreciation Guild, San Francisco ($19.95 US, £12.95 UK, $29.95 Canada) www.wineappreciation.com

John Platter South African wines 2004, edited by Philip van Zyl
Difficult to believe there's anything else to know about South African wines not covered in this omniscient guide, or how many words are crammed into its waifer-thin 500+ pages. It's a must for anyone planning a wine trip to the Cape or who needs a handy yet comprehensive reference book, featuring in-depth details of all regions with touring maps, A-Z listings of wineries and wines including ratings (available in SA and world wide) in addition to restaurant and hotel recommendations.
You also get useful sections on vintages, styles, varieties and commentary on up-and-coming growing areas, latest industry stats, update on new wineries (55 more in this edition), changes of ownership including black empowerment initiatives etc. And of course those much talked about 5-star awarded wines. More info to follow including links on where to buy it (they seem to have disappeared from the original text!)... wineonaplatter.com

Destination Champagne by Philippe Boucheron

Frustrated by publishers who couldn't handle the concept of a cross-genre book, Philippe set up his own company 'Wine Destination Publications' to get this recommended Champagne travel guide on the shelves. I agree with his comment that "wine tourism publications (is) a market sector that has... been largely ignored." I guess narrow-minded wine specialist or travel guide publishers thought book retailers wouldn't know where to put it in the shop - under wine, travel or restaurant guides? Anyway, who cares: this is rather useful if you're going on a trip to Champagne. Enthusiasm for and years of experience of the region's wines, historical insights, travelling tips and maps, where to eat and stay; it contains plenty of information without being too long and is good read too. Perhaps a little pricey at £18.99 but at least Philippe will be the main beneficiary (after the bank no doubt), rather than a huge indifferent publishing company. He also has plans to release Destination Bordeaux and others in this series. Available "from all good bookshops," as the flyer says: further info from www.destinationchampagne.com

01 January 2000

Wine jargon: 'reductive and reduced'

Lazily, I've pinched this paragraph from an article by Paul White on screwcaps (I might re-publish it as a guest post) that neatly sums this up without too much science:

"Reduction is essentially the mirror image of ‘oxidation.’ Both alter the purest expression of fruit. And just as with brettanomyces, a tiny bit can add complexity, while too much will permanently destroy a wine’s aromas and flavours. Unfortunately both can easily tip over into unacceptably ruinous levels. So as oxidation increasingly redresses wine with an unfresh, caramel-like sherry character, reduction continually forces more negative sulphurous characters into wine reminiscent of struck flint, burned match, rubber, cabbage or rotten eggs. The reductive process revolves around a sulphur compound called hydrogen sulphide (H2S) which is formed in the absence of oxygen by yeast during fermentation. Unchecked by oxygen, H2S tends to hang around, tenaciously, stinking things up. This is not to be confused with ‘free’ sulphur dioxide (SO2) that winemakers use to sterilize and preserve wine, which dissipates more readily."

It's worth adding that the word reductive can be used as a deliberate winemaking technique, as in purposely excluding oxygen in the process. Whereas reduced tends be be a negative term describing the net result of excessive reduction in a wine, as discussed above.


Edited in 2012, sort of re-edited in 2021 although still out of date...

What on earth is a 'wine writer' or 'wine blogger' anyway, or indeed why, you might well ask? Oh, with a hint of sumptuous wine travel and eating thrown in too… 'writing' that is. Funny thing to do I suppose but somebody's got to do it, especially as there are more and more of you 'wine enthusiasts' out there... Previously, I lived in deepest south of France, and Spain for eight years followed by the north of Ireland, as you do. The time I spent in wild Mediterranean country was largely devoted to slowly exploring the diverse wine regions of Roussillon, Languedoc, Provence and Catalonia (with occasional stints on the beach of course). Hence the in-depth bulk of material you'll find here focusing on wine people and other stuff in those areas.

Apart from thinking up, composing, publishing and trying to make WineWriting.com suitably famous, a stimulating although time-consuming and very unprofitable (potential advertisers please see blurb on the righthand column) venture originally kick-started in 2002, with a few facelifts along the way in 2005, 2009 and more recently, I used to write freelance for a variety of publications and media (among others):

www.winetravelguides.com, Decanter, Time Out South of France guide (2004-2009 editions), www.winetourisminfrance.com, Off Licence News (UK drinks retailing fortnightly 1998-2007), Harpers (wine business and on-trade title 2002-2007), Wine Business Monthly (USA 2006), Redhot (in-flight magazine Virgin Express 2005), French Property News (2004), City Life Manchester (1998-2003), Wine magazine (UK 2002-04), Refresh magazine (2003), Class magazine (2002), Restaurant magazine and sister website therestaurantgame.com (2000-01), Virgin.net (2000-01), everywine.co.uk (2001), ICE magazine (2001), Home magazine (1999-00), Attitude magazine (1999) and Wine & Spirit International (1998-99).

I was a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and the Society of Authors for a while. I did also venture 'sideways' some years ago into fiction, 'RED' which went out of print but a 'new' e-book and paperback later miraculously resurfaced on Amazon. Perhaps a European-set, Hollywood-esque wine film noir style story with surreal twists may be on the cards in the near future too... And in 2020, I finally self-published a book on the Roussillon region, 'French Catalonia wild wine country', available as an e-book, paperback and hardcover.

Wearing my Wine Education Service hat when I lived in Manchester (England), I ran popular wine courses from 1998-2002 and have been doing (or rather did) the same in Belfast in more recent times, pre-Covid pandemic at least. Before this, I worked as a specialist translator (mostly wine, tourism and food, French to English); and years before that, used to do tutored tastings, consumer shows and market research for generic bodies such as Wines of South Africa and German Wines as well. Delving further into the past before becoming self-employed, I worked for a wine importer and producer for ten years latterly as marketing manager.

As concerns 'professional' qualifications, I bagged the WSET Diploma back in the mists of time in 1990. I also passed the Master of Wine exams, tasting & theory papers only, between 2002-2004; but lost interest in doing yet another boring formulaic dissertation about 'methodology' (long story, high emotion etc. but probably something to do with sour grapes and lack of funds)! What else might be vaguely of interest: I spent a few eventful years at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and escaped with a Master of Arts in French and German, a long time ago now. The rest is, as they say, history and probably a touch dull. Oh, I seem to work part-time in a library nowadays too...

Thought for the moment: with good wine, less is more. Might be nice to be able to afford it...

Richard Mark James

Wine jargon: "terroir"

Terroir (tair with guttural rr + woir)
Earth, wind and fire or terroir?

When visiting French wine growers in particular, you’re likely to be suffocated by the T word: terroir (although I've recently noticed lots of discussion about terroir-ism in the US too - see below). This word is often bandied about ad nauseum, sometimes for the wrong reasons or without real meaning. So here's an attempt to summarise all the arguments on the subject that have come my way.
Terroir is basically untranslatable into English, in one word, but has physical, cultural and philosophical connotations. The concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope/flat, altitude, exposure etc.), water holding/drainage, local climate, suitability to the variety planted and hence how it grows & ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of the English words terrain and territory) to maximise grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker (who may or may not be the same person) to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the actual flavour and consistent character of the wine.
Traditionally, terroir is at the root of appellation or geographical origin. In reality, there's perhaps some truth to this but scale is very important in my opinion. There can not be one distinct terroir for a wine region the size of Margaux, Napa Valley or Coonawarra, just as there isn't one soil type or microclimate or grape variety. Sometimes you'll even hear a grower talking about different terroirs within their vineyard. It’s also worth adding that there’s a lack of scientific proof conclusively linking soil types and how a wine actually tastes, e.g. 'chalky' or 'mineral' (a tasting term I often use!).
However, there's no doubt soil properties influence vine growth and ripening of grapes, and thus quality and flavour profile.
Unfortunately, the term terroir is often used unhelpfully to mean just soil: read the average back-label, if there is one, of an AOC wine sold in France. "Clay limestone schist pebbles blah blah," as if we're all geologists. Or terroir can be abused by those dismissing faults in their wine, from poor vineyard or cellar practices, as typical characteristics. Then again, taking 'brett' as an example (brettanomyces), a wild yeast that can cause funky farmyard aromas: you could argue it's part of the natural terroir! On the other hand, it's no excuse for dirty barrels where it thrives and knackered wine...
At the end of the day, it's a terrific marketing device too: earth, wind & fire, man and all that jazz. While all of this is important to the minority of wine folk interested in this kind of hand-crafted, 'taste-of-place' wine (or the ones who can afford it); we shouldn't forget that many people understandably just think it's gibberish and switch off. Instead they'll buy the uncomplicated usual: and there's nothing wrong with big brands (well, not all of them) that taste nice and are fuelling a wine drinking revolution. There's a time and place for both of them.
Richard M James

Quoting from a newsletter published by Appellation America:
"It is only April and there is a vibrant bud break of verbiage about you-know-what.  Already it is clear that this year will produce a bumper crop of terroir talk.
What is terroir?  Have we got it?  How to describe it?  How to protect it? How should we promote it?  Several of the Appellation America crew braved their way through the four day terroir talk survival course up at UC Davis last week. Even for a committed terroirist like Alan Goldfarb, the terroir talk got pretty tedious. Alan’s frazzled nerves are palpable in the story he filed…perhaps too much talk, not enough wine. Well, maybe the boys had a little wine too… just to sharpen their talking skills.
Dan Berger, our Sonoma regional editor, also made a major contribution to the terroir chronicles with his piece in the current issue of California Grapevine. Dan’s rendering of the “why we need to find and protect terroir” question hits the nail right on the head: Terroir is (one of the) key defining elements of regionality in wine; Regionality is the map of diversity. Diversity generates interest and enriches the wine culture. Enriching the wine culture grows the market. Finding terroir is a process, and in the case of most North American winegrowing venues it will necessarily be a protracted process. But Talking Terroir is only one side of the coin; the other, more important, side is Tasting Terroir. Tasting Terroir is what our Appellation Discovery Program is all about. Identifying the taste-of-place is our way of “grounding” all that terroir talk.  Whether you are a wine writer or winemaker, there’s a place for you in our Appellation Discovery process.  Discovery panels of winemakers and wine writers are being formed right across the country. To participate in a Discovery session, contact one of our regional editors or me, Adam Dial on a.dial@appellationamerica.com."

Malcolm Gluck, creator of the Superplonk UK wine guides and website, once argued that "wine is an expression of locality but that locality, that expression is to my mind less about local soil and more about local soul," in his book 'Brave New World' (Mitchell Beazley). He continues: "...wine is made. It cannot simply be grown, no more than letters can arrange themselves without effort and create coherent sentences, thoughts, declarations... Each and every wine, however noble, however vastly overpriced, however humble or rustic, is an expression of those human endeavours called winemaking and grape growing... But there are those that insist on that mystical something called terroir... Yet the biggest elements of terroir are overwhelmingly human..."

September 2009. I just spotted this on the home page of Eric Solomon's website, head of the well-respected and impeccably portfolio-ed European Cellars wine import company in the US: "Place over Process." Very neat, terroir in three simple words!

November 09. I keep coming across the term "wine-lands" in all vinous things South African, as in "tour the Cape wine-lands... blah blah." Beginning to use the word myself, I like the sound of it. Terroir without the Gallic tongue twister. Nice.

Further thoughts, "definitions", rants and examples as and when I dig them up...

Traductions viti-vinicoles / Wine translations

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Fiches techniques, site web, contre-étiquettes, brochures commerciales, carnets de dégustation, présentation d'entreprise, carte des vins de restaurant... Contactez moi pour discuter vos besoins et mes tarifs: merci de remplir le formulaire de contact au-dessous a droite. Richard James est inscrit comme travailleur indépendant au Royaume Uni.

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Product sheets, web pages, back labels, sales brochures, tasting notes, company history, restaurant wine lists & menus... Contact me to discuss your requirements and rates: please fill out the contact form below right. Richard James is registered self-employed in the UK.

What are these classroom scores all about?

I used the ‘100-point’ system in a previous life, so that's what you'll find in older posts and articles. But I got bored of this, so I started using my own new-fangled simplified scores of one, two or three ‘ticks’ (good, very good, fabulous); or just 1-2-3. And, inevitably, I've already got bored of that too so I've reverted to good old-fashioned words on their glorious own! Anyway, here's some background on 'wine scoring' written in that previous life, and gleaned from different sources, with a slight rant of my own thrown in.

The so-called 'Parker 100 point scale'

First and foremost, I don't really like giving a score to wine. Very difficult to be that mathematically precise or consistent, even if you could remove all subjectivity from tasting. However, scores do offer useful guidelines and easy cross-referencing. You should always put them in context with my tasting notes and comments on style, quality, maturity, balance etc; and perhaps also take a band either side of the score, e.g. a wine rated 87 falls between 85-90 (read on for further explanation). In addition, I'll try to offer a food-matching suggestion where something worked particularly well for me, which is arguably more interesting anyway.

There are several scoring systems for wine and each one has its supporters; but, attempting to keep an international perspective, I use (and am now used to) the so-called 100-point scale, which is widely recognised. Apparently it was popularised (rather than invented) by Robert Parker, the influential American wine critic, and many magazines also 'mark' wines using the same or similar criteria. It's a tad more complicated than you might first think. I'm told "the premise of the scale is to appear generous." It works by readjusting 0 to 50, so in reality every wine is scored from 50-100 with 50 being undrinkable and 100 wine heaven. It's best understood following these simple rules:

50-60: very poor, faulty, nasty wine.
60-70: marks in this category really aren't any good either, crap to shoddy.
70-80: wines in this band are generally below par from mediocre to average to OK. Not necessarily bad, just dull, out of kilter or lacking.
80-85: solid working examples of their type, most decent wines should fall into this category.
85-90: good to excellent wines with genuine character and style. Might be Bronze to Silver Medal in certain competitions.
90-95: top stuff. These should ring your Bacchanalian bells, they'll be true classics or beautiful upstarts that linger on the palate and in the memory; must be excellent to outstanding. Silver to Gold.
95-100: speechless. Very few wines get these scores, as they represent the peak of terroir, fruit quality and winemaking - the world's best wines from the greatest vintages. Unless you're rather lucky (like me occasionally), not to mention wealthy (unlike me all the time), you'll come across a handful of wines like this in your drinking/tasting lifetime. They'll feature in your top ten, or perhaps 100 for the rich or lucky. Gold Medal to "Trophy" winner.

Here's another way of looking at this system, or at least one I thought of. You convert it to a mark out of ten by subtracting 50 (so the same base as above) from the score out of 100, then a bit of simple maths (divide by 5). Thus: 70 points = 4/10, 75 = 5/10, 80 = 6/10, 85 = 7/10, 90 = 8/10 and 95 = 9/10.

And, when on a trip to the Ardèche region in summer 2010 and knocking up a feature on it afterwards, I experimented with another greatly simplified "scoring" scheme which might have a future. This is what I said: "You'll notice a departure here from the usual "100-point" system proliferated across this site, as I suddenly just got (and still am) bored of this narrow, although admittedly widely recognised, way of "assessing" wines. So, for this feature I dreamed up a new simpler scheme showing one to three ticks, as below, which echoes the already popular "star" ratings you see around. Still best to actually read my comments at the end of the day, if that's not too boring. And inevitably, I ended up giving some half-marks as well represented by a tick in brackets!"
√ = good √ √ = very good √ √ √ = fabulous
And now simplified as 1, 2 or 3 and variations thereof...

Try to score a wine in context. If it's right out in front there, you shouldn't be afraid to rate it highly; and inevitably the mood and atmosphere of a tasting environment will always affect the outcome. Wine tasted in an intimate setting or with great food will almost always "count" higher than in a clinical laboratory or busy trade tasting. Anyway, carry on sampling and scoring if you must...
Richard Mark James

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