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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It makes a refreshing change to lay your hands on a ‘proper’ wine book, rather than yet another seen-it-before, already-out-of-date buying guide (all due respect to the many other authors with interesting books out there that I haven’t read).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

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.