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Spicy Reading : Reading With Glasses: Reds, Whites and Booze

TIMES WINE WRITER

Wine has a heritage so regal and storied that it inspires many words--not so much about its production as about the appreciation of it.

In the past, experts would write of the glories of wines from regions where soil and climate are unique. Much of that earlier writing was derivative drivel--sniffish ramblings by the effete wealthy, usually a rehash of data about well-known producers--and often written with the auteur smack dab in the middle of the “action,” such as it was.

Recent wine writings have been far better. Actual writers wearing journalistic hats have done a more credible and certainly more entertaining job of explaining wine. This year’s crop of wine books reflects this improved writing and research, but as with some of the best wines, the prices are well up there too.

* “Oz Clarke’s New Classic Wines,” by Oz Clark (Simon & Schuster: $30; 272 pp.). Clarke, a witty English actor and broadcaster, focuses on some of the newer producers in the world of wine. He offers profiles of the newcomers that show style and knowledge.

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Heavy on California (21 properties) and Australia (24), Clarke also includes some familiar names, including Mondavi, Antinori and Gaja. He writes with charm and insight, and despite lackluster graphics and an index that could have been better, the book is highly recommended.

* “The New Great Vintage Wine Book,” by Michael Broadbent (Knopf: $40; 405 pp.). The long-awaited second edition of Broadbent’s masterful 1980 look at thousands of wines is finally out. Again it is important for those who collect fine wine and who’d like to find out how they’re doing.

Broadbent, wine director for the London auction house Christie, Manson and Woods, probably has tasted more great wine than any other person. This is a compilation of his tasting books in a more formal and easy-to-use format than the first edition.

As long as you keep in mind that some British tasters are more charitable than Americans to rather old wines, Broadbent’s notes on wines and vintages are a vital addition to any library of viniana.

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* “Bordeaux,” by Robert M. Parker Jr. (Simon & Schuster: $35; 1,026 pp.). Parker knows Bordeaux. He rankles me in spots with some pontification and conclusion-drawing that I feel inappropriate. But overall, this work, a revision and expansion of the magnum opus Parker published in 1985, is a remarkable compilation of data important for those who would sip a Bordeaux.

Most of the book is taken up with ratings of Bordeaux wines from 1961 through 1990. But even if you don’t use those tasting notes, this book has great value for collectors and casual wine consumers. A nice addition is a section on hotels and restaurants in Bordeaux.

* “Making Sense of Burgundy,” by Matt Kramer (William Morrow: $24.95; 528 pp.). In spite of its worldwide acclaim as a wine region, Burgundy remains a mystery. Kramer, a resident of Portland, Ore., unveils more of the region than any previous writer, at least in terms of land ownership.

Fact-finding in Burgundy has been a task no one was willing to tackle. Kramer spent hundreds of hours poring through hand-written records and sifting data.

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Though it appears to be a paean to Burgundy, the book is also frankly honest. Kramer says exactly what he likes and dislikes.

Much of the book has lists of vineyard holdings and production figures. Some may not care for this, but since the French government recently ruled that such data are confidential, this may be the last record anyone will ever have of who owns what. Highly recommended.

* “The Wine Atlas of Italy,” by Burton Anderson (Simon & Schuster: $40; 320 pp.). Patterned after Hugh Johnson’s masterwork “The World Atlas of Wine,” this classic adds measurably to Anderson’s 1980 book “Vino,” which barely touched on critical topographical issues.

Italy’s diverse winemaking regions are discussed with expertise. Careful readers get a true sense of what the wines are all about.

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* “Chianti and the Wines of Tuscany,” by Rosemary George (Wine Appreciation Guild: $39.95; 240 pp.). This engaging look at Chianti is worth adding to the shelf, in spite of its steep price. George, an English Master of Wine, writes simply and with a love for the region and the wines. An appendix has a vintage guide and a useful glossary of “fantasy names” used for proprietary wines.

* “Barolo: Tar and Roses,” by Michael Garner and Paul Merritt (Wine Appreciation Guild: $29.95; 275 pp.).

Subtitled “A Study of the Wines of Alba,” this could have been a much better book. Still, the authors do a decent job explaining Barolo, perhaps Italy’s champion red wine.

The main focus is on the producers, and there are gentle profiles of the people, but much less on the wines. I was disappointed that there was no commentary on specific wines.

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(In January, the second edition of “Italy’s Noble Red Wines” by Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman will be out, with hundreds of tasting notes.)

* “The Winemaker’s Year: Four Seasons in Bordeaux,” by Michael Buller, photographs by Michel Guillard (Thomas & Hudson Publishers: $35; 160 pp.). Wine is made in a two-month period each year, but things happen in the vineyards and wineries during the other 10 months too. This attractive book with high production values is a splendid addition to the coffee table as well as a treat for the eyes. The text is, however, a bit pedestrian.

* “The Wines of France,” by Clive Coates (Wine Appreciation Guild: $35; 416 pp.). Coates offers a modern view of the major wine-growing regions of France and seems at his best when speaking of the smaller, less well-known regions.

It could have been a great book, instead of merely very good, had it not resorted to boilerplate text (lists of properties and their acreage; the weary old Classification of 1855) and had it included Coates’ recommendations. The erudite author-publisher of The Vine, a sophisticated British wine publication, here seems a bit tame.

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* “Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch,” (Running Press: $21.95; 240 pp.). This superb effort explains the production of single malt Scotch and lists Jackson’s rankings of more than 100 of the Scotches, with style commentaries. A useful work for those who sip single malts after dinner.

* “Great Wines of the Rhine and Mosel,” by Stuart Pigott (S.M. Pigott Books: $14.95; 96 pp.). Pigott is about as knowledgeable on German wines as anyone. This slim paperback is a compilation of profiles and tasting notes of the excellent 1988 and 1989 vintages in Germany.

* “Ultimate Guide to Buying Wine,” (Wine Spectator: $14.95; 370 pp.). Little more than a listing of scores of wines tasted over the years by the staff of the magazine.

In the past, the Wine Spectator has said its scores should not be considered without reading the adjoining commentary. It is odd, then, to see here nothing but bare scores, without commentary. Moreover, some wines were tasted by a panel, others by individuals. A worthless effort.

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* “A Vineyard Garden,” by Molly Chappellet (Viking Studio Books: $40; 291 pp.). The wonderful photography by 21 photographers (including Chappellet) and the warm commentary are engaging, but don’t be misled: This is not a wine book as much as one about gardening and lifestyle. On that level, it is recommended.

Most of these books may be ordered through the Wine Appreciation Guild, (800) 231-9463 in California, (800) 242-9462 outside California.


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