IT’S that time of year: In the bookstores, the shelves are positively sagging with the fruits of wine and spirits writers’ labors.
Yet, this season, one volume stands out from the rest.
The author is Vincent Gasnier, a master sommelier, and the book, “Drinks,” has a subtitle whose length hints at the volume’s breadth: “Enjoying, Choosing, Storing, Serving, and Appreciating Wines, Beers, Cocktails, Spirits, Aperitifs, Liqueurs and Ciders.”
If it sounds too ambitious to be well-executed, you might be surprised. The book’s publisher, Dorling Kindersley (DK), is known for its ability to present voluminous material in a way that makes sense, intrigues, explains and is pleasing to the eye. In taking on the world of drinks, this book does so brilliantly.
As delightful to flip through as it is to hunker down with, it’s gorgeous enough to be a coffee-table book, but informative enough to be a reference book you’ll come back to again and again. If you could only have one book in your library to cover the entire potable world (make that the entire alcoholic potable world), this could be it.
Gasnier, a wine consultant based in Hampshire, England (and formerly a sommelier at Laurent in Paris), organizes the wine section of the book not by regions or varieties, but by the character of the wines.
Whites are divided into “light, crisp,” “juicy, aromatic” and “full, opulent”; reds fall into “fruity, lively,” “ripe, smooth” and “rich, dense.”
Within those categories, wines are organized by country and region. It may sound forced, but Gasnier is great at delineating color, aroma and taste profiles in a way that makes perfect sense, letting the reader grasp instantly what’s essential.
For “ripe, smooth reds,” for instance, he calls our attention to dark fruit, reminding us that “Cherries and plums typify the aromas of ripe, smooth reds.”
After a page or so of introduction for each type, a full-page chart follows, listing key varieties and best regional examples, and following that, several pages in which each is explored, and best producers listed.
What’s wonderful here is the potential for discovery. Ever hear of Rossese, a red grape widely grown in Liguria, that makes distinctly flavored wines? Or that in France’s Savoie region, the Mondeuse grape, with black-currant and pepper notes, makes a wine “similar to a Syrah style, with lighter weight”?
For the wine beginner, Gasnier offers a simple and reassuring way in, and for those with more experience, the book reveals a world’s worth of wines to seek out and explore.
Scratching the surface
NEXT, Gasnier tackles spirits. Here, while there are plenty of discoveries, there are also gaps. The American whiskey section, for instance, mentions that whiskeys are made all over the U.S., but Gasnier doesn’t specifically cover any of the new West Coast whiskeys, such as St. George or Old Potrero single malts, focusing instead exclusively on those from Kentucky.
The only gins from the U.S. mentioned are Seagram’s and Boodles; interesting smaller production gins such as Anchor Junipero from San Francisco are neglected.
The tequila section lists four Cuervos and seven Sauza bottlings, but it only scratches the surface of all the compelling smaller tequila producers in Mexico.
The section titled “Other Spirits,” however, is a real eye-opener. Grappa and marc, brandy produced from grape seeds, skins and stems, are known to many, but what about Bagaceira, the Portuguese version? You may have heard of slivovitz, the plum brandy from Eastern Europe, but what of Boukha, the fig brandy that’s the national drink of Tunisia?
The real surprise in a section on liqueurs is how delicious so many of them sound. Did you know there’s a verbena liqueur? It’s called Verveine du Velay. Or that maraschino isn’t just cherries in a jar; it’s also “arguably the greatest of all cherry liqueurs,” from Venice, Italy.
Gasnier explains what makes a good liqueur, noting “its sweetness should not feel too sticky or ‘fatty’ in the mouth, and the finish should be fresh -- never tired or overly sweet.” And there are dozens of examples, divided into, again, very workable categories: fruit; vegetable, herb and spice; and nut, bean, milk and egg. Fascinating.
The 65-page cocktail section is smart enough that it would have made a terrific little volume on its own.
The entire book makes full use of photographs, maps, graphics, sidebars, charts and pull-quotes, but they’re particularly strong in this section. A chart about layering alcohols, for instance, specifies the density of various spirits and liqueurs; another sidebar describes how to achieve the effect.
Step-by-step photos of how to shake or how to rim a glass with sugar or salt, a chart of essential garnishes, a photo showing various types of glasses -- all this adds up to a terrific guide to mixology.
The cocktail recipes themselves follow the same conceit as the wine section. They’re divided into “sour and tangy,” “sweet, rich and creamy” and “dry, fruity and fresh.” All the classics are there, good versions, too, along with some terrific lesser-known cocktails. Anyone for a Brooklyn? It’s difficult to discern the provenance of many of them -- did he create them? Are they new or just obscure? In any case, most of them sound delicious.
The beer section is organized much like the wine section. Up front is a nifty four-page chart explaining the different styles; an excellent explanation of how to taste beer and what to look for follows.
International in scope, this section may be less-than-thrilling to American beer aficionados, who may not find their favorite microbrew mentioned, but at least Gasnier includes a number of them from around the U.S. Though the section isn’t as fresh and indispensable as the wine section is, there are lots of great discoveries here too.
Finally, a very short (12-page) section on cider serves as a fascinating postscript. As Gasnier writes, the fermented apple beverage “has revived itself as a drink for a new generation.”
He talks about the balance of sugar, bitterness and acidity, concluding that “the results are often quite stunning, with some of the best brands even being comparable to Champagne.” Examples from England, France, the U.S. and Australia follow.
It’s a curious way to end such an encyclopedic book.
But how nice to be left with that lovely, apple-y finish.