BRUCE PALLING | UNCORKED | February 5th 2008
Most wine lists are content to bamboozle customers, writes Bruce Palling. A crisp glass of Chablis in hand ("the most compelling white wine of all"), he scans his book shelf and offers some tips on whom he reads and trusts ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Wines, like all of us, have finite lives. So it only stands to reason the same applies to books about them. I used to pore over the detailed notes of Michael Broadbent in his "Great Vintage Wine Books", but haven't opened them in years as the latest one was published in the 1980. Besides, while it might be nostalgic to recall what some amazing wine tasted like a few decades ago, it requires constant tasting to truly know what is still going on.
We can have the best of all worlds by merely subscribing to three online services--erobertparker.com, jancisrobinson.com and burghound.com. Parker is the most comprehensive and keeps all of his previous notes back for nearly 30 years, so if you want to play that game, it is easy to do. He also generously includes the tasting notes of Neal Martin, an English wine writer, which often express views that are contrary to his own, so there are infinite opportunities for crosschecking. Jancis Robinson is definitely not in the Parker camp, and also provides a variety of gossip and useful links to such material as her husband Nick Lander's sound food writing in the Financial Times weekend section. Her opinions on wine are more traditional than Parker's, but just as valuable. If you subscribe to her site, you will gain access to the online version of her definitive reference book, "The Oxford Companion to Wine (third edition)", which is also a worthy purchase in itself. Burghound.com is indisputably the best single source of information on Burgundy anywhere.
A useful non-web alternative is Hugh Johnson's annual "Pocket Wine Book", which is vast enough to encompass most good wines under 20 years old and portable enough to put in your pocket.
Unless your knowledge is infinite, it is quite tricky to recall what were the best vintages in the Hunter Valley at the turn of the century, along with what--if anything--is drinkable in Slovakia or Uruguay. Yet most wine lists seem content to simply bamboozle customers with zero descriptions. An impressive rival to this approach is the annual "Wine Report" by Tom Stevenson and his team of regional specialists. A suitably fat, tall paperback, it sticks to a rigid but useful formula to cover all the major global wine regions. Firstly, there is an overview by an expert, and then gossip ("Grapevine"), followed by an opinion piece and then a Vintage Report. This includes extensive views on the latest vintage and then summaries of the previous five, with ratings out of 100 for both red and white varieties. The real innovation, though, is the short lists that follow of greatest, fastest-improving, new up-and-coming plus best-value producers. This is all topped off with greatest-quality wines, best bargains and most unusual or exciting finds. If you have any favourite wine regions on the planet, I challenge you to put this book down.
Still on the Big Picture, the just revised "World Atlas of Wine", which is now jointly edited by Johnson and Robinson, is still the best single volume to both inform and excite the palate. Given the amount of money and effort devoted to wine in America, there are 30 pages of detailed information and maps for all major regions. However, if you look up Chablis, for example, the book doesn't really go into specific Domaines, so you will still need to go elsewhere to make an informed decision.
This is my cue to cut to a brilliant new volume on that very subject: Rosemary George's "The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois". Not only is it the work of a dedicated professional, but it includes information on all of the vintages back for a century. I have only got to grips with Chablis in recent times, but now find it the most compelling white wine of all, especially as it can easily age for two decades or so, becoming more subtle while still possessing that steely backbone that makes it so complementary with the right seafood--or even cheese. And it is easily the cheapest of the serious white Burgundies, with great examples of Premier Cru going for less than £20 a bottle. If you go a step up to Grand Cru level, and indulge in Raveneau Valmur or Le Clos, yes you will end up paying nearly £100 a bottle, but this is a life-changing experience. I recently went on a vast detour in Scotland to pick up two cases of Dauvissat Les Preuses and Fourchaume Vielles Vignes 02s and yes, the chill I caught was a pain, but ultimately worth it for the chance to purchase such superb rarities. My only quibble with Ms George's book is that it is not comprehensive, so I am unsure if she has excluded certain producers such as Verget because she hates them or she just didn't get around to putting them in for more blameless reasons.
There is also a significant new title on Bordeaux by Stephen Brook, who has written one of the finest books on Californian wines too. Called "The Complete Bordeaux", it does its best in 720 pages to embrace the most significant wines as well as some obscure ones, such as Chateau Haut Troquart la Grace Dieu, a St-Emilion that had passed me by until now. This is the opposite of Parker's point-scoring style of wine writing, and given that it is not nearly as comprehensive as Parker, better for casual reading than for extracting an opinion on a specific vintage. Most of the grander wines, such as Mouton-Rothschild or Pichon-Lalande, have close to 2,000 words written about them, so it is certainly full of adequate detail.
The next two titles are really one-off collections of essays on wine seminars held in the past few years. "Questions of Taste", edited by Barry Smith, is a collection of papers delivered at an international conference called Philosophy and Wine: from Science to Subjectivity, held at the University of London's School of Advanced Study. It is nowhere near as dreary as it sounds, though the academic approach to word definitions and sensations can make it slightly hard going. The best contribution is from Paul Draper, who is not only a philosophy graduate from Stanford, but also the chief wine-maker at Ridge Wines, one of the greatest estates in North America. I wonder how many of these books will be published in the future--the actual seminar was held in December 2004, but it has taken nearly three years for the book to appear in print. In terms of publishing revenue, it must be negligible, as I doubt if it will sell more than a couple thousand copies. Surely such essays in future will be simply posted on the web rather than moulder in a filing cabinet somewhere before finally appearing years after the event.
The next book is quite similar to the previous one but far superior. Called "Wine & Philosophy" and edited by Fritz Allhoff, it has several of the same contributors but is far more relevant. Essays such as "Experiencing Wine: Why Critics Mess Up (some of the time)" by Jamie Goode are amusing to read. There are also more wine experts in this volume, such as Warren Winiarski, the genius behind Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, who writes cogently about the clash of wine cultures between the Old and New Worlds.
If all this is far too academic to excite your interest, I have just discovered an extraordinary novel, which has more about wine than any fiction I have ever read. "The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce", by Paul Torday, charts the behaviour of an eccentric software millionaire who becomes obsessed with fine wine to the exclusion of everything else. If you have ever fantasised about going to a restaurant, ordering and then drinking two bottles of Chateau PÃ©trus 1982 at £4,000 a bottle, then this is the book you have been waiting for.
(Bruce Palling spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Africa, including a posting as the first South Asia correspondent of The Independent. He lives now in London, where he writes about food, wine and travel, and is working on a history of regime change.)