A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

hungwine2Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World
Robert Smyth
ISBN-10: 1905131682
ISBN-13: 978-1905131686
September 2015, Blue Guides

Available in the UK from Amazon.co.uk for £10.71.
Available in the US from Amazon.com for $10.00.

Robert lives in Budapest, lucky man that he is, and he really knows his stuff about Hungarian wine, so it was natural for him to write an English language guide to the wines of Hungary. I say ‘an’ English language guide, but I suspect that this is the definitive guide of the moment.

nagyeged

Vineyards on the Nagy-Eged hegy hill near Eger. Copyright Robert Smyth.

If you don’t know, Hungary really does make superb wines. It isn’t just the sweet whites of Tokaji either. Hungary is perhaps most famous for white wines from regions such as Lake Balaton, Somló, Neszmély, Mór and Pécs, amongst many others, but  there are first rate reds from regions like Villány – in the south near the Croatian border, Sopron in the north west by the Austrian border and Eger in the north east.

If Hungarian wine has passed you by and you want to explore it, either from the comfort of your own home, or by physically visiting the country and travelling around seeing the wine regions and their wines, then this could be the perfect book for you.

At just 351 pages, this handsome paperback is not a mighty tome of reference, but something that you can carry around and read and indeed use to guide your movements on that Hungarian wine road trip. I like the sub-title, A Tasting Trip to the New Old World, because that describes the book perfectly. It really does take you on that trip, whether you physically leave home or not, and Hungary is in some ways the New Old World of wine.

Hungary Map

It’s nicely, but unfussily written and manages to convey the sense of excitement that I know Robert has about Hungarian wine. There is a useful general overview about the Hungarian wine scene and industry, there’s a chapter on the fascinating history of Hungarian wine – don’t skip that bit out, chapters on the wide and wonderful palette of grapes that Hungary grows – most of them are indigenous. Who could resist grape varieties with exciting names like Ezerjó, Hárslevelű, Irsai Oliver, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Királyleányka, FurmintJuhfark and Kéknyelű? I know that I can’t. Even grape varieties we know often have wonderfully exotic names in Hungary, for instance Blaufränkisch is Kékfrankos and Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio is Szurkebarat.

Once we have enjoyed all that and started to get a flavour of the country,  we come to the real meat of the book. This takes us on a journey around the country, giving us a little background about each region before taking us through all the wineries that Robert recommends from that area. Robert manages to distill a lot of information into these portraits and you feel that you really get a glimpse of these people, their wineries and what they do, as well as what their wines are like. Then there is some information on where to eat and where to stay in each production zone. At the back there is also a section on the wine bars of Budapest – now I know how Robert fills his time.

I loved this book. I have not been to Hungary for a long time and it is obvious from reading this that Hungarian wine has come on even since then – although I thought it was very good at the time. So thank you Robert. You have plugged a good few gaps in my knowledge and whetted my appetite for a return trip to Hungary. I cannot wait and will remember to pack your book.

Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel.

An invaluable book on winemaking – all the detail, but never dull

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux in Switzerland.

Recently a really useful and fascinating wine book came my way and so I thought that I would share it with you.

bookWine Production and Quality, 2nd Edition
Keith Grainger & Hazel Tattersall
ISBN: 978-1-118-93455-5
March 2016, Wiley-Blackwell

I am ashamed to say that I am not at all scientific. My understanding of science is pretty limited and so my love of wine is much more emotional than technical.

As a consequence I often struggle to understand the more complex aspects of wine.

For a long time now I have sought to solve this problem by finding a book that explains everything. So far my purchases have all seemed far too daunting and scientific for me to get to grips with and enjoy.

Luckily for me though, it now seems that help is at hand. Fellow Association of Wine Educators and Circle of Wine Writers members Keith Grainger and Hazel Tattersall, have recently published a book called Wine Production and Quality. It’s a handsome volume, well laid out and very readable.

Keith & Hazel 2

Hazel Tattersall and Keith Grainger.

I say volume, but actually it is two of their previous books, Vine to Bottle and Wine Quality: Tasting and Selection, updated and brought together in a single edition.

Part 1 concerns with wine production from the vineyard to the bottling line.
So if you want to understand degree days or grasp the differences between various soil types, this book might prove useful to you,

It crams a great deal into its 300 odd pages. There are chapters, or sections, dealing with everything you need to know, from the basics to the niggly little details that everyone except me seems to understand when winemakers mention them.

This was the most useful section of the book for me and I was glad to be able to get to grips with topics like yeast nutrients, the different methods of extraction, must concentration, reverse osmosis and oxygenation, whether micro, macro or hyper. The chapter on oak certainly extended my knowledge too – for instance I had never heard of the 205 litre Pièce Champenoise and feel enriched for having now done so. Also, and I don’t really know what it says about me, but I found the section on fining, filtration and stabilisation to be strangely fascinating.

Part 2 covers the arcane art of assessing wine quality, so a large section deals with wine tasting in real detail. This would be an excellent guide for someone just starting out in wine and can even provide some good revision for the rest of us.

It goes on to study the PDO system, classifications, ISO 9001, yields and planting density, wine faults and flaws and all manner of subjects that are incredibly useful and yet it is so hard to find them defined in a straightforward way.

I feel better informed for having read the book and comforted that it is on my bookshelves ready for when I need to refer to it. What I particularly like about it is that the book is divided up into manageable bite size chunks. They are never very long, often just a single succinct paragraph and so are very east digest.

Be warned though, they are quite moreish, so it is very easy to look something up and then to find yourself reading a few other interesting nuggets of information.

Anyway, I am happy – or at least as happy as I can be post Referendum – because now I can get to grips with details of wine production that I sort of know, but want to understand in greater detail.

So, thank you Keith and Hazel, you have filled a gap in my book collection that really needed to be filled and hopefully you have also filled gaps in my knowledge to give me a better understanding of the scientific and technical aspects of wine.

I highly recommend this book if you want to get more technical in your appreciation of wine, or if you just want to be able to look up all those niggly little things that people often mention when talking about wine. I, for one, will find this book extremely useful.

Wine Production and Quality, 2nd Edition is available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and Wiley-Blackwell.

 

2 books to enjoy this Christmas

Most of us who love wine are either armchair hedonists from time to time, or know someone who is, so books about wine, food and food and wine travel usually make perfect Christmas presents. So, I thought I would tell you about a couple of books that have come my way recently.

Firstly a wine and travel atlas of Piemonte

The beautiful rolling hills of Piemonte.

The beautiful rolling hills of Piemonte.

Paul bookPiemonte Wine and Travel Atlas
by Paul Balke
Published by Château Ostade at €49.50
ISBN: 9789081376914
Available from the author here

Firstly I should tell you that Paul Balke is a friend of mine and earlier in the year I spent a very informative and pleasurable week in his company touring the Monferrato area of Italy’s Piemonte region, which includes Gavi. If you ever need to know anything about Piemonte wine or the wine regulations of the region, then Paul is your man. He is a very nice and knowledgable man and a real Piemonte insider who escorted our little group to some wonderful wineries and places, introduced us to the right people and took us to some memorable restaurants. Well, now he has written this handsome book about the whole region too – oh and as if that isn’t enough, he is a fine piano player as well. Talented people make me feel so inadequate!

It really is a lovely book and invaluable as a work of reference, Paul certainly knows the region. It’s good on the history and the geography of Piemonte as well as the wines themselves, so the reader can just read it, or dip in to it from time to time, or use it as a reference book. As you might imagine from his surname, Paul is Dutch and very occasionally you get the sense that the writer is not writing in his native tongue, well he isn’t, but it’s still very readable and informative.

The man himself, Paul Balke entertains.

The man himself, Paul Balke entertains.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, many by Paul himself, that bring the place alive and show you exactly what he is talking about. Of course, the book is also an atlas, so there are plenty of maps that make sense of the complex and overlapping wine regions of Piemonte, as much as it is possible to do so anyway. You certainly learn how complicated the DOC and DOCg’s of the region are. What’s more Paul does not limit himself to Piemonte, but includes sections on the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta and Liguria regions.

There is lots of good stuff to read here, from fascinating detail about the history of the towns and the people of the region, to separate sections about areas, towns, buildings or local tradition or myths of special interest. There are also highlighted sections that give mouthwatering asides about local gastronomy, so we can learn about the link between Gavi and Ravioli for instance, or the chocolate shops of Turin

All in all this is a terrific book to dip into when you fancy a bit of armchair travel, or use it for reference, or as your guide for that long promised wine trip to Piemonte. However you use it, it will certainly open up the delights of Piemonte to you as never before.

My second book is a book about cheese

A fabulous cheese shop in Bordeaux.

A fabulous cheese shop in Bordeaux.

Cheesemonger_tales_1024x1024The Cheesemonger’s Tales
by Arthur Cunynghame
Published by Loose Chippings at £14.99
Available in the UK from Amazon @ £14.78
and on Kindle @ £12.86
ISBN Hardback 978-0-9554217-0-9
ISBN eBook 978-1-907991-04-2

Like most wine people I love cheese, but I do not know much about it, so for me this book was a good primer, as is a sedate stroll through the world of cheese by someone who really knows the subject. Arthur Cunynghame is the former owner of Paxton & Whitfield and before that he spent 18 years as a wine merchant and he brings this experience to play in this light, breezy and pleasurable book.

Arthur goes in to detail about how a handful of classic cheeses are made and goes down all sorts of byways exploring the history and styles of cheeses as well as some of the wines that he thinks partner them to perfection. In fact there is a whole section on partnering wine and cheese and very rewarding it is too, as it successfully challenges the widely held belief that red wine goes with cheese. The truth is far more complex than that, but personally, if I had to generalise, I would say that white wine is usually better with cheese than red.

The author also takes a look at food policy and how food is treated in the UK, and is quite happy to give us his views as well as the benefit of his experience and one thing he says really resonates with me. When he writes that we should ‘treat food as important’, I felt it really summed up the enormous advances in food that have happened in Britain during my lifetime and they have only happened because people increasingly feel that food is important and worth thinking about, talking about and enjoying properly.

I recommend this little book as a fun, light read, a good introduction to cheese and a lovely stocking filler for the hedonist in your life – even if it’s you. My only quibbles are the quality of the maps, which are truly terrible – as a cartographer myself I wince when I see them – and the photographs are too small, but these are details that do not undermine the book’s qualities.

Both of these books are full of lots of useful and interesting information and can be treated as books to read, or books that you refer to from time to time, and both would make great presents.

Books for wine & food lovers

Books are one of my great passions, so books about wine, food or travel always excite me. Here are a couple of books that may well interest some of you as Christmas presents, for the foodie in your life – even if it’s you.

Firstly a work of fiction

It constantly amazes me how few novels are set in and around the world of wine. So many of us enjoy wine that it seems to me to be natural subject matter for a novel, especially when you think how beautiful and exotic most wine regions are. However, few publishers seem to agree, so there are only a handful of novels set around wine and I am always on the lookout for more – perhaps I should write one? This piece details a few as do the responses.

So I was excited to be sent a review copy of:

PinotEnvyLargeCorrectedPinot Envy
by Edward Finstein
Published by Bancroft Press at $21.95 / £18.50
Available in the UK from Amazon @ £15.80
and on Kindle @ £6.91
Available in the US from Amazon @ $18.28
and on Kindle @ $11.02

First off this is a light read, a fun thriller type of book that aims more at amusement that suspense – if you think male Janet Evanovich that gives you some idea of the tone. Other reviewers have likened this to ‘noir’, more for the Pinot Noir joke I expect as I cannot imagine what sort of noir they have read.

No this is a caper more than anything else, being gentle, fun and even amusing every now and again. It is set in San Francisco and Napa Valley in that very alien – to me – wine world where everything is swanky with private wine collections and people only drink the finest wines, even our supposedly normal hero.

Woody Robins is that hero and he has a similar job to me actually, I liked him – he loves wine and cats, so what’s not to like – and we first meet him midway through investigating a missing bottle of wine. Not just any bottle either, but a double-magnum of Le Chambertin that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte before he became Emperor – quite a MacGuffin.

I cannot tell you that this is a great book or even particularly well written, but it is great fun and the part that deals with Woody’s life has a promising array of characters to enrich future instalments. I would happily read more books about Woody, but would hope for either more suspense or laughs as well as a tighter grip on the writing. Every now and again a clumsy phrase is used to get lots of information across and it does spoil the flow somewhat.

However, I am being fussy, as I should be, Pinot Envy is a good fun read that adds to the all too small library of novels set around wine and anyone who likes wine or a caper would enjoy reading it.

My second book is very different

final-front-cover-460x596The Great Cornish Food Book
by Ruth Huxley (editor)
Published by Cornwall Food & Drink at £17.99
Available from Great Cornish Food 

If the British food revolution has passed you by, then this book is a great place to start. I defy anyone not to fall in love with how this book looks and feels. Designed to resemble a scrapbook, every page is a joy, rich with photographs and content. It would be torture to read it while hungry!

There are chapters on Cornish seafood, telling us all about sardines, curing fish, filleting fish, the effect of Rick Stein on the county and much more as well as some wonderful recipes – the crab sandwich looks delicious.

The photographs make me salivate!

The photographs make me salivate!

Then there are sections on foraging for food like wild garlic and wild strawberries, as well as more coastal treats like samphire, laver and sea beets. Frankly there is a wonderful surprise on every page , the chapter on Cornish cheeses in particular had me salivating, while the Cornish pasty recipe made me really want to have a go.

Not sure that I could resist!

Not sure that I could resist!

Rather wonderfully it isn’t all about food either, Cornish wine, beer and cider also get a look in, so there really is something for everyone.

This book is a constant delight and would make a great present for anyone who loves food. It would also be a wonderful gift for anyone who does not realise how good British food now is and how seriously food is now taken in this country, so any French friends or relatives – anyone got Jacques Chirac’s address?

So there you are, two book ideas in good time to go on your Christmas gift list.

Bordeaux Wine Guide – a user friendly reference book

Like many people who enjoy wine I’m a real hedonist. I like the good and sensual stuff of all types. Wine of course figures very high on the list – it’s how I make my living after all. Food is pretty important too though – in fact I hardly ever eat anything else. Like wine the love of food incorporates so much about culture, travel and history that enjoying different food helps make sense of the world and makes other people interesting rather than alarming – I often wonder what people who don’t like food actually do when they travel – answers on a postcard please.

If I can’t actually have some wine and food or travel somewhere interesting, then the next best thing is to read about it, so I love books. As a consequence I own a lot of books about exotic places, books about food and books about wine. I need a lot of wine books too as I constantly have to look things up and check facts and I don’t like to just rely on Wikipedia!

With Christmas coming I thought it might be nice to tell you about some books that I am enjoying and that all you other hedonists out there might find useful, either for your own pleasure or as gifts for others.

By the way if you were planning on giving me anything, please remember that I already have these!

Three books have caught my fancy of late and I will tell you all about them, but am starting with the one that is purely about wine:

Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, relaxing with something other than Bordeaux

Pocket Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux
by Chris Kissack
Published by MagBooks at £6.99
Also available from Amazon and on Kindle

I know Chris and like him too, he writes an amazingly fine and encyclopaedic wine website called The Wine Doctor, which I find a very useful resource. Well this is the more portable spin-off – no battery life, wifi or 3G signal required either, just a pocket. Actually my only quibble is with the size of this book, exactly how big are your pockets Chris? At 21 cm X 14.8 cm it doesn’t fit any of mine, but hey I’ll stick it in a bag – or perhaps a Christmas stocking.

Chris does write about other wine regions, but his great speciality is Bordeaux and as it is the largest fine wine region earth and the home of fine wine I can understand why. Just like his website, this book is a labour of love and it shows. Chris is steeped in the wines of Bordeaux (quite literally sometimes) he loves them with a passion so strong you cannot help but be swept along, what’s more he has an incredible eye for detail, so this book is full to bursting with useful information and the odd unexpected nugget. For instance I was unaware that the great Château Haut-Brion have 2 hectares of non-permitted grapes including Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.

In the main I would regard this as a book to refer to rather than sit down and read and I can imagine that it could become an indispensable work of reference for anyone who wants to get serious about the region. The contents are attractive and well laid out with clearly marked sections that have in depth, yet easily digested, chunks on all the topics you need for a working knowledge of the region or for buying Bordeaux wines – whether for drinking pleasure or investment.

Amongst the many good things in here is a detailed look at the vintages from 2003 to 2011 and brief notes on the rest back to 1990. There are profiles and histories of the Premier Cru Classé Châteaux, Chris’s personal selection of the top Bordeaux Châteaux for reds and the great sweet wines of Sauternes as well as his top tips for good value.

As if all that isn’t enough there are sections on how they grow the grapes and make the wines as well as chapters that give you sneaky little insights into all the appellations of the region and the various classifications, from the 1855 (official) to the 2011 (unofficial) along with Graves, St Émilion, Sauternes and Cru Bourgeois.

I had better stop heaping praise on Chris before his head totally explodes, but this is an excellent reference book and I intend to keep my copy handy. It contains pretty much anything you need to make your Bordeaux buying and drinking a less haphazard experience and is a perfect gift for those just starting to get into wine – especially Bordeaux.

I will tell you all about another couple of books very soon, so keep coming back.

The Story of St Estèphe

One of the complaints I have of most wine books is that they are mainly for reference rather than reading. Of course I have a large library of wine books for when I need to look things up, but sometimes I think how nice it would be to just sit down and read a book about wine that rattles along at the pace of a novel.

David Copp in full wine writer regalia on our trip to New York’s Finger Lakes

There are not many such books, but my friend David Copp has recently added a splendid example to my meagre collection. David is no mean writer and he has three other excellent volumes to his name, Hungary: Its Fine wines and WinemakersTokaj: A Companion for the Bibulous Traveller and Australian Wine Walkabout: Notes From Visits To Australian Fine Wine Makers  they are all available on Amazon and I recommend them to you.

Continue reading

Wine & Fiction

Most wine books are reference books, I own loads and use them all the time, but sometimes I just want to read a book about wine. Sadly most of them do not work that way. The number of wine books that I have been able to sit down and read, as I would a novel, have been few and far between.

It is out of print and my copy is long gone, but I remember Hugh Johnson’s first book – still his best in my opinion – ‘Wine’ with great affection and seem to remember reading it at a single sitting.

Jancis Robinson’s ‘Confessions of a Wine Lover‘ was a good read, as was ‘Wine & War‘ which dealt with the the German treatment of France’s wine industry during the occupation.

Patricia Atkinson’s ‘The Ripening Sun‘ was a lovely read that made me want to run away and create a vineyard of my own.

I also enjoyed ‘Phylloxera‘ and learned a great deal from it, but these are rare instances of books about wine that are not primarily for reference.

I would like more of these please, if any publishers are reading this, and more travel writing about wine regions and culture while we are about it – feel free to tell us about any that you know and love.

However, I am always surprised by how little fiction there is set around the world of wine – I cannot think of many such books at all. I once read a dreadful murder mystery set in a Port Lodge – the name escapes me sorry. I suppose that some of the books by Joanne Harris might count, but I have not tried them. Continue reading