Vintage reading: Best book picks
Books, remember them? Those bundles of thin paper sheets with pretty covers front and back? Well, they’re still making them, for dinosaurs like me. I’ve sighted more new wine books than usual this year, which suggests there’s still a healthy market for them.
Apart from the annual wine guides, of which there at least five in Australia, it’s been a bountiful year for serious wine books. I’ve already reviewed some of them in these pages, including Julie McIntyre’s outstanding history First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (UNSW Press, $49.95), Tyson Stelzer’s impressive The Champagne Guide 2014-2015 (Hardie Grant, $39.95) and The Rewards of Patience 7th Edition edited by Andrew Caillard (Hardie Grant, $39.95).
We’ve also seen photographer Milton Wordley and scribe Philip White’s epic A Year In The Life Of Grange – A Photo Essay (Southlight, cheapest edition $785), and Wine Cats by Craig McGill and Susan Elliott (Giant Dog, $34). All are worthy tomes in their diverse ways.
My outstanding books of the year are McIntyre’s (for history buffs), Stelzer’s (for Champagne lovers), Wordley’s (for collectors, Grange nuts and millionaires), the Rewards of Patience (for Penfolds fans) and three other books that I haven’t yet written about.
Postmodern Winemaking – Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft, by Clark Smith (University of California Press, $43.50) is highly technical and deeply thoughtful. It’s the book I’m loving immersing myself in. I’ve yet to finish reading it, but I can already declare it’s a masterful work, which is bang up-to-date and presents eye-opening stuff on virtually every page. It’s full of challenging opinions, is beautifully written and often witty – humour being indispensable in a technical book aimed mainly at winemakers and other professionals, but also those searching for a deeper understanding of wine. Smith is a practising winemaker, as well as an adjunct professor at two US universities. He really knows his stuff: an enlightened winemaker who bucks much of the accepted wisdom taught by wine schools. Chapter topics include minerality, tannin quality, ‘natural’ wine, the functions of oak, biodynamics, and profiles of wine’s ‘lunatic heroes’, such as Randall Grahm, who challenge orthodoxies.
Smith has an entire chapter on the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, of which he writes: “Brett management is the central problem in the making of serious wine.” He concludes brett cannot and should not be eradicated, just managed better.
So, seguing to the next two books, why is it that two new, serious books on Burgundy don’t even utter its name? It’s as though this insidious form of spoilage doesn’t even exist, and yet a lot of otherwise great, often very expensive wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and other places is ruined by ‘brett’. As someone who often tastes wine costing hundreds of dollars damaged by this taint, I consider it irresponsible not to at least broach the subject. Often these poor wines come from wineries that world-leading authors rate among the greatest. It’s a scandal.
Apart from this, I really enjoyed both My Favourite Burgundies by Clive Coates (University of California Press, hardback, $60) and Inside Burgundy – The Vineyards, the Wines and the People by Jasper Morris (Berry Bros & Rudd Press, hardback, US$75 from Amazon). Coates has written several books on Burgundy but this one is new. Tasting notes comprise more than half the text, but there are also excellent vineyard profiles, profiles of 27 favourite domaines, vintage assessments and ‘observations’. The last tackles global warming, biodynamics, modern winemaking, and the white-wine scourge, premature oxidation – but not brettanomyces. Coates is an excellent writer and his 40 years of Burgundy experience shine through.
Like Coates, Morris is a master of wine and an Englishman living in Burgundy, with three decades of experience there. His book is enormous, and beautifully designed, with great colour maps, and he is also a superb writer. He gives us many more domaine profiles, but they are much briefer than Coates’s.
If you could only afford one, which book? It’s hard to choose. For a reader relatively new to Burgundy, choose Morris; for a rusted-on Burgundy-phile who has already read some books, Coates may be a better choice. But again, no mention of brett that I’ve found.
A significant book with fairly narrow appeal but a serious historical intent is David Dunstan’s A Vision For Wine. This is a large-format hardback, a history of the Viticultural Society of Victoria and published by that society – which was founded in 1905 by growers and merchants as an industry body. It’s a scholarly work by a professional historian, beautifully illustrated with dozens of old photos and posters. It places the society’s history within the context of Victoria’s evolving wine industry and market. Price: $49.95.
A book which should have a bigger audience is Thomas Girgensohn’s Barossa Shiraz – Discovering the Tastes of the Barossa’s Regions (Wakefield Press, $39.95). Girgensohn’s thesis is that the Barossa produces shiraz exhibiting flavour and stylistic differences derived from its varied terroir, and this warrants the gazetting of sub-regions. To that end he proposes a classification of sub-regions. He carves the Barossa zone into the Southern Valley (Lyndoch, Williamstown), the Central Valley (Lower and Upper Central Flats, Eastern Slopes), the Western Ridge (Gomersal, Marananga/Seppeltsfield and Greenock), the Northern Barossa (Moppa, Koonunga/Ebenezer, Kalimna) and the Eden Valley. There are profiles of some leading winemakers. It’s a good book and pictorially beautiful, but I’m not convinced it makes a strong case for sub-regional differences in wine style.
Finally, for the less-experienced wine drinker I recommend a primer: A Top Drop by Ian Bailey and Ian Powrie (New Holland, $19.95). It’s a petite paperback with a lot of useful information on wine styles, grape varieties, regions, winemaking, cellaring and serving wine, and matching wine with food.
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 13 Dec 2013.