Six corkers to quench your thirst for knowledge
You-know-what is just around the corner, so here are some wine books that will make ideal gifts
ack in the Eighties, a bunch of British wine lovers beat the home team at a tasting match in Paris. The incident was viewed as a Gallic crisis; Le Figaro edged its front page in black for only the second time since the Second World War. (The first was to mark the death of Charles de Gaulle). One of the Brit tasting stars was a young actor, fresh out of Oxford, and because he was singing in a production at the National Theatre at the time, he got his picture “on the front pages of the newspapers in full costume, dressed as a Welsh druid, holding a glass of champagne,” he writes in his new book.
Oz Clarke – of course it was Oz – now occupies a unique spot in wine culture. His TV raconteur’s congenial humour means that he is recognised – and loved – by lorry drivers. His extraordinary memory and breadth of knowledge mean that he is also respected in the most high-church wine circles.
Interesting is a throwaway word these days, but that’s what Oz is. His new book Red & White (Little Brown, £25) effectively captures the pure essence of Oz and it tells you what he thinks – an illuminating joy in a world in which thinking is somewhat out of fashion. There’s a bit of autobiography, and the remainder is arranged in chapters by country, then by major wine styles. The writing is a free-form ramble, intended to be read for pleasure, not used as a reference book. Inevitably some chunks are stronger than others, but I would buy it just for the section on Australia – “I should have guessed that Tasmania would be good for grapes. The local department of agriculture swore it was too cold and only any use for apples. That’s always a sign that a classic cool-climate region is on its way” – and the story of how the first vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was made by a winemaker working elsewhere but phoning through his instructions every meal and tea break. As close as you can get to listening to Oz chat off the cuff – sharing his great enthusiasm for the geography, taste and stories in wine – this book would be a fantastic Christmas present for anyone who likes wine, Oz or both.
For listophiles and champagne lovers, I recommend 101 Champagnes and Other Sparkling Wines to Try Before You Die by Davy Zyw (Birlinn, £14.99). First you can flick through to count up how many you have tasted, then you can dive in to Zyw’s engaging and informative mini-portraits to find out about each one. If I could change one thing about this book it would be the layout – it feels like it was designed by someone who reads right to left, not left to right. But that doesn’t get in the way of it being a good stocking filler.
Where to Drink Wine: The essential guide to the world’s must-visit wineries by Chris Losh (Quadrille, £22) is a book that does exactly what it says on the tin. Covering more than 400 visitable wineries, from the “incredibly photogenic” Champagne Pommery in France to the “supermodern”
Ixsir at Batroun, a coastal city in northern Lebanon, stopping off at Cantine San Marzano in Puglia and Taws Winery in Canada along the way, it is an extremely useful starting point for any wineloving traveller. I foresee a lot of Boxing Day armchair trip-planning.
My fourth wine book is The Wandering Vine by Nina Caplan (Bloomsbury, £16.99), a fiercely intelligent writer whose erudite and witty conversation can dart in a few moments from five-spiced grilled duck, to Rousseau Clos St Jacques, to Proust, to the beheading of St James the Apostle in Judea, as indeed it does in this book. Caplan’s theme is the historical movement of the vine through the Roman Empire, but that is really just an excuse for a big delve into European history, food, literature, drink, travel, and her own Jewish background.
Finally, a couple of books for cocktail and spirit drinkers. Helen McGinn is the founder of the hugely popular Knackered Mother’s Wine Club and her excellent new book is a guide to making simple cocktails at home. Homemade Cocktails (Robinson £10.99) is a fresh take on a well-worn subject: a beautiful edit of the modern and the classic cocktail scene that serves up those drinks you might want (and could be bothered) to make at home. I’m drinking boulevardiers now and will be moving on to the Rosé Summer Cocktail come next May (the recipe comes to McGinn courtesy of stylish Bordeaux-based winemaker Gavin Quinney).
The boulevardier also features in Kate Hawkings’ book Aperitif: A Spirited Guide to the Drinks, History and Culture of the Aperitif
(Quadrille, £16.99). Not that I’m obsessed, but the boulevardier is an extremely good – if nuclear – aperitif. Think negroni, with bourbon taking the place of the gin. Anyway, Kate Hawkings is a restaurant and wine consultant as well as a drinks writer, and her book on appetising drinks has the brio of someone who is out and about, laughs a lot, and who enjoys herself in bars. Here she is on arrack, for instance: “Arak means ‘sweat’ in Arabic – more a nod to the way the spirit drips from the top of the still during the distilling process than to the possible effects of overindulgence.”
And on gin, whose section opens with the line: “Oh, dear lord, where would we be without gin?” There is a smattering of history here, some literary referencing and the whole thing is interspersed with 33 recipes that run from a gin and tonic to vin d’orange, a concoction made with cloves, an orange, and eau de vie that Hawkings says is “a really random recipe given to me by a Frenchman who’s better off forgotten” but is also “really, really good mixed with Campari”. I have dipped into this book a lot since it came into my possession, and I am enjoying it more and more. I might even make the vin d’orange. Let me know if you do.