Oddbins used to stock a wine in the late 1990s called Kiwi Cuvée. It was a sauvignon blanc from the south of France designed to taste as if it came from New Zealand. This summed up the direction wine was going in at the time. Supermarkets sold wine made to a formula and at the top end highly paid consultants created lush “iconic” wines for well-heeled collectors. There were still plenty of interesting wines out there, but the received opinion, not least from the EU, was that unfashionable vines such as Carignan should be ripped out to be replaced with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This homogenising trend is thankfully over. Variety is now everything. Tesco even has a half decent Old Vine Carignan in its Finest range. Whereas once the concept of terroir – a sense of place – was mocked by Anglos as a marketing device used by the French to sell wine without any fruit character, these days it’s used without ironic quotation marks around the globe (though my spellcheck still tries to change it to “terrier”).
It couldn’t be a better time, therefore, for Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson to publish the latest (seventh) edition of The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley). It is a very different book to the last edition and now includes detailed maps of some of the most exciting emerging regions – such as Croatia, the district around Mount Etna in Sicily, and Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, which is rivalling Burgundy for its elegant Pinot Noirs. Cannily, there are two pages on China. The book is a celebration of terroir and a logical companion to Robinson’s Wine Grapes (2012) – an expensive and exhaustive encyclopedia of every grape variety in the world. There’s an infectious sense of glee about this new atlas. I get the impression that Johnson and, in particular, Robinson with her humorous pedantry, really enjoyed writing it.
The other new edition of a classic worth noting is Alex Liddell’s Madeira, the Mid-Atlantic Wine (C Hurst & Co). Madeira is a wine whose long and colourful history you can actually taste – 18th-century wines from this island are both quite easy to find, and still drinkable.
It’s not only wine in which variety is being rediscovered. Fifteen years ago it was quite hard to get a decent pint of bitter in London, let alone proper cider, but recently a new wave of pubs have opened dedicated to craft products. Cider, for a long time drunk only by teenagers in bus shelters and the Wurzels, is now attracting serious attention. Best known for his beer writing, Pete Brown has produced World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw (Jacqui Small). Although it looks like a coffee-table book with lots of photos – many of them stunning – it’s also written with wit, knowledge and passion. You might even go as far as to describe Brown and Bradshaw as the Johnson and Robinson of cider. I had no idea that cider was so widespread outside the three cider superpowers of England, France and Spain. The Germans make cider and express surprise that anyone else does, the Irish drink the most cider per head and in Quebec they make a super-sweet ice cider. It’s not all good news though, as it is shocking how few actual apples go into some commercial brands. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that cider is currently the most exciting drink in Britain and is only going to get better. Growers are still trying to match the best apple varieties to the right land, just as grape growers did in Bordeaux and Burgundy generations ago.
It’s a great time to be drinking but it’s not necessarily a great time to be reading about drink. This year saw far too many books along the lines of “200 Wines to Impress your Father-in-law” or “A Beginner’s Guide to Craft Beer”. Most were illustrated and designed to be easily marketed to English language readers worldwide. They’re all starting to look alike, just as the products they celebrate are becoming increasingly diverse. Drink books are now either for gifts or reference. What is lacking is the sort of book that you want to read in bed – an Elizabeth David or Jeffrey Steingarten of wine, perhaps – to make you smile, think and, rather than trying to educate, assumes a certain knowledge and interest on the part of the reader. There are lots of people writing about drink in an interesting way on the internet. There are even some Americans trying to combine comedy with wine, albeit not very successfully. None of these writers, however, are producing engaging books for the general reader.
The two books I enjoyed most this year didn’t come from traditional publishers. Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition (Pavilion) – don’t be put off by the title – shows how wine writers can entertain when they’re given a bit of space to breathe. It features noted wine types letting their hair down or at least giving their toupees a good airing. I particularly enjoyed Oz Clarke on sticking it to the toffs as a grammar school boy at Oxford, and Will Lyons on claret and the Auld Alliance. The second book is an ebook only thing called Wining and Dining: Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party (Sediment). It brings a mixture of seriousness and silliness to the strange ritual of the dinner party. In the right hands, wine and comedy can go together.
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