Some of the Finest Wine Books Ever Written (...But Not by Jancis or Hugh)
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." - Francis Bacon - Essays "Of Studies" - 1625
Entire forests have been martyred for the sake of feckless wine literature. Culpability does not necessarily lie with authors. Often it is harebrained publishers who think that another “idiot's guide” should be foisted on their target market (idiots?) because hey, who knew that wine comes from grapes. Don't believe me? Look it up in the idiot's guide to wine. And whilst on the subject of books not worth the paper they are written on, can the INAO rules somehow outlaw books whose raison d’être is to glorify the author’s ego in lieu of the subject matter. These vanity projects may just as well be called “Moi”. Never trust a wine book with a pretentious black and white photograph of a pompous man with a spray-on goatee beard (but not called Jon Bonné) gazing philosophically at a tilted glass of fermented grape juice, as if about to discover the meaning of life.
Let us also torpedo weighty tomes full of arty-farty photographs. You know the kind. Glossy thick pages depicting panoramic moody skies, gnarly vineyard workers with tobacco-stained moustaches who sobered up just long enough to pose in front of a rusty plough and prehistoric vines that are easy on the eye but are in actual fact riddled with viral diseases and yield three mangy berries per hectare. These are habitually accompanied by philosophical babble and meaningless puff written in illegible curlicue script, guff like: "Pierre-Claude, alchemist extraordinaire has farmed this blessed sacred soil since 1805 and listens to the vines' heartbeat every sunrise." Bollocks like that. There are exceptions of course, photographers that do not fall into hackneyed images...but they are outnumbered.
People have asked me what it takes to write a book and my response usually takes them aback. “Wine is the most boring subject in the world. Work from there.”
I apply this maxim to all the words I lumped together against their will. The joy of wine struggles to extend beyond the act of consumption. The act of drinking a glass of 1975 Petrus or getting lost in the cobwebbed labyrinthine cellars of Lopez de Heredia or bumping trollies with Aubert de Villaine shopping for cat food, are all infinitely more interesting that a 10,000 word treatise recounting those stories. Vicarious enjoyment does not flow from wine literature easily. Masters of the word such as Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Nathalie MacClean and their ilk, make it seem natural in their own individual ways. Great wine literature is a sleight of hand transferring the pleasure of direct interaction to the reader without them noticing.
Whenever the subject of essential wine literature crops up, two names constantly appear, almost by default. It is inconceivable to imagine an oenophile’s bookshelf not buckling under the weight of HRH Jancis’s encyclopaedia ne plus ultra, the Oxford Companion to Wine, cohabiting with Rear Admiral Hugh Johnson’s cartographic meisterwerk, “The World Atlas of Wine” (recent editions co-authored with HRH of course.) They are essential works, bedrocks of vinous understanding. Writing this, I can see my own dog-eared copies out of the corner of me eye, just like you.
However, there are in fact other books, alternative titles NOT written by Robinson or Johnson. I know, I know. I couldn't believe it either. Nevertheless, if a bookshop has miraculously survived in your beleaguered high street, you will find a shelf labelled "Wine", essentially a minor appurtenance to the humungous Food section, and vinous literature whose spines are not printed with either name. And at this point I began to ponder books that played an important part in my education; those I found inspirational or perchance overlooked. I began formulating not so much a “greatest” list, instead books whose pages I discovered worth turning. Consequently it is skewed to my own areas of expertise, so apologies if there is a brilliant tome on North Korean Pinot Noir that I have criminally overlooked. The only prerequisite was that they not written by Robinson or Johnson because we already know how indispensable they are.
These books have something that makes them special. You will have your own. Treasure them. A book is for life, not just for Christmas.
André Simon - Vintage-wise (1945)
Where would I be without this essential book whose full title is "Vintage-wise - A Postscript to Saintsbury's "Notes on a Cellar Book". Although Saintsbury's book is rightfully regarded as the first to discuss fine wine, frankly, I find it a bit dull. However Simon’s slim, almost pocket-sized book remains one of the finest resources of late 19th and early 20th century growing season information and ingeniously, it keeps the reader hooked. Like much of Simon's writing he is a wordsmith par excellence, so much so that you forget he was born the other side of La Manche. Its strength lies not only in its prose but in its conciseness. Bang, bang, bang - vintage, total production and one or two sentences that nail the growing season. 1867? Fair to middling. 1925? Fine summer and wet Autumn; good wines but not lasting quality, in case you were considering buying some. Much of it reads like the midnight shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 and though its subject matter is just as irrelevant, insofar that the paucity of 1887 Saint Julien's impacts your daily life as much as a squall on the Dogger Bank, you feel comforted by the information that seems better to know, than not. The book covers not only Bordeaux but also classic regions such as Burgundy, Champagne and "Hock and Moselles" inter alia. The New World and everything else is jemmied into "Some Other Wines", though within its rationed three paragraphs he presciently namechecks Beaulieu and JFX Merriman. He even writes about tasting "admirable wines in Chile", lamenting that none are available in the UK, doubtless due to the small matter of patrolling German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. The final pages are peppered with lunches, dinners and lunches-that-became-dinners that transpired in tenebrous oak-panelled dining rooms in private gentleman's clubs with the Earl of Stately Pile, wherein one finds nonchalant reminiscing of jaw-dropping bottles such as 1900 Margaux and 1865 Lafite that in those days cost half a crown and a bale of hay, never to be drunk again until a light went off in Rudy's head. Basically, if you have a ken for old Claret and yearn to know exactly which wine was "as near to perfection of Claret as any Claret can ever hope to reach", then Vintage-wise will be as indispensable to you, as it is to me.
Charles W. Berry - In Search of Wine (1935)
Essentially, a precursor to Kermit Lynch's "Adventures on a Wine Route", "In Search of Wine" can be surmised as the anecdotal musings of an well-to-do wine-lover that wandered out of an Evelyn Waugh novel to mooch around French vineyards. In other words it is a pre-war blog and the reader hitches along for the ride, albeit as a constantly put-down butler rather than a friend. Like Kermit, his words whisk you into the vineyards so that its soils crunch beneath your feet; its vignettes delivering you face-to-face with long-forgotten cellar-masters whose names will never appear to those paying small fortunes for the privilege. Of course, it was written in a period when many estates were mired in poverty, so bear that in mind as our well-heeled Bill Bryson sips the 1934 Cheval Blanc and muses upon buying the entire production. I doubt LVMH would regard that as him doing them a favour nowadays. After Cheval Blanc he nips over the border to L'Evangile and bristles that nobody's home, not even a red carpet to greet him. Gérard Perse will be pleased that he took a shine to Château Pavie...not the wine, but the view. You get the gist. My copy comes with a free fold-out map of France suitably bereft of detail, but enough to know that Burgundy is about 3 o'clock, Rhône is at 6 o'clock and the Loire at 9 o'clock. Its pièce de résistance is his final sentence whereupon Berry thanks his three chauffeurs for driving him 5,600 miles. A similar request made to the powers that be at The Wine Advocate was declined.
- Touring in Wine Country (Bordeaux and Burgundy) (1996)
When I started visiting Bordeaux and Burgundy around 1997, Duijker's pocket-sized guides were lifelines. Its pages are crammed full of accurate and detailed maps that facilitated the navigation of country lanes and exact locations of châteaux before Google mapped everything and sadly made it impossible to get lost and chance upon unintended delights. The only Bordeaux property I could not le pin down was Le Pin. I once heard that this was because Jacques Thienpont gave vague co-ordinates that would thwart pilgrims from queuing outside the farmhouse awaiting a complete vertical. The book offers basic information upon the properties and a guide to restaurants, most of which long since bit the dust. The Burgundy edition was blessed with detailed maps of all the premier and grand crus, therefore I presume they agreed some kind of deal with Sylvain Pitiot. These ensured that on my maiden trip to the Côte d'Or I knew exactly where to find Romanée-Conti and gawp. The publishers, Mitchell-Beazley, reissued the guides in the noughties however, expunged of those wondrous maps they felt neutered and about as useful as the aforementioned foldout map in "In Search of France".
The originals I still have today.
Thank you Mr Duijker.
J.A. Garde -
Histoire de Pomerol (1946)
Apart from Enjalbert’s outstanding "Great Bordeaux Wines of St. Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac", this is the only insight into Pomerol before World War II. It was only published in French. Not the standard French drilled into our brains at school, but some ancient dialect unknown to anyone apart from Garde himself. When I asked my fluent French friends to assist translating passages for my book, its at time indecipherable prose left them questioning their sanity. There is no index and the narrative meanders all over the place, thereby guaranteeing that you lose your place every time you go and put the kettle on. If you fail to take note of the page you are reading, you basically have to go back to page one and retrace your steps. It seems to have been typed on a third-hand typewriter picked up from the bric-a-brac shop in Catusseau, occasional monochrome photographs snapped on an ancient daguerreotype and the maps scrawled by a bored 5-year old. It’s a book that seems to relish its tangents, narrative cul-de-sacs and ellipses, which meant that I had to read/translate it 50 or 60 times to eke out nuggets of precious information.
Because they are here.
You just have to search hard for it. Garde shone a small but invaluable light upon the origins of Pomerol and the genesis of some of its most well known names. Of course, back in 1946, Pomerol was just a backwater, its wines dismissed as easy-drinking fare by cognoscenti. So we must thank Mon. Garde for writing about the appellation as and when he did. Sometimes a books' faults and limitations are its charm. The only place I have seen it for sale was at the Syndicat de Pomerol, so maybe they have a few copies left.
Clive Coates MW -
Côte d'Or (1997) and Grand Vins (1995)
Strangely, I have never really met Clive Coates MW who seems to be in semi-retirement these days and he has earned it. His two tomes “Côtes d’Or” and “Grand Vin" are to wine what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy literature. They stand as marble pillars of wine writing, unsurpassed in terms of detail and historical research in the days before it took three seconds to Google and jot down the wrong information. So comprehensive are his treatise on Bordeaux châteaux and Burgundy domaines that it begged the question: what more could you add? In recent years these deep wells of information have been "remixed" for updated and slimmer works such as the useful “My Favourite Burgundies”, however nothing can compare against these originals that shed light on countless famous names of this region, authored by a man with unparalleled experience. The tasting notes I can take or leave. They are mostly fine or very fine. However, anyone who wants an understanding of Bordeaux and Burgundy has to have read these from cover to cover two or three times.
Robert Parker - Wines of the Rhône Valley (1988)
No, this is not brown nosing. I genuinely regard this as Robert Parker’s finest book. Sure, we have cascading tasting notes that must have been like manna from heaven in pre-Internet times. I mean, who else is going to tell you what the 1929 Hermitage from J-L Chave tastes like? What I like about this book is that the passion seeps through from start to finish. I know that Hugh Johnson fulminated against the scores written in the margin of his Wine Buyers Guide in the 1980s and dreamed about throwing rotten vegetables at Parker, trapped in the stocks in his local village square. However, that is to ignore the prose and the enthusiasm that blasts from the man from Monkton. Sniff its pages and you can almost smell every one of those 13 grape varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the must smell down in Henri Bonneau's chaotic cellar. It's easy to forget that few were writing about Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Rasteau in those days, then a wine deemed fit for paupers not popes. Parker changed that and even those who irrationally see him as some kind of antichrist confess that their passion for the Rhône began in these pages. A copy of this and “The Wines of the Northern Rhône” by John Linvingston-Learmonth will give you an invaluable guide to the region’s wines.
Keiko Kato & Maika Masuko, Jean-Claude
Wallerand – Le Montrachet (2002)
I love books that go into insane detail on a tiny pocket of vineyard. Here is one example: 248 pages devoted to what, 8-hectares of prime dirt. This book strikes the right balance between eye-catching photographs of the lucky buggers who can chalk "Montrachet" on their barrel without a suffix. Incidentally the images were snapped by the authors themselves, so kudos for the do-it yourself approach. I have no inkling who the co-authors are apart from the fact that they are Japanese that moved to France. According to the introduction, written almost like a elongated haiku, Maika liked racing (what exactly? Formula 1 cars, pigeons?) and Keiko likes flamenco. Unfortunately, I cannot remember seeing a raucous flamenco bar in Puligny. It was a chance meeting with Jean-Claude Wallerand that led to this book, although I am not sure who did what exactly. There is plenty of juicy information on the history of this famous vineyard that enables the reader to piece together its formation. Bonus points for the text written in French and English so that you can practice your language skills. The culmination of the book is located on page 176 and 177: that glorious map detailing the composition of Montrachet per grower, so that when you sneak into the vineyard at midnight in your balaclava and take a cutting that you will plant next to your cabbages, you know whether it is Dominique Lafon’s or Jacques Prieur’s. Domo arigato gozaimasu Kato to Masuko San!
Remington Norman & Charles Taylor MW - The Great Domaines of Burgundy (2010)
It’s all about timing. The timing of this particular book was terrible, appearing almost at the same time as Remington’s own book: “Grand Cru”. I think people conflated the two. Remington’s book was eagerly anticipated because his André Simon winning “The Great Domaines of Burgundy” (1992) was a benchmark. Unfortunately, the long-awaited follow-up didn’t quite make the same splash and in my humble opinion, it overshadowed his superior and more focused co-written work with Charles Taylor MW. I must admit that I put it to one side when it was first released. However in recent months I have found myself referring to it again and again: concise and detailed synopsis on all the major growers, neat “Vineyard Holding” boxes so that you quickly look up how much Musigny is owned by Leroy and so forth. Sure, the prose is a bit dry but it cuts to the chase in terms of giving you the information required. The photographs are small but interesting: Benjamin Leroux looks about 12-years old, Jean-François Coche-Dury looks typically enigmatic and Laurent Ponsot looks slightly peeved that we interrupted him texting on his new iPhone (presumably either tracking the GPS of his bottles or checking the date of the next Acker Merrell auction.) It comes recommended.
Château Latour "The History of a Great Vineyard 1331-1992” (1993)
I have a many monographs on châteaux. Far too many wallow in obsequiousness that paint a utopian landscape and read like fairytales. The sky is always blue. Every person looks like Prince Charming. Every wine either “very good” or “amazing”, the odd 1965 or 1977 that tastes like boiled socks deemed "mediocre". Fortunately, some stand out as serious works and a degree of objectivity, such as David Haziot’s excellent book on Pichon-Lalande and René Pijassou’s examination of Rauzan-Ségla (both published by “La Martinière.). The one that I have picked is Château Latour: The History of a Great Vineyard (1331-1992). The authors leave no stone unturned in detailing the history of the First Growth, 572-pages rich in information back to the 14th century. You want to know the inside leg measurement of the assistant cellarmaster in 1735? It's here. Maybe. The prose is dry. It is not where you come to be entertained or marvel at gorgeous photographs, however the depth bowls you over and seems endless. You could argue that the book was instantly rendered out-of-date since the following year François Pinault bought the property. But a book exists to capture a moment in time and information might have been deemed superfluous had it appeared after the acquisition. Indeed, Latour published an updated book a couple of years ago, but it's this 1990s version that contains such awesome history.
Johan Berglund – Millésimes (2014)
In my introduction, I lambasted wine books dominated by glossy photographs that fall in the same old clichés: the Parisian-based proprietor un-tucking his tailored shirt to look scuzzy and bucolic, grizzled vineyard workers with cosmetic dirt smudged on their faces, cellarmasters posing next to barrelszzzzzz. As I mentioned, there are some photographers that do something different, even if few and far between. If they have a keen eye, artistry or just a unique style, then the editors and/or publisher has to grant them the freedom to express that. Alas, it is rarely given and consequently most wine-themed images look identical. Personally I prefer more personal, amateurish photographs that furnish blogs and even WA (nod to Luis G there.)
Of course, I am completely biased because I have known Swedish photographer Johan Berglund for a long time. He took the photographs for my own Pomerol book (yes, it is out of print, honestly) incidentally using an entry-level compact Leica and all taken within 2-3 days. In return I penned the preface for the self-published Millésimes. My only criticism is that the title gives no indication of the subject matter, to wit, a photo-essay of Pontet-Canet taken over a period of 18-24 months. During that time, he spent weeks on end, not only accompanying the Tesseron family, but the entire staff that have their own roles to play, so it really gets under the skin of the property. There is no Alfred Tesseron posing in a suit outside the château, Jean-Michel Comme doing a biodynamic dance in the vineyard or Melanie Tesseron posing coquettishly against a concrete vat. Colours are restricted to a palette with Johan’s previous, award-winning work, skies are bleached white, images are taken from unusual angles or close-up, foreground objects intentionally rendered out of focus and so forth. There is a brilliant image that I regard is the truest depiction of a harvest I have seen, taken through a steamed up car window. It’s obviously raining, people are wet, perhaps downcast...but you still have to pick those grapes.
It demanded countless hours of work, not only taking the photos but whittling them down from thousands to the few deemed worthy and if I remember he use ye olde film. It remains a startling original work, so much so that it did not even get onto the shortlist of the Louis Roederer awards, its only sin being that it does not follow the usual rules.
Alex Liddell – Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine (1986) and updated
Given that Madeira is essentially a niche within a niche and the only people to drink it are crusty Oxford dons, hip sommeliers on the Eastern Seaboard and myself, the island’s ethereal fortifieds have been blessed with impressive wine literature over the years. I should mention “Madeira – The Island Vineyard” (2011) whereupon Mannie Berk updated Noel Cossart’s original, also “Oceans of Wine” (2009) by David Hancock that meticulously details the origin of the island’s trade.
However, nothing matches Alex Liddell in terms of both his personal experience and this essential writings upon this volcanic island. The guy is obsessed and it shows through in his Bual-scented prose, presenting not just the basics in lucid detail, but meticulously research into the 19th century bottlings in all their manifestations. Where would our understanding of Madeira be without Liddell? Faber & Faber published the original in 1986, updated for a second edition albeit under a different publisher almost 30 years later. Basically, if you want grounding in Madeira or have become intoxicated by a Sercial or desire more information upon that stash of 1864 Terrantez inherited from your lost uncle, then Liddell is the maven you come to.
If you have not developed a penchant for Madeira after reading this book then you never will. You have my sympathies.
Other books that I could not live without: Vintage Wine by Michael Broadbent, Adventures on a Wine Route by Kermit Lynch, A Book of French Wines by P Morton Shand, Rewards of Patience by Andrew Caillard MW, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Pete Liem and Jesus Barquin, Bordeaux by Edmund Penning-Rowsell, every edition of Cocks and Féret (especially the 1898 edition), A Matter of Taste by Jon Hurley, Romanée-Conti by Richard Olnay and Wines of the New South Africa by Tim James, to name but a few off the top of my head. Feel free to add your own.
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