Books of the year 2014: Drink, from wine to gin

From The World's Shortest Wine Book to Olivia Williams' Gin, Glorious Gin

One of the things people used to say about Les Dawson was that in order to play the piano like a clown, he had to be a masterful pianist. Simon Woods, the author of The World's Shortest Wine Book (Simon Woods, £5), reminds me a little of Les Dawson. To write about wine so playfully, you have to know your stuff. This really is just about the best introduction to wine available. What I liked most about it is that Woods has little time for the things that interest most wine writers: there's nothing about "sustainability"; his view on food and wine matching is that it's, and I quote, "bollocks"; and although he has nothing against "natural wine", he notes that they do all have a tendency to taste the same.

The next book on my list blows the Les Dawson theory out of the water. CJ and PK, the authors of Sediment (John Blake, £12.99), aren't experts, but that doesn't matter because they're not really interested in wine per se. Instead they use it as a starting-off point to look at the absurdities of the world, share their love of boozy literature or just talk about themselves. It's a very funny book to dip in and out of and would make the perfect Christmas present for the wine bore in your life.

It's an interesting time for wine books, though you often have to look outside the lists of mainstream publishers. Simon Woods is a successful wine writer but decided to self-publish, as did Wink Lorch with her Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, £25). Despite sounding like a character from early Martin Amis, Wink Lorch has done more to promote the peculiar wines of the Jura than anyone in the English-speaking world. The result is a labour of love examining all aspects of the Jura, including its unique gastronomy. It's a thoroughly professional-looking book, too, though I found the layout busy and a bit dated-looking.

Another book that took an unconventional publishing route is Richard Bray's Salt and Old Vines (Unbound, £9.99). This looks at those who actually pick grapes and make wine. It takes much of the glamour and mystique out of wine but still manages to make the subject seem romantic. Bray's vignerons are a Band of Brothers, a happy and often-drunken few, risking limb and occasionally life doing something they love.

It's good to see some traditional publishers still supporting the wine market. Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O'Keefe (University of California Press, £25) had me reaching for words such as "definitive" and even "magisterial". Don't let those rather pompous words put you off – it's a good read, too.

And finally, Gin, Glorious Gin by Olivia Williams (Headline, £14.99) manages to be at once packed with information and as joyous as a properly made gin and tonic. She's particularly good on gin's prominent role in British literature, though I'm not sure how she missed out on the most gin-soaked novel ever: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

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