Drinking: The Oscars of my tiny industry
Sunday 23 May 1999
This year the hiatus between shortlist and prize-giving was longer than usual, to accommodate the requirements of a television company filming the awards ceremony. The ceremony itself, a black tie dinner for the first time, was rather grander than most food and drink media people are accustomed to - again, to please the cameras. The result will eventually be televised by Channel 4, and I'm sure it will be fascinating. Try to spot me: I'm the one who isn't wearing black tie and is wondering whether he remembered to lay in a supply of paracetamol for the morning after.
There are numerous categories, including a curious new one, Best Television Personality. The one I'm interested in, though, is Best Drink Book. Here two were shortlisted, both published by Mitchell Beazley. They were John Radford's The New Spain - A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (pounds 25) and Terroir - The Role of Soil, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wine (pounds 30) by James E Wilson. And the winner is ... The New Spain. (Cue applause. Wait for acceptance speech. Pour another glass of wine.)
Every year, everyone disagrees with at least one of the panel's decisions. I have taken a different view of those disagreements since last year, when winning a Glenfiddich made me realise that judges are really wonderful, wonderful people. This year, in the drink books category, the current group of wonderful people had a very tricky task: they had to choose between two completely different types of work.
The New Spain is a traditional national survey, of a type well established in wine literature. In that sense it is un-original, but the content is entirely original: this is the first book to cover all the new developments that have made Spain such a fertile hunting ground for discerning drinkers. In the old days, as far as the export market was concerned, fine Spanish wine came from Jerez (sometimes) and Rioja (sometimes). The rest was better suited to cooking than to drinking.
Now the picture is completely different. The remarkable whites of Ras Baixas, whites and reds from Penedes and Somontano, reds from Valdepenas and Ribero del Duero and Priorato - these are just a few of the potables that have established themselves as serious competitors in their respective arenas. What's more, with investment and experimentation continuing apace, Spain can only keep getting better. It is one of the countries to watch. And Radford's book is the essential watcher's guide.
Terroir does not tell you whose wines to buy. It sets out to explore why the fine wines of France grow where they do, and how is it that one vineyard yields superior wine, while its neighbour does not. The author is a geologist by profession, as well as an obvious wine-hound, and his book is partly an introduction to geology. If you don't mind talk of slope washes and classic cap-rock cuestas, you're in for some rewarding hours under his tutelage.
Wilson illuminates in a thousand ways. Chablis is discussed with Sancerre and Menetou-Salon because they lie on the same ridge of Kimmeridgian clay. He takes Burgundy as his principal stalking ground, and explains pretty persuasively, for example, why the Grands Crus of the Cote de Nuits produce such great wine. But he recognises the limitations of geology. Identical structures produce different wines because wine- makers, with their differing views, have the last say. And even he is forced to admit that some things are just conjecture.
Did the best man win? Probably, but it doesn't greatly matter except to Messrs Radford and Wilson; even their publishers can't complain, as they were published by the same house. These books ask fundamentally different questions, and seek answers in fundamentally different ways. Their usefulness depends on what you're looking for. Which makes reading about wine somewhat similar to drinking the stuff. And almost as pleasurable.
To drink now
John Radford praises the wines of Martinez Bujanda in Rioja. I'm on his side. Their Garnacha Reserva 1993 (pounds 12.99, Threshers/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up) is a dense and inky mouthful; deeply satisfying fruit mingling with good oak. It will go on getting better for another year or two. If you seek Spanish whites for warm weather, here are two widely available starting points. One: Vina Esmeralda 1998, the lovely Muscat/Gewurztraminer blend made by Miguel Torres in Penedes (pounds 5.29). Two: Albarino Martin Codax 1997 (pounds 6.99), a textbook Ras Baixas brimming with fresh peachy fruit. Begin a meal with a white. Continue with the Garnacha. Bliss.
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