FOOD & DRINK; Drinking their words

Among the acres of wine books on offer, Kathryn McWhirter sorts out the grands crus from the ordinaire
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The Independent Culture
OF ALL the wine books on the shelves this Christmas, Oz Clarke's Wine Atlas (pounds 40, Little, Brown & Co) is the most innovative. The words - when you get to them - are evocative and informative, but it's the hand- painted, plane's-eye-view, three-dimensional maps that catch the eye and kept me leafing, fascinated, from cover to cover. Where the "plane" swoops lower - over major bits of Burgundy, for example - or when the maps can be used big, on the cover or title page, you see all the valleys, the high and the low hills, and the shadows, as well as the vineyards and woods, villages and towns that you'd pick out on an ordinary map; you realise how marshy the country is around the famous Neusiedlersee in Austria (when you're there, you can't see the marshes for the reeds); and you boggle (unless you've been there) at Australia's fine Coonawarra region "dumped in the middle of what is virtually a swamp", with not a hillock in sight.

Only about half the maps are as exciting as this, however. The pilot's- eye technique loses its value when the plane flies higher and tries to take in too much. The map of the Douro is too far off to capture much of the magnificence of some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world. You get little impression of the steep river precipices from the general northern Rhone map. But you could pore for ages over the slopes and crevices when you home in on a page dedicated just to the two northern Rhone appellations of St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.

Since it's already too wide and too tall to fit on most people's bookshelves, I suppose it would simply be impractical for this book to be bigger still. You can see why annotation of the maps has been kept "minimal, so as not to spoil the effect", but it would have been nice if more major towns and villages had been pinpointed on the main, hand-painted maps, rather than on the little grey photo-graphs of the maps alongside.

The obvious comparison is with the long-running Hugh Johnson World Atlas of Wine, completely revised last year for its fourth edition (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 30). Putting side by side the Clarke and Johnson maps of the Cote de Nuits is most revealing. The Clarke map gives you a real feeling for the place, the way the patchwork of famous vineyards sweeps up from flat land towards the hills, then bigger expanses of vineyards in the backwoods hills of the Hautes Cotes de Nuits, less sheltered, less well exposed to the sun, less famous. You can see the close contours on the Johnson map. You can also see the names of all the individual vineyards, the stuff of expensive labels and wine buffs' fantasies. The ideal, for the indulgent wine lover, would be to buy both and mesh Clarke and Johnson together.

As for the words, Clarke is much more of a read, less businesslike than Johnson, much more personal and evocative of the feel of each place. The style is a little more restrained than vintage Clarke, and there's a little more focus than in previous Clarke books on the lie of the land and vineyards, with long captions to the maps pointing out geographic/geological/climatic influences. But most of it is an easy and informative read.

The beautifully illustrated Jancis Robinson's Wine Course (BBC, pounds 19.99) also provides a good read, especially for new or not yet fully fledged wine enthusiasts. Jancis Robinson is much warmer and more approachable on the page than on screen, and this glossy, very organised handbook - launched to coincide with her latest television series - packs in an enormous amount of information, digestibly divided into short, friendly chunks. There's a lot of practical, sensible, very unsnobbish advice on choosing and getting to grips with your bottle, up-to-the-rapidly- changing-minute information on winemaking, and a tour of the world's wine regions and grape varieties. This is one of the best starter books on wine.

There's a clutch of new books strictly for established wine devotees. For those with a partiality for Sauternes, Stephen Brook's Sauternes and Other Sweet Wines of Bordeaux (Faber, pounds 9.99), a serious, fat paperback, is the first full-scale, studiously researched reference book. Brook's chateau-crawl must have taken months - most of the book consists of detailed, critical and sometimes amusing chateau-by-chateau vignettes. Remington Norman's glossy Rhone Renaissance (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 35 ) is another enthusiasts' bible, covering not only the Rhone but also the growing number of wines made from the Rhone grape varieties in California, Australia and South Africa. He, too, has clearly visited everyone there was to visit, and his profiles of areas and producers are very well drawn.

For the claret-crazy, there's the new, 815-page unillustrated tome by Clive Coates, Grands Vins, the Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 50). Coates's writing style is very straight, unromantic and sometimes pedantic, but if you really want to know the history of a chateau, who owns it now and why they are making the wine they do, this is your book. There are copious notes on wines he has tasted, back sometimes to the beginning of the century, and over 200 pages just of vintage assessments.

Only Robert Parker, the American wine guru, could beat Coates on sheer length. The new fourth edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 35) runs to 1,209 pages, and probably even more tasting notes than Coates, if you cared to count them. It's worth noting that Parker's "cheap" category starts at pounds 6, while his "moderate" wines cost pounds 6-pounds 9. As with Coates, there are no romantic frills to Parker's writing. He is straight in with the facts, of which there are masses, as well as plenty of personal opinion, expressed partly as ratings out of 100 for wines and star ratings for producers. Outside Parker's pet areas, I sometimes disagree. It's time in particular that Parker took an open-minded trip down under. His derogatory remarks about Australia are astounding: "Australia's overall wine quality is barely average," he writes, "with oceans of poorly made and mediocre wines... grotesque... musty, dirty, tart... their ageing potential is non-existent." New Zealand comes off no better. But Parker is a man to follow on areas he really knows well: Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and California, for instance.

For the majority of us who are on the look-out for wines at under pounds 6 a bottle, nearly every wine writer in Britain seems to have published a guide this autumn. I'm torn between two of them. Robert Joseph's introductory summary of the world wine scene in The l996 Sunday Telegraph Good Wine Guide (Macmillan, pounds 7.99 ) is masterly. He writes well, clearly and wittily. This really useful pocket guide incorporates many of the best aspects of the others in shortened form: the merchant profiles of the Which? Wine Guide, the long glossary of Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, wine recommendations with star ratings, prices and stockists, from both supermarkets and specialist merchants. It's hard to read, though, without a magnifying glass.

Grapevine (Headline, pounds 6.99) by Anthony Rose of the Independent and Tim Atkin is also a good read, and a very reliable guide to the wines of 21 chains and supermarkets, plus this year 12 specialist UK merchants, and six outlets over the Channel. Their copious recommendations come in price brackets, with a useful mark out of 20 and helpful tasting notes.

While Rose and Atkin manage to be humorous at the same time as telling you usefully what the wine tastes like, Malcolm Gluck's two books, Superplonk and Gluck on High (Coronet, pounds 4.99 each, on supermarket wines and high- street wine chains respectively) are in there mostly for the laughs. The wine judgements are sometimes good, sometimes dubious, sometimes meaningless. You might be amused, but are you any the wiser for being told a wine is "very deep and rich - like Pavarotti clearing his throat"? or that a rose is "utterly delicious... with the freshness to be quaffed as a rose is surely designed - naked on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire". I'm probably super-prim, but I don't like the suggestion that Ruppertsberger Hofstuck Riesling Kabinett would sell better if it was renamed "Elland Road Riesling" as "the real name sucks". And talking of prim, what is a wine with "a purposefully prim touch", or "haughty for no apparent reason", and what is "punk rock haircut fruit"? I could quote from every page. Marks out of 20 reflect Gluck's view of quality relative to price. Since he seems to resent any wine priced above pounds 5, this system can be a pointer for good, cheap wines, but is very confusing in the upper price ranges. Avoid the cheap wines Gluck marks as "needing more time". They'll never amount to much. And a pinch of salt will not make his wine with food recommendations any better. !