READING BETWEEN THE WINES

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT
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The Independent Culture
Christmas comes but once a year, and once again it's coming around too soon. If you're interested in reading about wine as well as drinking it, and need a suggestion for the people who supply your Yuletide presents, here are a few books for the top of the list.

The title of the first one, Confessions of a Wine Lover, is unpromising. It suggests the leisurely musings of an old buffer who simply aches to share his decades of drinking classed-growth claret, domaine-bottled Burgundy, and all the other rare bottles that only the rich can afford.

Happily, the book of that title is written by Jancis Robinson. And even though she has indeed drunk more great wines than you and I could even fantasise about, she retains an utterly winning modesty before the great bottles that have enriched her taste buds. She is the very anti- thesis of the wine-bore.

Robinson entered the wine biz in the mid-Seventies. During the intervening decades the wine world has changed beyond recognition, and Robinson chronicles those changes with the help of well-kept diaries and a keen eye for detail. "Unwittingly, I have witnessed at close range one of the most extraordinary social changes of the late 20th century, the popularisation, and in some quarters near-deification, of wine - and food."

Confessions will fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in wine. The chapter on blind tasting alone, which demystifies and largely downplays the importance of this overrated activity, is worth the price of admission. And her observations on the destructive effects of too much money chasing too little fine wine are eloquently damning. Decrying the huge increases in prices for top claret, she says: "I hate the way that something I bought to give myself and my friends innocent, escapist pleasure has been transformed into a financial asset demanding management. I don't want to manage my cellar. I want to drink it."

But Confessions is about people as well as wine. The industrialists who run the massive Gallo wineries in California represent one extreme. At the other is an old-school English merchant who "refreshes" a bottle of Chateau Rausan-Segla 1896 (with wine from a later vintage) before serving it to the current owner of the chateau. "Do you know," observes the owner, "I think the 1896s are beginning to come round at last." This was some time in the Fifties.

Robinson is aware of the peculiarity of the wine writer's life. She clearly loves applying her formidable faculties to the task of evaluation, yet she shows a sensible ambivalence about obsessive "connoisseurs". Wine exists to give pleasure, in her view, and pleasure matters little when dozens of irreplaceable bottles are presented for mere admiration. She remarks in her chapter on "Marathon Tastings" that she would "get up from a tasting full of pomp and solemnity and ache to be able to take just one bottle home", even the lowest-ranked, so she could really enjoy it. Which is precisely what you will do if your nearest and/or dearest buys you this book. Published by Viking at pounds 17.99.

A much quirkier book, enjoyable and informative in a completely different way, is Patrick Matthews's The Wild Bunch (Faber & Faber pounds 7.99). Faber publishes seriously good wine books on serious, traditional subjects such as Burgundy (by Anthony Hanson) and New Zealand (by Rosemary George), but this one is not at all of that mould. Matthews took as his brief the subject of "Great Wines from Small Producers", and in his journalistic, idio-syncratic account he man-ages to raise just about every contentious question in the world of contemporary wine-making. Terroir vs varietals, technology vs tradition, consistency vs authenticity, mechanisation vs handicraft - it's all here. I'm not entirely convinced that Matthews makes all his point with equal success, but I enjoyed following him on his travels with some of wine's fruitiest characters.

By the end of the book, your strongest conclusion may be that wine-makers (a term he regards with suspicion) view the idea of consensus with deep suspicion: any opinion held passionately by one man or woman will be passionately opposed by another. This will not please seekers after the definitive truth, but it will stimulate them. And the writing can be very funny. For buyers there are boxes listing suppliers, most of them in keeping with the aims of the book, among smaller independents rather than supermarkets. All in all, a very lively read.

The "other" type of wine book is the encyclopaedically top-to-bottom variety: the kind that tells you how and where wine is made, and uses both words and pictures to give a global survey. These books have taught me most of what I know about wine, and I can never get enough of them. There's always room on my shelf for another good one.

Which made me quake with pleasure when the postman brought a copy of Robert Joseph's Ultimate Wine Encyclopaedia (Prion/Carlton pounds 16.99). A sound introductory chapter on appreciating wine is followed by national and regional surveys which are packed with information. The rather dense presentation makes you work for what you're seeking, just as a vine should have to work hard to get nutriment from the soil, but the effort is worthwhile both for general readers and for drinkers wanting to know what to buy. There's even a sampling of local recipes thrown in, and the price compares favourably with other books of the type. If you're just getting interested in wine, or even if you're well on the way, this will make a splendid addition to the Xmas Files.

And finally ... Two non- or nearly non-alcoholic potions have come my way recently, and both deserve your consideration. One is a pair of "Adult Soft Drinks" (0.5 per cent alcohol) made by Fentimans of Northumberland, a Ginger Beer and a Victorian Lemonade. The raison d'etre of ginger beer had eluded me till I tasted the Fentimans version, which is sprightly, warming and herbally palate-tingling. The lemonade is even better, made with ginger as well as lemon, and not just refreshing but intriguingly complex. You'll find both at Tesco, Oddbins and Thresher as well as selected independents, with prices in the 85p to 99p range.

Oddbins also sells my second choice, which is a pre-alcoholic Bloody Mary mix called Big Tom. When making this great cocktail I prefer to make my own mix, as befits the gravity of the occasion, but for drinking in virginal form the Big Tom bottle would do very nicely. It has loads of well-judged spice and a very long finish, giving an extended, pleasantly pain-free chilli-burn at the back of the throat. Truly delicious stuff, and worth every penny of the pounds 1.99 charged for it.

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