Books: Wine

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In laddie-land, wine is plonk, grog, Frog vino. Rob, narrator of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, encounters it at dinners with people called Barney and Emma. Wine is part of their lifestyle code: it means they have smart jobs, go skiing, wear linen, don't smoke. Wine-drinkers, in short, are wimps.

Wine fares no better with ladettes. Kathy Lette's Girls' Night Out mercilessly pillories the wine-drinker as a snobbish intellectual, a graduate, someone who knows the difference between Iran and Iraq. This reaction against wine as part of middle-class lifestyle has begun to affect the language of the market itself, as Malcolm Gluck notes with relish. Gluck is fond of the laddish label names with which the wineries (not vineyards, OK?) are re-pitching their target markets: Bad-Tempered Cyril, Fat Bastard Chardonnay.

Gluck's Streetplonk and Superplonk (Coronet, pounds 5.99 each) categorise wines according to stockists. You can simply look up, say, Thresher's or Tesco, and get Gluck's ratings of their shelves. All very clear and easy. But turning to his tasting comments, a mysterious metamorphosis occurs. He can't stick to the plain language he promises. The bullish talk is overtaken by flights of fancy worthy of the clubbiest of chateau-speak. "What a succulent fruity beast of richness, flavour and great depth yet amazingly cheeky freshness", he says of Majestic's Ironstone Semillon/ Chardonnay 1996. "Palate-arousing and very vibrant!" And what can "cheroot-edged" or "curiously foppish" mean?

I suspect Gluck is the vinous version of a literary phenomenon that peaked and fell with the circulation of The Sun: the arts grad as snotty hooligan. This is a fashionable pose, but easily unmasked: don't be taken in by the scarves and rattles, just observe who dives for the exits when the boot goes in.

Gluck provides no index, so if you want to find out about a species of grape, or who stocks a good Burgundy, these books are not for you. In their lack of curiosity about the source of imports, they remind me of dealers' attitudes to Oriental carpets: origins are of no real interest, the market is the only consideration. Unable to trumpet British greatness in viticulture, Gluck claims that "us British wine drinkers" make "the world's wines sing to our tune... There isn't another nation on the face of the planet which is remotely in the same league."

No, not in the same league at all, if you consider the exploitative treaties with Portugal which produced appalling social conditions in the Douro, or the racist ownership of the South African vineyards. Since Gluck seems to be a Maggie-hater, it's odd that his world wine-view shares her aggressively chauvinist version of history.

Gluck's books are presented as the dumbing-down of wine. Well, I happen to believe that there's also a working-class tradition in this country which says it's not wimpish to want to learn a thing or two. Call me a Beaujolais leftie if you will, but I want to know the difference between Merlot and Minervois. Other books will tell me, but in different voices. Robert Joseph's Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Wine (Carlton Books, pounds 16.99) is straightforward, and the best buy for plain information, without implicit thuggery on one hand or refined tittupping on the other. It finds space for interesting anecdotes (Nixon served his White House guests with $6- a-bottle plonk, while imbibing Margaux) and covers the topic which most wine books skate over: wine and health.

Tom Stevenson's New Sotheby's Encyclopedia of Wine (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 35) is what you might expect: weighty, dull, expensive and, as Stevenson says of Chateau Ausone, "the quintessence of class, complexity, and finesse". Did you know there is a vineyard where grapes are picked individually with an escargot fork?

Hubrecht Duijker and Michael Broadbent's Bordeaux Atlas (Ebury Press, pounds 40) is the poshest voice of all, a cover of dull gold enclosing 400 pages on a single region. This is the genuine article: the obsessive, eccentric, aristocrat of wine books. Curiously, this approach brings its own reward. So detailed is it that the book becomes a travelogue, with plans of small towns surrounded by tiny vineyards, and pictures of dusty chateaux. Who could resist tracing an armchair journey on the map, perhaps to the noble tannin and dark woody notes of 11th-century Ch Olivier, where the Black Prince went hunting? Or following Broadbent to Lafite: "the great swelling curve of vines - convex, sensuous, sloping". The tasting comments are equally physical: "notes of plum, fig, raspberry, blackcurrant, cherry... sometimes with grapefruit and a certain herbaceousness." No glugging in sight, but my God, what style!

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