A drink in one hand, a book in the other

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How do you taste wine? I don't mean drinking the stuff, but evaluating it with some degree of rigour. It's like the difference between enjoying music and learning music theory. You can listen or drink knowing nothing more than your likes and dislikes, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you want to understand what's in the glass - or CD player - before you, you need to know a certain amount about the technicalities.

How do you taste wine? I don't mean drinking the stuff, but evaluating it with some degree of rigour. It's like the difference between enjoying music and learning music theory. You can listen or drink knowing nothing more than your likes and dislikes, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you want to understand what's in the glass - or CD player - before you, you need to know a certain amount about the technicalities.

In the run-up to Christmas, three new books offer an introduction to tasting, and cheapest of the lot is Oz Clarke's Introducing Wine (Little, Brown, £12.99). The great and powerful Oz is one of the UK's finest communicators on all things vinous, and some of his new book takes an interesting approach. "Get the flavours you want", for instance, divides wine into 15 "broad styles", such as juicy, fruity, intense, blackcurranty and silky, strawberry-ish reds. Quite what a complete beginner would make of these categories I don't know, but this is a good choice for someone who already has a bit of experience.

Most expensive of the three is Gerard Basset's The Wine Experience (Kyle Cathie, £25). Basset is a feted sommelier, and the book's cover promises nothing less than 'a new method which will revolutionise the practice and art of wine tasting.' I didn't see it that way. It was hard to tell whom the book is aimed at. Some information is at a very basic level ("the grape variety has a considerable impact on the final wine") while some is forbiddingly (and often unconvincingly) technical. The high price pays for lavish production, with photographs that are long on atmosphere and short on information. For pros only.

My pick of the new crop is Essential Winetasting: The Complete Wine Tasting Course, by Michael Schuster (Mitchell Beazley, £20). Michael Schuster has run tasting courses under the name Winewise for many years, and has written previous books on the same subject. This one explains the mechanics of taste and tasting better than any I've seen. Exemplary surveys of grape varieties crisply summarise the essence of each grape, and explain why it changes from one locale to another. Best of all, its central section ("The Tastings") offers a version of Schuster's introductory classes which can be put into effect on one's own at home or with friends.

The strength of this book is that it's written by a man who spends most of his working life teaching people how to taste. Schuster knows how beginners think, and knows what they worry about - their own abilities, the specialist language, and difficulties of pinning down sensory perceptions. He nails the anxieties with humour, clarity, and humility before a complex subject. Essential Winetasting is one of those rare books that serves beginners and experts alike: if you want to set out on a wine odyssey - or need navigational aid on one you've begun already - I can't think of a better guide.

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