My Round: Book cellars

Great books about alcohol can turn the enjoyable experience of drinking into something even richer and more rewarding
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For the last few months I've been reading five good books in order to help judge them for the annual André Simon Awards, given yearly to a food book and a drinks book. I've acted as assessor for drinks, taking the lead in drawing up a shortlist and making recommendations to the judging panel. And a jolly good time I've had.

For the last few months I've been reading five good books in order to help judge them for the annual André Simon Awards, given yearly to a food book and a drinks book. I've acted as assessor for drinks, taking the lead in drawing up a shortlist and making recommendations to the judging panel. And a jolly good time I've had.

Apart from the high quality and a keen interest in alcohol, the books had next to nothing in common. One of them, Rosemary George's Treading Grapes: Walking Through the Vineyards of Tuscany (£15, Bantam), I wrote about extensively last year when it was first published. It is a lively, informative treatise on the current state of Italy's most famous producing region told in the form of a series of walking tours. The second, Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and its Whisky (£18.99, Headline) is a long, eloquent exploration dealing as much with history and culture as with drink. It displays all the learning and passion that characterise every single word that Jefford writes.

The third book might have escaped my attention, because it's of a type that I tend to regard as an expensive frippery. The book is called Desserts and Wines, written by Lenôtre and Olivier Poussier (£20, Mitchell Beazley). Lenôtre is a French chain of patisseries, Poussier a sommelier of great renown. And this lovely book deals mostly with desserts so elaborate few people can cook them and wines so expensive few people can afford them. So how did it get on the shortlist? Because you can't, as they say, judge a book by its cover. This book makes that loathsome word "aspirational" into a virtue. When you start reading it, really reading it, you find that you are learning a great deal about cooking. And about sweet wine, which accompanies these sweet dishes. And when you're done, even if you haven't yet cooked anything, you get the idea that gastronomic and oenological pursuits sometimes just have to be about the pursuit of perfection. Which is the true subject of this book.

For the final two shortlistees I have special affection. One is Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World by Christy Campbell (£8.99, Perennial). In the 1860s, an aphid travelled from the USA to France on the roots of some imported grapevines. No one knew at that point that the aphid, eventually called Phylloxera vastatrix, was fatal to European vines. It started killing off French vines immediately, and soon spread all over France. If a protracted battle had not been won by the scientists who recognised the answer - graft their native vines on to immune American rootstock - there would now be no wine in France.

Campbell makes the story of humans vs nature thrillingly exciting, and gives you admiration for both sides. He even makes you feel sympathy for the aphid. His book should be read by anyone interested in wine - and in nature, especially gardening, for that matter.

The final book is for devotees only, but is no less distinguished for that. Cognac by Nicholas Faith (£20, Mitchell Beazley) is a work of such exceptional scholarship that lovers of the drink really don't have any excuse not to buy it. It ranges so widely through history, politics and economics that you can never take another sip without thinking about Cognac in a more globally enlightened way. Faith loves Cognac as much as any drinker on the planet, but he is not a purist. He likes to mix the stuff when it's appropriate, either in cocktails or with a mixer - but not tonic, which he and I both consider to be one mixer with which the amber nectar is totally unsuitable.

So, who won? It was Mr Faith, but any of them could have. All deserve a place on your shelf and their diversity illustrates the good health of modern drinks writing.

Three bookish bottles

Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Français 1997 (Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, £220) The rarest Champagne, from ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines in three enclosed vineyards. A taste of history.

Hine Rare VSOP Cognac (Waitrose, Oddbins, Unwins and independents, £29.99) Fantastic aromas, smoothness on the palate, very long finish. A supreme example of the Cognac-blender's art.

Bruichladdich The 10 (Oddbins, £24.99) From a revived distillery, one of Islay's more delicate basic malts. Peat plays a small role in this ten-year-old, with fresh fruity flavours dominating instead.

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