My Round: Richard Ehrlich gets a chemistry lesson on the art of fine wine

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Two adjectives spring to mind for describing someone who keeps a book called Wine Science on his bedside table. One is dedicated. The other is sad. While others are reading a novel or watching late-night TV, this world-class nerd is reading about brettanomyces, sulphur dioxide, and micro-oxygenation. Is it sad, or dedicated, or perhaps a little bit of both? I have an urgent need to know, because the person in question is me.

But I don't feel quite so nerdy now, because Jamie Goode's Wine Science: The Application of Science in Wine Making (£30, Mitchell Beazley) won the Glenfiddich Drink Book of the Year award a couple of weeks ago. Even though it had some excellent competition on the shortlist, the decision was a wise one. Very occasionally, a book presents information to which few of its readers have access, and Wine Science is one of those books. Organised in three sections - the vineyard, the winery, and human "interaction with wine", it surveys authoritatively just about every important area of scientific study in the wine world. Matters as diverse as global warming, the effects of oak, and wine allergies come in for exceptionally well-balanced discussion.

Wine professionals - at least some of them - already know about these things. But general readers will have no better or clearer introduction. And even if they have nothing more than basic scientific knowledge, they will benefit from a close study of the book. There's also a glossary of technical terms to help dolts like me, and well-executed charts, tables and illustrations to make everything clearer.

The book is particularly pertinent now because there's a certain amount of anti-scientific sentiment in the wine world. Some of it gets a hearing in this book, and from well-respected sources. For instance, our knowledge of wine's flavour compounds has grown hugely in recent years; technical tools can now be applied to promote whatever qualities the winemaker desires. But is this a good thing? Goode quotes Clark Smith, a California wine consultant well known for his high-tech solutions to winery problems, as criticising the "reductionist" approach to "crack[ing] the code of wine quality". Reductionist winemaking, which divides the process into "manageable pieces", according to Smith, "yields fruity, varietally correct, alcoholic soda pop..."

Goode doesn't go so far as to endorse that view wholeheartedly, but his own concluding remarks show a healthy disrespect for the reductionist scientific disciplines he has mastered so well. "Wine quality," he writes, "is a characteristic of the whole system - all the various components of the wine working together to yield a sensory experience that is not evident from studying those components in isolation." And he ends with a question: "although science is a powerful tool... could strict reductionist thinking be limiting the utility of wine science?"

The detailed answer to that question may lie in the hands of Goode's fellow scientists. The broader picture, however, is one that we mere civilians glimpse every time we buy a bottle of wine. To one extent or another, that bottle's contents have benefited from the knowledge outlined in Goode's book. Without it, many wines that are now good would have been undrinkable. Some others that would have needed some years in the bottle may now be drunk with pleasure much earlier. Many others, including some of great cost and rarity, are even better because of such simple measures as scientifically sound vineyard management and better hygiene in the winery and the cellar.

I will not pretend that Wine Science is a book for everyone. You have to be very keen. But if you really want to know how the world's greatest alcoholic beverage is made nowadays, this book should be your first port of call. And if you decide to keep it on your bedside table, I won't tell a soul.

Three other mixes

Anakena Chardonnay/ Viognier 2005 (£4.99, Co-op) Chardonnay gives zing and the Viognier gives peachiness.

Mas Carlot Cuvée Tradition 2005, Vin de Pays d'Oc (£6.55, Jeroboams, 020 7259 6716) Deserving Gold Medallist in the Vin de Pays competition.

Cloudy Bay Pelorus 2001 (£16.99, Majestic) Possibly the best New World fizz, creamy and full-flavoured.