Wine: The best possible tastes

Steve Jelbert sniffs at some cheeky little examples of wineupmanship in time for the festive season

Sunday 30 November 2008 01:00

The arcane world of wine attracts its share of villains. Take Hardy Rodenstock. Once a producer of Germany's notoriously unexportable schlager music, he went on to sell rare wines of improbable provenance to the gullible wealthy. Now Rodenstock, a man who once showed off a walnut he'd stuffed with a condom to Jancis Robinson, faces legal proceedings for fraud, many multi-millionaires are stuck with pricy bottles not even good for drinking, let alone selling, and the high priests of fine wine look very silly indeed. The very readable The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace (Crown £14.99) tells the curious and frankly impressive tale of how a man born in a town called Kwidzyn saw fools and money and separated them. That's a proper swindle.

Like many, I gave up reading Malcolm Gluck's "Superplonk" column long before he left The Guardian, largely on the grounds that the supermarket wines he eulogised were very often crap. But he's still around and the splenetic, largely unreadable The Great Wine Swindle (Gibson Square £14.99) is a trashy classic of score-settling.

Gluck takes his revenge on every person or object that ever crossed him, and they are legion. Raymond Blanc, Jancis Robinson (hasn't she suffered enough?), Rick Stein, restaurant critics, Tim Atkin, every other wine critic (he calls them "wankers"), so-called terroirists, corks – they carry on working, all blissfully unaware that Gluck is their sworn enemy. The irony of a man who can barely construct a coherent sentence, let alone an argument, daring to berate others for deficiencies of style escapes him. Sentences roll on tediously into paragraph length, unqualified, while the proof-reading is so poor that at one point he dismisses a brand name as "stupid" while repeatedly misspelling it. Along the way he seriously suggests that wine professionals should take DNA tests to prove the suitability of their tastebuds, argues with several sommeliers and restaurateurs (I fear everything he eats arrives at table already tainted) and, incredibly, reveals that critics don't pay for their samples. The occasional decent suggestion, such as making EU subsidy to vinegrowers dependent upon organic conversion, is lost in his impotent fury. The "swindles" revealed range from unsurprising supermarket chicanery to evil producers who slip a spot of Semillon into bottles labelled "Sauvignon Blanc", the sods. Somehow, Herr Rodenstock escapes his gaze. It's only wine after all, says Monty Waldin in Chateau Monty (Portico £16.99), the book of the television series of the wine made by the wine writer who took a truly hands-on approach.

Leaving a warm bed in Italy, Waldin moved to the Roussillon to apply the knowledge garnered in emptying bottles to filling them. Waldin is no great stylist either, but unlike Gluck he understands very well that wine is an agricultural product, simply part of your dinner alongside the vegetables, the meat and the bread. Effectively a farmer's diary, Chateau Monty is a lot more realistic than Gluck claiming detachment on behalf of the consumer, and he isn't coy about exploiting friendships. Waldin rents a certified organic plot in the fashionable Fenouillades from Eric Laguerre, a vigneron acclaimed by many, including me (while eating a steak) and the author. Monty's red turns out well but you won't find it in supermarkets. In fact you won't find it anywhere. The distributor sold out before the show's run had ended.

Is This Bottle Corked? (Faber £12.99) is Michael Bywater and Kathleen Burk's somewhat fastidious selection of wine lore. This is pass-the-port formal, built around questions such as "What was Napoleon's favourite wine?" (probably none in particular but they get a couple of pages out of it) and, unsurprisingly, "Shall we combine?", an explanation of the mysteries of High Table mealtimes (whatever they are). This gentle, diverting little book might convince more had the publishers managed to spell "vinho verde" correctly on the cover, but it's a reminder of wine's civilised side.

Much boozier is Everyday Drinking (Bloomsbury £9.99), a compendium of Kingsley Amis's three volumes about the juice, originally published three decades back. The third, the drinking quiz How's Your Glass?, is now of limited historical interest, but Amis's tips on stiffing dinner party guests still sparkle, while his "drinking man's diet" is anything but faddy. The cover quote on vodka is worth the asking price by itself. Though Amis (pictured below) actively celebrates intoxication, there's wisdom here too. "Champagne is only half a drink," he says, "The rest is a name on a label." This peek into a distant era when bittall and the rather Stalinist-sounding Wine Development Board could be mentioned without elucidation, is ideal Boxing Day fare.

The usual stocking filling suspects abound. Matt Skinner, promoted as the Jamie Oliver of the grape (and despised by Gluck for daring to prefer high-end burgundies to the cheaper wines he recommends – like, duh!), offers The Juice (Mitchell Beazley £7.99), effectively a magazine article covering a hundred favourite bottles (including a Californian chardonnay with a tie-dyed label) and the beginners' guide Heard It Through the Grapevine (Mitchell Beazley £18.99).

Jancis Robinson's pleasingly straightforward How To Taste Wine (Conran Octopus £16.99) has been updated, while Hugh Johnson's perennial Pocket Wine Book (Mitchell Beazley £9.99) rolls on. Wine snobs will be relieved to know Miguel Merino's Rioja now appears, though New Zealand's idiosyncratic Pyramid Valley (mentioned by Skinner) and the ferociously trendy Spanish region Ribeira Sacra remain overlooked. Keep up, Hugh – wineupmanship means being ahead of the trends.

This year's finest example of wine porn, a curious subgenre usually dominated by pricy monographs celebrating properties whose products are forever beyond your reach, must be the brick-sized 1001 Wines To Try Before You Die (Cassell £20). All glossy photos and stilted tasting notes, it genuinely covers the gamut from La Guita Manzanilla, Spain's favourite sherry and the cheapest wine in the book, to fantasy investment items such as Screaming Eagle and Jayer Vosne-Romanee. Precisely two of the bottles featured within have a place in my cellar (which is an old fireplace), but for a certain type of man, and I confess to being one, this makes a brilliant gift.

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