Know your target when choosing a wine book. Here are three good choices from this year’s literary harvest:
“Grasping the Grape: Demystifying Grape Varieties to Help You Discover the Wines You Love” by Maryse Chevriere (Hardie Grant, $15): For someone just learning about wine, this is the year’s best all-around primer. Chevriere is a sommelier and wine educator who has delighted social media-savvy wine lovers by lampooning the pretentiousness of tasting notes on her humorous Instagram feed, Fresh Cut Garden Hose. In “Grasping the Grape,” she cuts through the hogwash and presents the essentials about grape varieties. These include pronunciation, because you don’t want to say “murr-lott” instead of “mer-low” in front of a wine snob.
Each one-page (in tiny print) introduction to a grape variety includes helpful information that will help even novices navigate conversations at a wine tasting. Chevriere includes regions known for producing each grape, food-pairing suggestions, and words commonly used to describe the flavors of each grape. Even more helpful, she offers suggestions of similar wines to try.
And if we’re learning about wine, why not make it a drinking game? Chevriere offers several suggestions for us to open two bottles at a time and compare, for example, a French chablis with a California chardonnay, or a dry Austrian riesling with a sweeter spätlese from Germany. Exercises like these can help wine lovers of any level hone their tasting vocabulary. Chevriere also gives us a glossary to explain some of wine’s more arcane terms, as well as helpful tips on deciphering wine labels and shopping for wine in stores and restaurants.
The focus on grape varieties gives the book a decidedly New World accent. We don’t learn the nuances of Old World regions, such as Bordeaux or the Rhone, where wines traditionally are blends of different varieties. There isn’t much here about terroir, or regional expressions. But this is a great book to get us to that level of wine exploration, with Chevriere’s encouragement to “drink up, and remember to have fun and keep learning.”
The most controversial aspect of natural wine is its definition. For Feiring, natural wine is wine from grapes farmed without synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers, and wines made without additives such as yeasts, tannins, enzymes, grape concentrates or even oak barrels. While some natural winemakers dogmatically avoid using sulfur as a natural preservative, Feiring tolerates “minimal sulfite” additions in a section on myths. And her section on additives and techniques commonly used to manipulate “conventional” or “industrial” wine will be eye-opening to many readers.
This is a great book for adventurous drinkers who are unimpressed by wine’s traditional norms and hierarchies, who don’t mind a cloudy or fizzy wine once in a while, and who want to know how to respond to skeptics who argue that natural wines are inherently flawed.
Those skeptics should also read it, to gain a better understanding of this movement that began in Beaujolais in the 1970s as a reaction to industrial-scale viticulture and the overuse of chemicals in farming after World War II. This book is mostly free of the holier-than-thou attitude of some zealous naturalistas. I suspect even die-hard skeptics of natural wine will find themselves nodding in agreement at Feiring’s advice on how to taste a wine’s structure, her encouragement to “be creative” with our descriptions of wine’s flavor, and her obvious love of the grape.
“World Atlas of Wine, 8th Edition” by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley, $65). I wrote about this essential reference in detail a few weeks ago. This is for dedicated wine fiends, or even people who love wine and travel. It is certainly the wine book of the year. But at this price point, you’d better love the one you gift.