Wine seduces us with silk and romance, roots us in culture and history, and graces us with nature’s bounty. It also dazzles us with science, as chemists, geologists, biologists and more ologists try to explain what poets would rather leave to the imagination. And wine can intimidate us with its sheer variety and its image of status, leaving us insecure about our knowledge when faced with others’ expertise.
So we have books to explain wine’s various mysteries, romantic and scientific. Some cater to wine experts, while others strive to make wine accessible to those who want to know more about it without making it an obsession. Two books published this month stand at the top of the list for each approach.
Wine lovers have eagerly awaited the fourth edition of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. This encyclopedic reference covers wine from “abboccato” – an Italian term meaning “medium sweet” — to “zymase” — enzymes that help convert sugar to alcohol during fermentation. As that suggests, the Oxford Companion helps readers understand the basics of wine, from how to read labels to the deepest technical aspects of winemaking. Like its previous editions, this is essential reading for wine writers and enthusiasts, as well as anyone working toward a wine certification.
If you find yourself embroiled in dinner-table debates about wine, the Oxford Companion is your final arbiter.
Robinson is an amazingly prolific writer. In the past few years, she has published American Wine (with Linda Murphy), Wine Grapes (with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz), and the seventh edition of the World Atlas of Wine (with Hugh Johnson). All this while penning a weekly wine column for the Financial Times and leading a team of exceptional writers at her Web site, at www.jancisrobinson.com. Harding, who like Robinson has earned the master of wine title, is credited as assistant editor on the new Oxford Companion.
This fourth edition includes about 300 new entries, and the list reflects the dramatic changes in the world of wine since the third edition was published in 2006. There are new grape varieties and regions, mapping the growing consumer interest in wines from new places around the world. This was a decade during which Europe changed its labeling laws, winegrowers around the world reduced their use of chemicals in the vineyard, and wine drinkers shied away from the powerful wines popular at the turn of the millennium in favor of nuance. Robinson and Harding, along with their team of contributors, have captured these trends and managed to keep the Oxford Companion fresh.
Speaking of fresh: Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, is the best introductory book on wine to come along in years. Puckette, 32, and Hammack, 35, have built their winefolly.com Web site into a leading authority on wine for millennials, using modern graphic design to present savvy knowledge of wine in new ways and new media. Puckette is the public face of Wine Folly on the Web site and in videos, with an easy smile, a pixie voice and a tendency to exclaim “Awesome!”
“Wine Folly” is ideal for new wine lovers wondering why a merlot tastes different from a cabernet. The book offers graphic descriptions of grape varieties and their flavors, as well as basic descriptions of how wine’s components — acidity, sweetness, tannin, alcohol and body — register on your palate. If you’ve ever wondered about the flavors wine lovers claim to taste in various wines, they are explained here in simple, easy-to-understand graphics. The world’s major wine regions and their wines are also decoded.
While the Oxford Companion is traditionally ink-heavy, Wine Folly features white space and visual presentation of information. This is a book for casual wine fans who want to know what they’re drinking. There are simplifications and generalizations in such a presentation, but this book also should appeal to serious wine students, those who delve into the deeper, technical aspects of wine in the Oxford Companion but also crave a simple framework to help them visualize the mysteries of wine.
In a word, Wine Folly is awesome.
The Smithsonian Associates will host Jancis Robinson on Oct. 13 at the National Museum of the American Indian for a discussion of wine’s intriguing new directions, moderated by Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre, followed by a wine tasting and book signing of the new Oxford Companion to Wine. For tickets, find details here.