A taste of the best wine books
Prince Alain de Polignac, a direct descendant of Madame Pommery and winemaker at his family's Champagne estate, believes women are better tasters than men that they have more direct access to sensory impressions and the 2001 class of wine books indicates that women write with more intuition as well.
Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible is just my kind of book: a little history, a little science, a little practical advice and a fair amount of (quite comprehensible) tasting flourish. The heavy paperback begins with the basics of winemaking, varietals and tasting how-to's, and then is divided by country into chapters that, while covering important wines, labels and styles, are more like conversations with a tolerant and funny professor who also happens to cook a great dinner for the grad students. MacNeil, director of the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley, is remarkably well-versed; she has an easy manner with information and flavor, mixing entries on whether to "age" wines and bits of food pairing advice. You could start at the beginning, but browsing will be just as much fun. A fine all-round reference.
Sunday (London) Times writer Joanna Simon definitely shoots from the lip, and her deceptively breezy and brightly illustrated book, Wine: An Introduction takes the same approach the smart new wine shops are promoting: defining grape varietals by flavor, suggesting similar styles for experimentation (if you like this, try that); and moving through hints on food and wine compatibility before touching on regions, buying and storage tips. A very nice choice for those who might like to start a small personal cellar or tasting circle.
Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, who edited the comprehensive and almost pedantic Oxford Companion to Wine (one of last year's picks), has this year produced the much more informal How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine. As the name suggests, this is a handbook to getting the most out of wine, and meals, set up as a beginner's course but extending through intermediate to confident amateur. Robinson spends little time on specific producers, concentrating on regions and styles, but she cleverly divides "theory" from "practice," which may make some techno-phobes relax, and similarly makes the concept of tasting, even hosting blind tastings, intriguing rather than intimidating.
Even some of the wine "guys" are getting a little more in touch with their feelings these days. The third edition of Tom Stevenson's The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, for instance, is more straightforward than MacNeil's primer but may be more useful for those primarily concerned with specific producers and their styles. Stevenson also goes through a no-nonsense but useful explanation of tasting criteria and oenology basics before moving to the major winemaking regions, which he sums up crisply and, for all but the more pretentious jargonist, completely. He has additional thumbnail descriptions of his picks from each region, and is still the only critic (to my knowledge) to recognize the fine Bordeaux-style Chateau Lumiere reds from Japanese winemaker Toshihiko Tsukamoto.
Beyond all the fermentation diagrams, topographical comparisons, historical factoids and tasting charts, the second edition of Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America's Complete Guide to Wines of the World, written by three (male) wine educators at the CIA, has a list of food and wine pairings so specific that it covers rumaki, veggie burgers, eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros. This is an admirably complete volume but perhaps too much for the ordinary drinker who may be put off by its encyclopedia-like flatness.
Eve Zibart is the restaurant critic for the Weekend section of The Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion (Menasha Ridge).