I’m sometimes asked to write about wine for beginners, but where to start? My answer is that it needs a book. There are many of those, of course. I often find one thing or another I don’t like about them, but it’s hard to judge when you are not, in fact, a beginner. Yet a few weeks ago I bought a copy of the book brought out to complement the courses put on by London merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, out of their historic premises on St James’s Street. The book, called Exploring & Tasting Wine, seems to me a little different from what I’ve seen before. It may well be all that you need to get to grips with the subject to begin with (though you could consider Jane Parkinson’s “Wine & Food” to cover that subject in more detail), and it is by no means necessary to attend the Berry Bros course to get the most out of the book. Indeed, as Berry’s Wine School Head, Rebecca Lamont, says in her Introduction, “…not every wine-lover is in reach of the heart of London”.
There is a lot of mystique around wine, and wine knowledge. At dinners it isn’t rare by any means to meet intelligent people with responsible jobs and a healthy interest in all sorts of subjects who say they know nothing about wine, and yet they drink it in restaurants, take a bottle to a dinner party, and perhaps have a rack of a few bottles at home (usually placed rather frighteningly next to their hot oven).
This book is really just what these people need. It helps to build a framework around which a little knowledge will help the drinker to work out what they like to drink and why. Onto the simplest beginnings (for me it included Bordeaux, Chateauneuf and the newest thing at the time, Australian Chardonnay) you are then able to build a world of vinous pleasure.
The first twenty pages of Exploring & Tasting Wine cover an introduction to wine tasting. Topics include essentials like balance in wine (components like tannin, alcohol, acidity etc), the flavour spectrum and how wine is made. Already we see the three key elements coming together which make this book so attractive to beginners. First, colourful diagramatic representations of the concepts discussed (see the flavour spectrum diagram in the photo below). Second, the text, which is no dense essay but easy to digest chunks clearly set out. Third, we have the photos. Some of these matt images (by Jason Lowe) are beautifully evocative, of a type which does make you want to be “there, now”, but many are helpfully illustrative of a winemaking processs, or vineyard work.
There are maps too. Some have suggested that these are the book’s only weak point, but I disagree. This is not a Wine Atlas. The maps used are all clear and concise, and give enough information for a beginner, who would probably prefer a cartographical snapshot over a detailed cadastral carte of, say, the Côte-de-Nuits Crus with contour lines and spot heights.
The heart of the book can be found in the five chapters, or “Sessions” on major grape variety groups (for example they group Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay/Sémillon together in one session, Cabernets Sauvignon/Franc and Merlot in another). The usual analysis of aromas and flavours is there, of course (with more use of diagrams), but with plenty of interesting background information. This is for me part of what makes the book so stimulating. The company’s wine experts, many being Masters of Wine, contribute valuable insights. It’s nice to see a bit of digression. Catriona Felstead MW has a page about preconceptions that Riesling will be sweet, Barbara Drew asks indeed “What is Sweet?”, and Demetri Walters MW discusses how ancient methods are being rediscovered, among many others.
What the book doesn’t attempt to do is go too far. There’s a little bit of science, but only enough to explain a process clearly, described as soundbites, such as the nine or ten lines explaining how fermentation works. You don’t get pages on many of the worthy grape varieties which the adventurous wine explorer will come to appreciate (though you do get a few paragraphs along the lines of “Also Try…Zinfandel” at the end of the Syrah/Shiraz Section). Neither do you get to learn about many of the less well know wine regions of the world. But this is a book aimed primarily at people with no prior knowledge, for whom Vin Jaune production criteria or the legal grape varieties for Liguria’s various DOCs might be geek-facts too far.
The last section covers choosing and enjoying wine, everything from food matching, serving wine, glasses and storage. Appendix I is a very useful blind tasting crib sheet which I’d suggest is highly useful even for so-called experts, whilst Appendix II adds in some more maps, EU Wine Law Facts, the various Bordeaux Classifications (hmmm!) and the answers to the fun quizzes which follow each session, testing the knowledge learned.
Exploring & Tasting Wine is nicely produced, somewhat in the style of Berry Bros’ first publication, Jasper Morris MW’s essential book on Burgundy (albeit in a different format). Like that work, it has a contemporary matt feel throughout, the text is clear and easy to read and there are enough photos here to paint a picture of how beautiful the world of wine can be without turning a practical guide into a coffee table book. You even get a free tasting notes pad, slipped into the front cover. It won’t replace a good cellar book, but is doubtless useful for those attending a course at St James’s.
Maybe the best thing about this book is that I don’t think it’s actually just for absolute beginners at all. I’ve enjoyed a decades-long passionate affair with wine, probably amounting to an obsession in some ways. I certainly found useful information here, along with things I already knew explained in a different way. And some of the digressions are well worth reading on their own terms. Excellent.
Exploring & Tasting Wine (A wine course with digressions) is published by Berry Bros. & Rudd Press, 2015. It runs to 240pp and costs £30 from Berry Bothers’ Web site, www.bbr.com