Tag Archives: Wine history

Geek Notes — New Wine Books For February

January and February are the doldrums of winter. They don’t feature the festivities of December–only snow, freezing cold and dark gray days. It just plain sucks. But eventually March and spring will be on the horizon.

Photo by Daniel Trimboli. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

One of the trademark clues of Gruner Veltliner in a blind tasting is the presence of white pepper. This comes from the compound rotundone that forms naturally in the grapes.

While we’re popping vitamin D supplements and counting down the days till pitchers and catchers report, let’s take a look at a few new and upcoming wine books.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Third Edition by Neel Burton (Paperback release February 3rd, 2019)

I own the original 2014 edition of Burton’s book that he did with James Flewellen. It is handy but, in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s correctly named.

What I had initially hoped for was a book that would teach you some of the tips and tricks to blind tasting. Like for instance, if you detect black or white pepper in a wine, you should know that is caused by the compound rotundone.

There are only a handful of grape varieties that contain this compound–most notably Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Schioppettino. Detecting this during a blind tasting flight is a huge clue. Furthermore, anecdotal and some scientific analysis has shown that cooler climates and vintages increase the concentration of rotundone and “pepperiness” of the wine. This can be another clue in nailing down wine region and vintage.

That was the kind of insight and details that I was hoping for with Burton and Flewellen’s book. You get a little but not quite to the extent I was looking for in a book marketing itself as a blind tasting guide. Instead, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting tilts more to the “Guide to Wine” side offering a (very well done) overview of the major regions and wines of the world.

Chapter 4 does walk you through the blind tasting process and the Appendix gives a “crib sheet” of common flavors and structure which is very useful. But that’s about it.

However, I’m still buying this new edition
blind tasting crib sheets from Burton's book

Example of the blind tasting “crib sheets” in the appendix of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

That’s because it’s an excellent guide to wine that is similar to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe. Burton’s book doesn’t list benchmark producers like Parr’s book does but they both highlight the distinction of terroir that shows up in the wines from various regions. They’re a bit like condensed versions (362 and 352 pages, respectively) of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (1008 pages) with a bit more focus on the taste profiles and terroir of each region.

I’ve gotten plenty of good use out of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting to make the new version a worthwhile investment. Plus, it is possible that this updated version will go more into those blind tasting details that I crave.

The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion by Janet Z. Wang (Hardcover released on January 24th, 2019)

Back in November, I highlighted Loren Mayshark’s Inside the Chinese Wine Industry which has been a great read. As I noted in that edition of Geek Notes, China is a significant player on the global wine market. While the interest of the industry has been mostly on their buying power, the large size and diverse terroir of mainland China offer exciting potential for production.

Photo by Quadell. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A bronze Gu, or ceremonial wine vessel, from the Shang Dynasty dating to the 12th or 11th century.

It is in the best interest of any wine student to start exploring Chinese wine. I recently got geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz and can’t wait to find more examples. In addition to Mayshark’s book, Suzanne Mustacich’s Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines has been highly informative as well.

But both of those were written by non-native writers. That is what make’s Janet Z. Wang’s Chinese Wine Renaissance intriguing. Wang spent her childhood in China before moving to the United Kingdom as a teenager. There she studied Chinese history and culture before developing an interest in wine while at Cambridge.

Now she runs her blog, Winepeek, and contributes to Decanter China. In between her writings, she teaches masterclasses on Chinese wine.

On her blog, she has a slideshow with wine tasting suggestions that gives a sneak peek into what her book covers. With a foreword and endorsement from Oz Clarke, I have a feeling that Wang’s book is going to become the benchmark reference for Chinese wine.

Decoding Spanish Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to the High Value, World Class Wines of Spain by Andrew Cullen and Ryan McNally (Paperback released on January 24th, 2019)

Kirkland brand Champagne

Now granted, Costco doesn’t sell many Cremants. This might explain why the Costco Wine Blog folks were so blown away by this $20 Champagne. But compared to many Cremant de Bourgogne and Alsace in the $15-20 range, it was fairly ho-hum.

Andrew Cullen is the founder of CostcoWineBlog.com that has been reviewing wines found at Costco stores for years. While I don’t always agree with their reviews (like my contrarian take on the Kirkland Champagne) I still find the site to be an enjoyable read.

Beyond the blog, Cullen has co-authored quick (around 100 pages or so) beginner wine guides to French, Italian and now Spanish wines. He also wrote the even quicker read Around the Wine World in 40 Pages: An Exploration Guide for the Beginning Wine Enthusiast.

While these books aren’t going to be helpful for Diploma students, they are great resources for folks taking WSET Level 1 and Level 2 as well as Certified Specialist of Wine exams. I particularly liked how Decoding Italian Wine went beyond just the big name Italian wine regions such as Chianti, Brunello and Barolo to get into under-the-radar areas like Carmignano, Gavi and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Plus for $9-10, the books are super cheap as well.

French Wines and Vineyards: And the Way to Find Them (Classic Reprint) by Cyrus Redding (Hardcover released on January 18th, 2019)

This is for my fellow hardcore geeks.

I am a sucker for reprints of classical texts. I especially adore ones featured in the bibliographies of seemingly every great wine history book. Such is the esteem that the British journalist Cyrus Redding holds among Masters of Wines like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, page 110 Artwork by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Redding passed in 1870 so he didn’t get a chance to witness the full scale of devastation on French vineyards caused by phylloxera.
This cartoon is from an 1890 magazine that describes the pest as “A True Gourmet” that targetted the best vineyards.

First published in 1860, French Wines and Vineyards gives a snapshot of the French wine industry in the mid 19th-century. Written just after the 1855 Bordeaux classification and only a few years before phylloxera would make its appearance in the Languedoc in 1863, Redding documents a hugely influential time in the history of French wines.

Pairing this book with a reading of the 19th-century chapters in Hugh Johnson’s Vintage and Rod Phillips’ French Wine: A History would be a fabulous idea for wine students wanting to understand this key period.

One additional tip. Hardcover editions of classic texts look nice on the shelf. But if you’re a frequent annotator like me then you probably want to go paperback. Forgotten Books released a paperback version of Redding’s work back in 2017 that you can get a new copy of for less than $12 right now.

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Wine Geek Notes 5/9/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0Summer’s coming which for me brings visions of lounging in the sun with a nice glass of rosé and something geeky to read.

As I get my summer reading list in order, here are a few new wine books that are being released in May and June.

Rosé Cocktails: 40 deliciously different pink-wine based drinks by Julia Charles. Released May 8th.

Speaking of rosé, I must admit that I shudder at thought of “frosé” with its syrupy sweet slushie take on the Provençal classic. Soda-pop wine cocktails have never been my thing. But my curiosity is piqued at what talented bartenders can do crafting serious wine-based cocktail recipes. The popularity of Sherry cocktails has helped sparked new life and interest in the phenomenal wines of Jerez–taking Sherries out of your grandmother’s decanter and turning them into Adonis.

I fret that with the flood of really crappy rosés on the market, we may need to hit rock-bottom first with our brosé, frosé, 40 oz bottles and gummy bears before we’ll get a “renaissance” of taking rosé seriously again. Judging from the book’s description, Rosé Cocktails may not be a rudder steering us towards that seriousness (compared to say Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine and Elizabeth Gabay’s Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution which have thankfully less liberal mentionings of “frosé”) but I’m hopeful that Charles’ book will at least offer the bros 39 other options apart from turning their rosés into wannabe frozen margaritas.

A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present by Mark Forsyth. Released May 8th.

Considering this is written by the same guy (The Inky Fool) who wrote the uber-geeky The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, I have a feeling that there will be a lot of fun word play and nerdy trivia in this 286 page “short history”.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Frankly a couple glasses of Madiera puts me in the mood more to cuddle with dogs than anything else.


In fact, I would LOVE to see a book focusing on the etymology of grape names and wine words. You can find bits and pieces of things in various books (like Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes) but even that doesn’t go quite into detail about things like how did the Esgana Cão (Sercial) grape of Madeira and Bucelas DOC get the name “dog strangler”?

Wine Grapes suggests that it was because of the grape’s “fiery acidity” but that makes more sense as an explanation for the Friuli red grape Tazzelenghe (tongue cutter) than it does for “dog strangling”. Then you have Mourvedre which has a similar synonym “Estrangle Chien” that is instead attributed to the grape’s high tannins and tough skins.

I’m not expecting A Short History of Drunkenness to clear any of that up but mostly I’m just excited by Forsyth’s foray into the world of wine and hopeful that he’ll keep applying his sharp wit and geeky gifts to more vinous volumes.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine by Kevin Begos. Release date June 12th.

Wine wasn’t necessarily “invented” but its ancient origins and how civilizations accidentally discovered it, time and time again, is a fascinating topic. Two must-reads for those wanting to geek out about wine’s origins are Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture and Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine.

From the book’s description, it looks like Tasting the Past is going to focus on Begos’ personal journey through the modern remnants of ancient wine cultures in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Caucasus and the Americas–probably intermingling with historical details of wine origins in those places. That is an interesting approach that will be different from McGovern and Johnson’s work or even Paul Lukacs’ 2007 book Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.

I’m particularly intrigued by Tasting the Past’s promise to explore “distinctive wines from a new generation of local grapes” which suggests plenty of geeky fodder involving unique grape varieties and characterful wines that depart from the “same ole, same ole”.

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