Summer reading list…

Summer is a time for reading.  If we are lucky, we are able to take some time off to escape our daily routine for a few days and catch up on the pile of reading we have accumulated during the winter.

I was up north for a week and a half recently and took just such a stash of books:  books that have sat in my study unread, with low prospects for my attention without a drastic change in my routine.

I had previously read one of the books – while studying for my Diploma.  A second book I started to read 7 years ago and couldn’t get into it with enough grip to finish at the time.  The others were untouched in every way.

So, I read the centennial history of the Montreal Canadiens, 100 years of Glory by D’Arcy Jenish.  I also read Al Rosen’s latest book, Swindlers, a very readable tome on the exposures Canadians have to financial malfeasance in the lax world of securities regulation in Canada.  I highly recommend both books.

By this time it was time to get into the wine books, and did I ever.  I re-read Understanding Wine Technology by my friend, David Bird, MW.  I read Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Wine and I finally got all the way through Noble Rot by William Echikson.

Bird’s book is the reference book on winemaking for WSET Diploma students and Master of Wine candidates. It is subtitled The Science of Wine Explained and is written as a book for the non-scientist.  This is a fascinating book to simply read – as opposed to study – and is both highly informative and extremely well-written. I decided to re-read the book to see how the new third edition handled developments in winemaking and different winemaking treatments and packaging since the second edition was published in 2005.

Between editions David added some 50 pages of material on the distinctions between winemaking techniques for red, white, rose and sparkling wines, filtration, maturation, closures, bottling and storage. The photos have been updated to reflect new tools and all in all this is a very professional edition when compared to its older sibling. If want to dig deeper into winemaking this book is an excellent way to do so.

Making Sense of Wine was first written by Matt Kramer in 1989 and was updated in a second edition in 2004 to address the dramatic changes that had occurred during the 1990’s, “the most transforming ten-year span in the history of fine wine”, according to Kramer. This is one of several Making Sense books, including titles on California, Italian Wine and Burgundy. In this foundation book Kramer comments on the history and evolution to the early twenty-first century of such core elements as wine making, viticulture, appellations,  packaging, storage and maturation, wine writers/critics and food matching.  This is an elegant book and is well-crafted and engaging.

The historic aspects of each chapter remind us of how our concept of wine is a late-twentieth century phenomenon.  The bibliography is a cross-section of 19th and 20th century sources, obscure and varied in their content: historic, cultural, psychological and scientific. Kramer has done his homework and he doesn’t force the reader to re-do his work.  This is an effortless read and is a book to pull off your bookshelf, open randomly, read and learn something.

The best chapter is a very effective overview of food and wine pairing where Kramer describes the rationale for a number of pairing options for a selection of diverse and sometimes exotic menu items.  He also comes up with a universal wine stem recommendation for those readers who don’t want a cupboard full of unique glasses for every different varietal under the sun: Riedel Vinum # 416/15 – Zinfandel/Chianti Classico, the same stem used at the Decanter World Wine Awards for every wine tasted over the judging week.

I wanted to read this book in anticipation of hearing the man speak when he visits the upcoming i4c event later this month. I look forward to hearing his thoughts on Chardonnay, cool-climate, Ontario or whatever else he may see fit to talk about.

The third book, Noble Rot, is a long-winded but engaging book that discusses the changes that occurred in Bordeaux over a ten year period leading up to the 2001 harvest – changes driven by the growing importance of Robert Parker, the challenge to Bordeaux tradition wrought by the Right Bank garagistes and such break-away players such as Jeffrey Davies who helped open up the US market for makers who were not part of the centuries-old Bordeaux establishment. The role of consultants such as Michel Rolland is also described in a fairly even-handed manner.  These change factors are overlain on top of a very good description of the mechanics of the Bordeaux marketplace, the history of some of the finest properties such as Château d’Yquem and Mouton Rothschild.

For wine lovers who may know only a little about the complications of Bordeaux this is an excellent description of this unique place on the planet of wine.

The interesting aspect of the book is the over-arching conclusion drawn by Echikson: that the rarified world of Bordeaux wine, represented by the Classified Growths could only tumble from the lofty heights of the 2000 vintage, quality and price, both.  With the benefit of a 2011 vantage point, it is clear Echikson was an unnecessary skeptic.  Several vintages have surpassed 2000 in the meantime, with 2009 and 2010 seeming to achieve new heights, and with prices flying even higher as the critics release their scores.

While this might sound like a cobbled together set of books, there was a strong thematic intersection across the three books.  First, consider the books approach the same theme of change each in a different way: bird is technical. Kramer is an historian and interpreter and Echikson is the fact-based reporter.

In each case, the writer is making comment on the changes in the world of wine that result in loss of place due to the application of common techniques that deliver wines made to appeal to consumers whose tastes are formed by third parties such as Robert Parker and the Marvin Shanken team at Wine Spectator.

Both Bird and Kramer, I know, lament this development and I think we will see a new wave of books that will chronicle the swing of the wine pendulum back to the world of terroir and place – originals, as Kramer calls these wines.  We have already seen a first shot across the bow of sameness with Terry Thiese’s book, Reading Between the Wines (WVN 113), and I predict there are more to come.

For me, this summer is off to a great reading start.  Now on to the next pile of books…

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

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Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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