The best wine books of 2013

2013 has been another banner year when it comes to release of new books on wine.  I suspect not all readers follow this universe as closely as I do so herewith a short update on a handful of titles that might be helpful as gift suggestions.

Jancis Robinson has her name on two books from 2013: the first was American Wine, which I reviewed earlier this year, followed by the 7th edition of The World Atlas of Wine, published in October.  Jancis is listed as co-author of both books, collaborating respectively with Linda Murphy and Hugh Johnson.

First published in 1971, the Atlas has become an important and reliable reference for students around the world.  The best way to learn about wine is to travel to the wine regions of the world so you can best understand the geography of those places: the terrain, climate, soils, and so on.  If you can’t travel then second best is a good topographical map.

The Atlas is replete with maps, good maps, many of which are topographical.  The maps are detailed and display appellations, sub-appellations and the sites of important producers.

In addition to the maps, the factors of importance to the wines of each region and important sub-region are described in very good detail, in well-written prose.

The first 45 pages or so of the Atlas are devoted to grapes, viticulture, winemaking, maturation, and statistics.  This section is an excellent resource with wonderful illustrations and photographs to depict the content of the text.

The rest of the book is organized by country and region with detailed drill-downs to sub—zones for the most important winemaking places, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Australia, California, and Italy.

The book has a distinct Old World focus: France has 100 pages of content, Italy 34 pages and the rest of the Old World another 100 pages.  The New World is covered in just under 100 pages and is dominated by coverage of Australia with 22 pages of content and California (17 pages).  Canada holds its position at 2 pages, as does China.

You might ask why we need another update of a book that dates from the early 1970’s.  It’s very simple: the world of wine is in a state of constant evolution and as regions develop, the story evolves, as do the data on these places.  The content in this book is richer than ever, so while the book is almost exactly the same physical size as the 6th edition, the font used is smaller and there is much more detail in the 7th  without the need for more physical heft.

I lent my copy of the 6th edition to a neighbour before they travelled to a wine region earlier this fall.  They were very interested in the book, something that surprised me: this is a specialist book that delves more deeply than the average wine lover seeks, or so I thought.  The fact is, the book is approachable and readable and full of maps, photographs and labels, all of which make the places of wine come alive.  The conclusion: this is a perfect resource, arguably the only resource a casual observer of the wine scene might need.

Please note the book is heavy so you may need to reinforce the structure of your coffee table – okay, perhaps I exaggerate…  Otherwise, it is highly recommended!

A second notable book is one just out: The New California Wine, by the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné.  This book chronicles the current evolution of the wines of California and their makers in a compelling and engaging fashion.

California built its reputation on the back of a handful of factors; warm and predictable climate conditions in places like Napa and Sonoma; modern winemaking techniques that delivered intense and bold wines to a welcoming marketplace;  use of popular grapes that became core to brand California: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; early validation of the California style and its quality at the now famous Judgment of Paris; the mystique and marketing efforts of a small handful of leaders, such as Robert Mondavi and Jess Jackson, and; a cadre of influential wine writers who helped make California wines and their style important to the world.

The Bonné thesis is simple: California is changing in ways that have its growers and winemakers on a path to behave more like Old World makers: that is, less intervention in winemaking in the interest of making wines that reflect the places they come from.

The book provides a lens into the history of California and docuemnts well a number of current issues that the industry is dealing with such as too much sun (i.e. too much ripeness), water shortages, AVA’s that are more marketing and politics than distinct growing zones, etc.  Bonné is a good writer, and he has a point of view, which he expresses willingly and frequently.  This is a provocative book and Bonné tells an interesting story.

You will find a detailed analysis of the major winegrowing zones of California and a profile and assessment of the major makers in the state as well as an interesting profile of the major grape varieties and the best makers, organized by variety.

This is an excellent book that will be of interest to even the casual reader simply because it is well written, in an objective and transparent tone.  You will learn a great deal as did I and it will pique your interest enough to seek wines that you may have passed over in the past.

The last two items on my list are not books but videos: Somm and Red Obsession.  These are new titles that once again will be of interest to professionals and wine lovers, both.

Somm is a documentary of the journey taken by aspirants to the Master Sommelier (MS) designation, an even more rarified qualification than the more widely-recognized Master of Wine (MW).  I won’t spoil the story but it documents the rigorous study/training and the even more rigorous assessment process candidates must endure on the road to success.  More fail than pass and yet candidates keep coming forward, as lemmings jump into the sea.  This is a wonderful movie to watch to understand better what is going on in the world of wine, People Department.

Red Obsession is the story of wealth in China and how the very wealthy have adopted Bordeaux Classified Growth wines as a sign of their wealth.  Readers will be aware of the dramatic increases in price these wines have experienced over the past three decades.  Red Obsession tells the story of how this growth continues at an accelerated pace, now at the hands of insatiable demand from newly wealthy countries like China.  This movie was made in Australia and features Russell Crowe as the narrator and reflects a non-North American perspective: refreshing!.  It is a great watch and will give insightful perspectives on both Bordeaux and China.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.


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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