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Buying guides

The Hachette Guide to French Wines 2004
After a year’s absence, we have the English translation of the Hachette guide once again. I’m glad. I’m a fan of this guide, which includes over 9000 French wines. I’ve reviewed it before, and refer you to the previous reviews for a summary of its style, layout, strengths and shortcomings. This new edition is now published by Mitchell Beazley, and it’s a bit more colourful but otherwise nothing has changed. The reasons I feel that this is such a useful guide are (1) that it’s got the contact details of decent producers in all the French wine regions, so it is an invaluable guide when touring; (2) it gives a French perspective on French wine that isn’t dictated by the characteristics and limitations of the UK wine market; and (3) it gives a real sense of the rich diversity of French wines. Of course, the coverage isn’t fully comprehensive because some of the elite producers don’t submit their wines, and typically just one wine from each producer is showcased. To finish off with there’s a useful glossary and no less than four different indexes (appellations, communes, producers and wines) – an essential utility in this sort of book. Well worth the money, I reckon.

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The 'Which?' Wine Guide 2003
By Susan Keevil with Susy Atkins
Paperback - 496 pages (31 October, 2002)
Which? Books; ISBN: 085202911X

The 'Which' Wine Guide is unusual. Unusual, but useful. First, it's not really a buying guide in that it doesn't recommend specific wines. Second, it's really two books in one. The first part of the book is a gazeteer of the world of wine, taking you on a tour of the various wine producing countries. This is pretty well written in a 'jaunty' style, although it gets a bit carried away at times (e.g. 'Chenin Blanc in its drier forms is invariably bested by riper, frutier versions' p 155). Where opinions are expressed they are pretty reasonable, and I feel this would be a handy, readable guide for the average consumer. The second part of the book is, I feel, a little less useful. It consists of reviews of some 200 UK wine retail outlets, a feature that is unique to this book. After a while, though, these begin to get a little repetitious -- after all, there is only so much you can say about a wine list. The book finishes with a glossary of grapes, wine terms and so on -- well done, but fairly standard fare. There's also a short section reviewing wine websites, and from my perspective it is not ideal that this section is written by my leading competitor (Which? guides claim to be independent). I don't want to seem negative about what is actually a very useful book, but I wonder if it loses something by attempting to do just a little bit too much.   

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Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Book 2003
- 320 pages (3 October, 2002)
Little, Brown; ISBN: 0316859621

As one of the most visible wine writers, Oz Clarke needs little introduction. This year his pocket guide comes bundled with a vastly slimmed down pamphlet-like version of his wine buyer’s guide, which used to be a substantial book in its own right, albeit one with a slightly confused format. This now consists of little more than Oz’s key recommendations a list of retailers, so for the purposes of this review I’ll focus on the pocket guide.

What do you get? A pocket-format book with 300 pages packed with concise yet readable entries on grape varieties, regions and producers. Coverage is pretty even handed: the new world gets a good look in, without the old classics being neglected. Where specific wines are mentioned these are graded on a three star system, with one star designating a particularly good wine in its category, two stars an excellent one and three stars something exceptional. Good cross referencing and a thorough index complete what is a highly useful guide. Where opinions are expressed they are inevitably balanced and defensible. I find it hard to disagree much with Oz, except for his over-enthusiastic championing of Chilean wines, but this is entirely forgiveable in the context of a book written primarily to guide non-geeks through the complexity of wine.  Clearly written and user-friendly, this is the best of the pocket guides and is thoroughly recommended.

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Hachette wine guide 2002 (English translation)
1344 pages revised edition (17 January, 2002)
Cassell Illustrated; ISBN: 0304362484

The second English translation of the wonderful Hachette Guide, this describes itself as the French Wine Bible. It’s a region-by-region guide to the leading wines of France, compiled by a team of hundreds of wine experts. To make their selection, this team tastes 30 000 wines, of which 9000 make the guide. Each of the wines that is selected is given a rating: the wines included but not given a star rating are considered to be typical of the area and worth a mention; one star is a good wine; two stars is an excellent wine; and three stars is an exceptional wine and a perfect example of the appellation. There’s also an extra award (wonderfully French in its quirkiness) called the ‘coups de coeur’. This doesn’t translate easily to English, but refers to wines the tasters fell in love with at first sip, and they get their labels reproduced in the guide along their entry. Interestingly, not all the coups de coeur winners are three star wines. I’m glad of the imprecision of this scale: with so many different palates contributing to the assessments, any rating attempting to be more exact would be a bit silly.  

The book kicks off with an article on lutté raisonée (translated here as ‘rationalised wine cultivation’, even though it is known more widely by its French title). Then there’s the usual round-up of ‘what’s new in….’ each of the French regions, looking here at the 2000 vintage, and followed by some general information about making, storing and serving wine. But the bulk of the book is taken up by the entries on 9000 wines. This is brilliantly useful, and the reason that I’ve bought the book in the past. You get details of the vineyard holdings, the production level, the price bracket and contact details for each producer, plus a detailed tasting note on the wine in question. The utility of this book lies in its comprehensiveness, and the fact that it is completely rewritten each year. Yes, the assessments suffer the usual problems of different palate preferences, and no doubt there is a bit of politicking involved in each of the regional sections, but ratings aside there is simply no other guide that gives this much up-to-date information on French wines. Especially recommended to anyone touring French wine country, when the producer contact details and visiting arrangements are particularly useful.

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Hachette Wine Guide 2001 (English translation)
2000 Hachette UK (Cassell) Hardcover, 1312 pages (ISBN 1842020676)
So the Hachette guide finally gets an English translation. Good news for all who have struggled through previous versions with their patchy 'O' level French (myself included). For those not familiar with this guide, let me try to explain how it works. Subtitled 'The French wine Bible' (it's printed on rather bible-like thin paper), in its 1300+ pages it describes some 9000 wines from across the regions of France. These are selected from a total of 28 000 entries by a panel of some 800 wine professionals. They don't all get together in one place, but the assessment occurs within each region, with small committees of three or so experts working their way through a few dozen wines in a day. They taste blind, and wines that make it into the guide are rated on a scale of four points (they are awarded zero to three stars), and are written up with a short descriptive paragraph. IN addition, producer contact details and opening hours/visiting arrangements are given (a very useful feature). There's also the added complication of the 'coup de coeurs': these are wines that were 'love at first sip' to the tasters, and their labels are reproduced in the book. Somewhat confusingly, many of the coup de coeur winners are two-star and not three-star wines. (Leafing through, I also found one wine -- 1997 Pavie-Macquin -- that has a coup de couer but no stars!) In addition to the descriptions of the wines, a large chunk of the book is given to assessing the 1999 vintage in each region, and there's other useful background information.

So is it worth buying? I find it a tremendously useful book and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in French wines. However, like any guide of this nature, it has it flaws: the fact that wines have to be submitted means that some big names are missing; thus if a wine is absent, you don't know whether it didn't make the grade or simply wasn't submitted. In this respect, Hachette is probably at its strongest outside the classic areas of Bordeaux and Burgundy, where the coverage is denser. Another problem is the fact that you don't know who is responsible for the tasting notes: after all, tasting 'by committee' is a dubious process. At least the imprecision of the simple scoring system is to some extent an acknowledgement of this weakness. Overall, though, the sheer size of the scope of this guide makes this an extremely useful resource, and its utlity more than compensates for these weaknesses. I'd say buy it.
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organic.jpg (3767 bytes)The great organic wine guide by Hilary Wright
2000 Piatkus, London (ISBN 0 7499 1998 1)

Recent years have seen a welcome change of emphasis in the world of wine. There's been a swing away from focusing on what takes place in the winery (the 'cult of the winemaker') back towards what goes on in the vineyard. Consequently, interest in organic and biodynamic wines has burgeoned. However, if you are a wine geek with an interest in organic wine, I'd suggest that Hilary Wright's book is not for you. Instead, Hilary is preaching to the converted: the book is pitched at die-hard believers in organic food who have a side interest in organic wine. Her basic assumption is that that organic viticulture is always 'better' and preferable to other forms of vineyard management, and that the reader also accepts the rather esoteric claims of biodynamics (life forces, alignment of planets, homeopathic sprays, etc) without question. The book is also pitched at a very popular level: the snappy, chummy, tabloid-style prose gets a bit wearing after a while. From my perspective, it's a shame. I would have valued a less one-sided, more considered discussion of some of the more interesting issues here (How does biodynamics really work? How can conventional producers reduce their reliance on spraying? What are the health risks she keeps mentioning in connection with conventional viticulture?). Once or twice Hilary begins to develop the germ of an interesting discussion, but overall there's simply too much unsubstantiated organic propoganda here to make it a credible read. The most useful features of this book are the guide to producers (Vinceremos and Vintage Roots are the two leading souces of organic wines in the UK) and the tasting notes (although this section will date very fast). Don't get me wrong, I have a sympathy for and interest in organic wine, but this is not a satisfying book for the thinking wine lover.
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Jancis Robinson tastes the best Portuguese table wines
1999 Livros Cotovia, Lisboa, Portugal (ISBN 972 8423 73 X)

Back in 1999, Portuguese publishers Livros Cotovia had a great idea. They decided to publish a book in which the leading Portuguese table wines were assessed from an international perspective. For this task they (wisely) chose Jancis Robinson. Then, after a preliminary selection procedure they sent two bottles each of some 224 wines to her holiday home in the Languedoc, she tasted them, and this book is the result. 

It’s a slim, pocket-sized volume, attractively produced and laid out, with the bulk of the book devoted to the wines themselves. Each wine -- 171 reds, 50 whites and 3 rosés -- has its own page, and together with a tasting note there's a label image and some background information. Interestingly, as well as writing detailed tasting notes, Jancis (rather unusually for her) scores each of the wines on a 20-point scale. Following these notes, at the end of the book, there are also producer contact details, a map and an index.

The great strength of this book is that Jancis is refreshingly honest in her appraisal of these wines, sometimes to the point of cruelty. This makes this book invaluable: after all, it is rare to find anyone writing in English about Portuguese wines who is not already a committed enthusiast, which can bias, or at least temper judgement. (In fact, it's rare to find UK wine journalists criticising any wines, as they tactfully [or timidly?] tend not to write up wines they don't like.) In terms of ratings, the whites generally fare pretty badly here. For the reds, most of them tend to fall into the 14-16 point range, with just a handful scoring 18 and above. For the wines I'm familiar with, my impressions correlate pretty well with those presented here, although as a keen fan of Portuguese wines I'd probably be more generous in some of my ratings.

I'm very enthusiastic about this publication. OK, it isn't a serious piece of wine literature -- after all, it is little more than a collection of 224 tasting notes. But its significance is that it fits into an important and previously empty niche. If you are at all interested in Portuguese wines, you really ought to buy a copy of this book. It's not widely available, so your best bet is to contact the publishers directly, who will be happy to quote a price including delivery to the UK. And I look forward to the day when an English-language guide to Portuguese wines is published on an annual basis.

Contact details:
Livros Cotovia

Rua Nova da Trindade 24
1200-303 Lisboa
Phone: 351 21 3471447  Fax: 351 21 3470467
E-mail: livroscotovia@mail.telepac.pt 

Oz Clarke's wine buying guide 2000 Websters/Little Brown and Company, London, 1999
The basis of this book is a database consisting of the lists from the various wine merchants, high street shops and supermarkets. This is then supplemented by commentary on the different regions, and a quick guide to the leading producers from each. Finally, details of the major wine retailers are included. It is a successful formula and is a handy, well written guide to what is available in the UK market place. Perhaps my own criticism of the book is that Oz is a little too self-confident that his opinions are right. He sees himself leading us into a new dawn of bold-flavoured wines ('my kind of flavours' he keeps repeating): in one telling phrase, he says rather pompously, 'And if you'll follow, I'll lead'. Hmm. More humility please. £9.99

Superplonk 2000/Streetplonk 2000 by Malcolm Gluck. Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughton, 1999
Two books, the former covering supermarket wines, and the latter concetrating on wines available from high street wine shops. For those not familiar with Malcolm Gluck, he is the wine correspondent of the Guardian newspaper who is now better known for his woeful BBC TV show Gluck, Gluck, Gluck. Gluck is a self-styled champion of the ordinary wine drinker, fighting against the perceived snobbery and stuffiness of the wine world. He has what TV executives call 'popular appeal', which means that he is irritatingly jovial, rather silly, and plays to the gallery. These books go through many of the wines on sale from the various outlets, giving a numerical score out of 20, the price bracket the wine falls into (A-G), and a line or two about the wine (you can't really call these tasting notes). Examples of the rather unhelpful descriptions Gluck uses include 'Too juicy for eight quid' (St Hallett Shiraz 1997)'; 'Indian cooks could build dishes around it' (D'Arenberg Custodian Grenache 1996); and 'Very juicy, this vintage' (Abadia Retuerta 1996). These are not wine guides for geeks, and are of moderate usefulness for non-geeks. To his credit, Gluck correctly describes the International wine challenge as 'silly', but overall he comes across as smug, cocky and populist. £5.99 each.

Le Guide Hachette des Vins de France 1999 Hachette Livre, Paris, 1998 (ISBN 2 012 36537 1).
The latest edition of this valuable guide to French wines is a 'must buy', even if you have only a rudimentary working knowledge of French. Overall, some 25 000 wines are tasted by various juries of 800 experts, and of these about 30% make the grade and are described in this book. Of those that are described, in contrast to the pseudo-precision of 100 point scales, a three star scale is used to indicate wines of increasing levels of interest. It is an approach that I find appealing. Of course, the weakness of this style of trial by jury is that inevitably there will be incosistencies, and there is going to be a lack of continuity and noise introduced just because of individual taste preferences and the differing expertise of tasters. With each description there are details of the producer, with information on visiting and cellar-door sales: this is an invaluable resource if you ever intend touring French wine country. As well as the usual material on buying, storing and the production of wine, there is also an extensive section devoted to the mysterious art of pairing wine with food. Some of you might find the vintage chart -- going back to 1900! -- of some use. Together with commentary on each region, maps and vintage information, this book is strongly recommended to all who have an interest in French wine, and especially so to those who intend visiting vineyards in this fascinating country. Very fairly priced at 165ff.

The wine buyer's guide by Robert Parker. Third edition. Dorling Kindersley, 1993 (ISBN 0 7513 0067 5). Robert Parker is a hugely influential wine writer famous for his 100 point scale for assessing wines. You can guarantee that if Parker gives a good score to a previously little-known wine it will sell out rapidly and prices will subsequently sky rocket. Some love him but others object to the way one individual's taste can have such a profound effect on the world of wine. None the less, the guide makes fascinating reading and the man is concerned with searching out good value wines as well as describing wines that few will ever get to taste. Whatever people think of his powerful influence on the wine world, he is undoubtedly a competent and hard-working individual who has earned his fame and fortune. One quibble I have with the guide is a purely personal one—he devotes very little space to Australian wines, and none to the wines of South Africa. Perhaps this will change with Australian wines beginning to break through into the US marketplace. Take his scores with a pinch of salt and accept that he can get it wrong occasionally, and Parker's guide deserves a place on your bookshelf. Note: there are now more recent versions of the wine buyer' guide available. 1158 pp, £30.