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Reference works

The Wine and Food Lover's Guide to Portugal by Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter (446 pages, Inn House Publishing, 18 Oct 2007, ISBN-10: 0955706904, ISBN-13: 978-0955706905)

I’m a big fan of Portugal and its wines, so it’s really exciting to see a book that gives thorough coverage to Portuguese wine, but putting this firmly in the context of tourism and food. Husband and wife team Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter’s self-published volume is a labour of love, but unlike many self-published books, this is beautifully (and professionally) designed, and is printed in full colour. The book really is quite comprehensive, and an awesome amount of research has gone into its production. Its 445 pages give a full account, region-by-region, of wine producers, accommodation and restaurants, together with useful maps and lots of colour photographs. The writing style is accessible, and no great knowledge of wine on the part of the reader is assumed by the authors. I’m off to Portugal tomorrow with my family, and I look forward to putting this book through its paces. And at just under £12 on Amazon, it is great value for money.

Go to the amazon.co.uk entry for this book

Platter’s South African Wines 2008: the guide to cellars, vineyards, winemakers, restaurants and accommodation 2008; 606 pages; ISBN: 9780 958 450 669

Quite simply, this is the ultimate guide to South African wine. Philip van Zyl and his team of well-regarded tasters have listed 6000 of South Africa’s wines in this comprehensive guide. It’s not perfect, of course – it is impossible for any annual wine guide of this type to get it right all the time – but I don’t know how it’s humanly possible to get this sort of guide any better. Spanning over 600 densely packed pages, there’s a wealth of reliable information here, and it’s an indispensable resource for anyone with a serious interest in the wines of South Africa. Perhaps the only criticism about this guide that can be made is that it is a little too generous with its ratings, taking as its reference point the average standard of South African wine. This leaves little room for the elevation of the real South African stars to the heights where I think they belong. But, overall, this guide comes highly recommended, and is a brilliantly useful resource. As I write, it isn’t available on Amazon, but can be purchased from www.johnplatterguide.com.

The wines of Chile by Peter Richards
Mitchell Beazley (16 Nov 2006),
384 pages, ISBN-10: 1845331222, ISBN-13: 978-1845331221

One of the latest additions to Mitchell Beazley’s Classic Wine Library Series (and one of the last – the series is being mothballed) is this book on Chile’s wines by Peter Richards. Peter knows his stuff: he’s lived and worked in Chile, speaks the lingo, and is rightly acknowledged as the UK’s leading authority on Chilean wine. This is the book’s greatest strength: the author clearly knows what he is talking about, which isn’t always the case with wine books of this sort.

This book is a comprehensive guide to Chile’s wineries and wine growing regions, methodically laid out and thorough in its scope. Richards’ writing style is admirably clear; it makes for an effortless, rather classy read. There are no pictures, but there are some attractive looking maps that break up the substantial text (368 pages of it). A polite person, Richards’ criticisms are veiled in diplomatic fashion, but where necessary he does point out places where improvement is needed.

This is a portrait of an industry still finding its feet and exploring the possibilities offered by the rather diverse terroirs this long, thin country possesses. Rightly, Richards characterizes Chilean wine as a work in progress, and for anyone visiting Chile or needing an in-depth guide to the country’s wineries, this book would be a shrewd purchase. I’ll be taking it with me when I visit in January.

Go to the amazon.co.uk entry for this book

Wine Report 2006 by Tom Stevenson and colleagues
432 pages, September 1 2005, Dorling Kindersley, ISBN: 1405311614

The third vintage of Wine Report is with now with us, 2006. It’s now well established as an extremely interesting, useful and well constructed annual guide, and for £10 there’s no better value wine book for the professional and keen amateur. You get 432 pages of densely packed information for your money. In a miracle of organizational effectiveness, Tom Stevenson has commissioned a crack team of 40 experts to cover the wine world and a host of special topics, with entirely fresh text each year. Nothing is perfect though, and I think the guide could be improved. In particular, there could be fewer lists, which get a bit annoying and seem to be a little random in some cases. And then there’s the space allocated to some of the minor regions at the expense of more significant ones. 8 pages on Luxembourg? 8 pages on the Atlantic Northeast of the USA? 9 pages on other US states? 9 pages on The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark? When there’s only 9 pages on the whole of Australia? I could go on – I think relevance is being sacrificed for an encyclopaedic urge to include everything. Nonetheless, if you are a true wine nut, you’ll want a copy of this guide.  

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Understanding wine technology by David Bird
DBQA Publishing, Paperback 265 pages (July 1, 2005), ISBN: 0953580210

So you are studying for your WSET diploma, or even the MW exam, and you need to brush up on your wine science. The problem is your degree was in Classics and you fell asleep during your chemistry lessons at school. Where do you turn for help? There’s Ron Jackson’s Wine Science, but it’s £80 and when you had a browse through it the content flew over your head. Then there’s the two-volume Handbook of Enology by Ribereau-Gayon et al – just the ticket for hardcore science types, but for anyone else, don’t even go there. 

Just as you are beginning to despair, along comes the new edition of David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology, which is designed with people like you in mind. Is it any good? In a word, yes, although I have some cosmetic reservations: it’s self-published and it shows. The design is homespun, with awful use of fonts. The book is printed in full colour, but while this must have been expensive exercise, maximum use isn’t made of the facility: the photographs are small, of variable quality, and dotted around the text without legends. 

But what about the content? After all, this is what matters, and you’ll be glad to hear that it’s actually pretty good. After an OK-ish chapter on viticulture, which always seems to get poor treatment in these sorts of works, Bird takes us on a systematic tour through the winemaking process. It’s written in a very friendly, easy-to-understand style, not assuming any particular scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. He’s solid and accurate, and where he touches on fast-moving, controversial subjects the coverage is balanced and up-to-date. If your need is for a basic grounding in wine technology, and you haven’t got much in the way of a scientific background, this book is just the ticket. It’ll see you through your diploma, and then you can flog it on amazon marketplace, recouping a good portion of your outlay.

Go to the amazon.co.uk catalogue entry for this book

Chilean Wine: The Heritage by Rodrigo Alvarado
Chalk Hill Press; Hardcover 192 pages (March 31, 2005); ISBN 1891267809

This is a slightly unusual book. Despite the title, which suggests this is foremost a book about Chilean wines, it’s actually rather different in emphasis. As the subtitle ‘The Heritage’ indicates, this is first and foremost a historical account of the development of wine through the ages. Only towards the end are we introduced to the wines of Chile, and again this is through the lens of the history of the Chilean wine scene. To the modern drinker in the UK, however, the history of wine in Chile is probably only of passing relevance. I doubt whether many of the current crop of high-end Chilean wines bear much resemblance to those produced even just 30 years ago.

This book, by Chilean wine writer and wine historian Rodrigo Alvarado has been translated into English very well, and the result is a good read. Initially written for the Chilean market, but still of broader (if rather niche) interest; one of the most readable accounts of the history of wine that I’ve yet encountered.

The book is printed on high-quality paper and is in full colour, but there are no photographs: instead it is rather quirkily (but attractively) hand illustrated. It’s not unattractive, and because the same illustrator is used throughout, it gives the book a consistency of design. But if the purpose of the book is educational (which it seems it is), and full colour is going to be used anyway, it’s a shame that photographs haven’t been used. The price is very reasonable, though, and because of this, this is a book that may be worth taking a punt on.

Go to the amazon.co.uk catalogue entry for this book

The wines of Rioja by John Radford (Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library)
Hardcover 300 pages; November 18, 2004; Mitchell Beazley; ISBN 1840009403

John Radford’s new book on The Wines of Rioja is a welcome addition to the Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library. Like the other books in this series, it’s a bit of a writing-by-numbers book in its conception: I guess there’s not a lot of room for individual flair in this sort of project. We’ve got an introduction, a historical perspective, a view of the current scene, a short section on viticulture, a future perspective and then some opinion. But the bulk of the book is a directory, giving a brief overview of each of the significant Rioja producers. No illustrations, save a solitary map at the beginning. John’s writing style is quite approachable and nicely informal, and he’s prepared to voice an opinion where it’s called for.  I particularly like his description of new-wave Rioja wines as ‘Post-modern Rioja. ‘I use the term “post-modern”’, explains Radford, ‘because so many of the techniques, in vineyard and winery, are actually reinventions of traditional techniques.’ He’s right, and it’s these modern-yet-traditional wines (the washed out Rioja kept for too long in American oak is what people think of as ‘traditional’ in Rioja, yet this isn’t the case) that are currently the standard bearers for the region, and where the future lies.

I can’t help but feeling, though, that looking at the general standard of Rioja, and the gap between this and how good the wines from this region could be, perhaps Radford should be a little more critical of the average quality of wines of Rioja. But this is a minor criticism, and as he’s currently seen as a bit of an advocate for Spanish wines, this would have been a difficult position to take. I reckon this book nicely fills a niche in the market for wine geeks keen on Rioja and WSET diploma students looking to plug a gap in their library. It’s a shame that the budget for the project meant that the text couldn’t have been livened up with some illustrations.

Go to the amazon.co.uk catalogue entry for this book  

Wine flavour chemistry by Dr RJ Clarke, Dr J Bakker
Hardcover 336 pages (August 31, 2004); Blackwell Publishing; ISBN: 1405105305.
This isn’t you average wine book. It’s for those with a fairly serious interest in wine science, but if this description fits you, you might find this book a valuable addition to your library. The authors aren’t wine specialists, but rather flavour chemists who have turned their attention to wine.  

The first two chapters, which concern winemaking, grape varieties and growing regions, will probably be a bit redundant for wine nuts. Once we’ve cleared these, however, we hit the meat of this book: the wine flavour chemistry itself. First the authors look at taste and stimulant components, and then there’s a chapter devoted to volatile components, which is followed by one on wine tasting procedures and overall wine flavour. Sherry and Port get their own chapter, before an important final chapter examining the way that flavour compounds are formed during vinification. There are some substantial geeky appendices, too.

This is a valuable addition to the wine literature, and I recommend it to you, but with some caveats. First, this is a book written by scientists: scientists write a lot during the course of their work, but this doesn’t make them fluent writers. This book doesn’t seek to explain wine flavour chemistry to a general audience: it assumes a lot of technical knowledge on the part of the reader. It will make a pretty tough read for a prospective diploma or master of wine student, although the content is valuable. Secondly, the organization of the book is such that there’s no single section dealing with specific classes of chemical, for example, tannins. You have to dip in and out of various sections to find the information you require. Thirdly, it’s expensive. But there aren’t any other books out there like this, so for those wanting a technical reference on wine flavour chemistry, this could be the book for you.  

Go to amazon.co.uk catalogue entry  

Wine Behind the Label 2005 by Philip Williamson, David Moore
Paperback 900 pages, Williamson Moore Publishing Ltd, ISBN: 0954409744
It’s the third edition of Wine Behind the Label, and it gets a new look. Inside, the content is similar, but updated, and there’s a lot more of it (the book weighs in at over 900 pages). It’s a global guide to the world’s leading wine producers, with a paragraph of descriptive text, contact details, importer details and a list of the wines produced. Specific vintages aren’t mentioned, but a star system is used to indicate general quality. For those familiar with the first two editions, the style and layout is pretty much similar.

There’s a lot of information here. Masses of it. The coverage is as broad as one could expect from a single volume – bear in mind, though, that even one of doorstop proportions like this can’t be completely comprehensive – and the opinions are ones I generally agree with where I have the relevant expertise to assess this. The price is right, too. If you’re a true wine nut, you’ll be hard pressed to come up with a decent excuse not to buy this increasingly worthwhile reference work.

New this year is a cut-down, sawn-off pocket-style version, for half the price. Very much in Hugh Johnson pocket guide territory, this is also worth checking out. Worth buying for on the job advice when wine shopping, or for trips abroad where it isn’t practical to be lugging a 900 page book with you. It’s good to see something fresh like this – for all their merits, we’re all getting a little bored with just Hugh and Oz who have dominated this category for so long.

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The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine by John Radford
Hardcover 224 pages, August 2004, Mitchell Beazley, ISBN 1840009284
The first edition of ‘The New Spain’ proved a great success, and it has recently been revised, with entirely new producer descriptions. The format is relatively standard: it’s a region-by-region guide, with a brief paragraph on the leading bodegas. My beef with the previous edition was that it had the impression of being five years out of date when it was published – hardly the ‘new’ Spain. Still, given the representation of Spanish wine in the UK, I doubt many would have realised this. This revised version has more of an up-to-date feel to it, capturing a rather more contemporary view of the Spanish wine scene. Radford’s writing is good and easy to read, even if it lacks the inspiration of, say, Andrew Jefford’s sister book in this series, The New France. [Aside: perhaps this is a slightly unfair criticism. John Radford is a good writer, but just about everyone suffers in comparison with Andrew Jefford.] Where the New Spain really succeeds, though, is in its visual appeal. It’s beautifully designed and has lots of nice colour piccies. Overall, it’s a really appealing book and would be a worthwhile addition to the wine nut’s bookshelf. Still the only decent book of its kind on Spanish wine in English.

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Wine report 2005 by Tom Stevenson and others
Paperback 384 pages (2 September, 2004), Dorling Kindersley; ISBN 1405305177 
The second vintage for this new book comes in rather regal looking Burgundy colour. At under a tenner, you get a lot of information for your money, and I imagine this will be a must buy for serious wine nuts and trade people. Overall, I like it, but I have a few reservations. First, the goal of this book seems to be comprehensive rather than relevant. Just about everywhere that grows its own grapes gets its own entry, even if the wines are of little commercial relevance. I guess it’s ‘complete’ and appeals to the collector’s mentality, but the fact that, for example, Australia gets the same amount of space as Luxembourg (there are no separate entries for the various Aussie regions) is a flaw to my mind. Second, the information is interrupted by interminable lists. By all means give contributors to list some interesting wines or promising newcomers, but each regional chapter has the following top 10 lists: Greatest Wine Producers; Fastest-Improving Producers; New Up-and-Coming Producers; Best Value Producers; Greatest Quality Wines; Best Bargains and Most Exciting or Unusual Finds. Phew. Thirdly, I can’t bear the way Tom Stevenson annotates the contributors’ most exciting wine finds section with his own notes, which come across as a bit patronizing. Fourth, it’s already a little out of date, although I guess that can’t be helped because of publication schedules. But I’ll finish on an upbeat note. Tom has done a fantastic job gathering together a good list of contributors, who on the whole do him proud. To get this much meat for less than £10 is very good value indeed.                                  

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Wine Behind the Label 2004 by Philip Williamson, David Moore
Paperback 800 pages, Williamson Moore Publishing Ltd, ISBN: 095440971X 

2004 sees the second release of this new annual guide. The layout and content are similar to last year's version, although it has been thoroughly revised and expanded: this is now a door wedge of a book at 800 pages. I have to say that after living with the 2003 version for several months, I find I've made a lot of use of it, and I've already been browsing the 2004 edition a fair bit. It is a tremendously useful and comprehensive reference work. For those regions where I have sufficient expertise to judge, the choice of producers featured is pretty good, and the book is bang up to date. Yes, the writing could be a little more polished and articulate, but for what this is - a reference work - it does the job. Any wine nut will have a lot of fun with this book.

Go to the amazon.co.uk catalogue entry for this book 

Wine report 2004 by Tom Stevenson and others
Paperback 384 pages (25 September, 2003), Dorling Kindersley; ISBN 0751347787

Tom Stevenson must have an encyclopaedic side to his personality. He seems to be drawn almost excusively to big projects of near-galactic scope. His grand ventures have included the monumental New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopaedia and his Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wines. Now, the latest Stevenson project is with us. It’s called ‘Wine Report’, and is set to become an annual production.

Tom has commissioned almost 40 experts, and would have had exactly 40 had he not had to sack a few: ‘They just did not come up with the goods’, he reports, ‘and you just have to be ruthless if you want the best.’ Phew! Each contributor has produced a chapter on their own specialist region or subject. ‘Now you can get inside the head of Clive Coates et al’, says Tom, ‘and see what they think are the best producers and wines – this year and every year’.

Each of the regional entries contains a general introduction and some bullet-point-style news items, together with an opinion piece and a set of recent vintage reports. The coverage includes a separate section for each of the French regions (including, rather oddly, separate sections for Haut Savoie and 'Vin de Pays') but other countries are dealt with largely as a whole. Thus England, Lebanon, Switzerland, Canada and Israel get as much space as Germany, Spain and Portugal, and more than Chile and Argentina, which are bunched together. Italy could feel a little hard done by: it’s split into just two sections, ‘North’, and ‘Central and Southern’. I feel this is sacrificing encyclopaedic comprehensiveness for utility. Following the regional guide, there are chapters on a range of subjects ('Global reports') from wine science through wine on the internet to wine and health. To finish, there are ‘100 most exciting wine finds’, suggested by contributors and annotated by Tom, which for me was probably the most interesting section in the book.

Does ‘Wine report’ work and should you buy it? I think it’s a great idea, and it deserves to succeed. But it’s slightly flawed in its execution: in his desire to be absolutely comprehensive, Tom has attempted to cover a little too much ground, I feel. He needs to make some tough decisions, and leave out or reduce coverage of the fringe areas and focus more on assigning space to the key wine regions. As for the individual contributors, Tom has done brilliantly to get them all together, but it’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a book, with some nicely written sections juxtaposed with rather half-hearted or frankly dull efforts. I won’t name names, but are we going to see Tom doing some more sackings before the next issue? I also worry that the annual updates will appear remarkably samey – yes, the news items will change, but contributor’s opinions aren’t going to shift that much over the space of 12 months.

Criticisms aside, I’d buy this book as a useful resource, but then I’m a fairly hardened wine geek and I make some of my living from wine. The commercial success of this project presumably depends on its take-up by consumers as well as the trade, and I’ll be interested to see whether this might be just a little too detailed and factoid in its approach for this to happen on a large scale.

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Wine Behind the Label by Philip Williamson and David Moore
Paperback, 667 pages (
13 May, 2003 ), Williamson Moore Publishing Ltd; ISBN: 0954409701

Have you ever wondered how the wine celebs manage to keep their annual guides up to date? Simple: they hire people to do research for them. The celebrity name sells the book, but no one individual can really hope to stay up to date on every wine region in the world these days, hence the reliance on other people’s help. Philip Williamson and David Moore are two such researchers. In the past they have been consultants and specialist contributors with Websters, who publish Oz Clarke’s wine books. Last year they decided to go it alone and formed their own publishing company, with ‘Wine behind the label’ as their first book.

Weighing in at almost 700 pages, it’s an encyclopaedic romp through the wine world, concentrating almost exclusively on producer reviews. Although the book is self published, it looks very impressive indeed: the design is very professional, with lovely layout and typography. And while Willamson and Moore are completely unknown as wine writers, their opinions are balanced and the coverage is pretty thorough. Importantly, they are critical when they need to be. In the areas where I have expertise, I find them up to date and pretty accurate. The information provided is useful and well thought out, with, for example, UK importers given for each of the producers.

I do have two main criticisms. First, Wine behind the label is a terrible name for a book, in my opinion. Second, the quality of the writing is patchy. They are good researchers, but I don’t think they are natural writers, with the text reading a bit like hastily typed up research notes. However, while it’s not great literature, it is a substantial and valuable reference guide for any fine wine lover, and I’d plump for this in preference to many of the rather unimaginative titles offered by mainstream wine publishers. At around £14 from amazon, you are getting a lot of solid information for your money. You can see for yourself what the book is like by looking at the 10 sample pages on their website, here

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The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine by Andrew Jefford 
Hardcover - 256 pages (17 October, 2002)
Mitchell Beazley; ISBN: 184000410X

Andrew Jefford's The New France is a magnificent book. I was going to start off by calling it a 'seminal' work, but this is an over-used word that sounds a bit pseudy and pretentious. It would be a fair descriptor, though, because this is a very important, timely publication that deserves a wide readership.

The structure is simple: after introductory chapters on wine law and terroir, it's a region-by-region guide to French wine. What sets it apart from similar books is the author: as well as being a gifted wordsmith, Andrew Jefford is a thinker. His judgement when it comes to wine matters is pretty sound, too. Jefford not only writes brilliantly readable and informative text, but he also has a message, which he skilfully interweaves through the book, without being at all ‘preachy’.

This message is that terroir matters. The strength of French wine is its diversity, and successful French wines have a strong sense of place. And far from being the disaster that it is regularly cited as, the Appellation Controllée system for the most part is a triumph, helping to preserve and promote this precious regional diversity. Interspersed in the text are short pen pictures of some of the most interesting and influential figures in each region. It's a nice feature. I'm also keen on the 'Flak' pieces, where Jefford takes well-aimed potshots at the negative elements of the various appellations.

The book is also refreshing in its focus. It isn’t all Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne: the scope is broad, and less famous regions get more than fair treatment. Jefford is to be congratulated on steering clear of the lazy option of just concentrating on the big, media-friendly names, and in most cases takes the time to identify the people currently doing good work. It’s pretty  much a compulsory purchase for anyone with a serious interest in French wine.

There is only one criticism. The pictures disappoint. While there's some wonderful black and white photography of the personalities mentioned in the text (I particularly like the messianic-like depiction of Dider Dagueneau and the Moses lookalike Jacques Puffeney), what the book is short on is decent piccies of the vineyard areas themselves. There simply aren't enough photos of the different regions to give the reader a feel of what they look like. Jason Lowe is clearly a gifted photographer - he's done good work with Mitchell Beazeley's books before, and merits a cover mention - but perhaps he didn't have time to get round the vineyards at the right time of year to provide a thorough enough pictorial account of them. It's a bit of a shame, but this somewhat minor niggle shouldn't put you off buying this groundbreaking work.

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Wines of Italy (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides)  
Burton Anderson
224 pages, New Ed (February 2002)
Mitchell Beazley; ISBN: 184000553X

One of the new series of wine guides from leading wine publisher Mitchell Beazley, this is a useful, detailed introduction to Italian wines. It’s more of a reference work for looking up facts than a book you can browse: the enormity of the subject matter means that entries are pretty terse. In fact, after leafing through a couple of chapters you end up feeling a bit sorry for Burton Anderson. Being asked to cover the wines of Italy in 220 pages is a tough brief. It’s like being asked to do the same for the wines of France: almost impossible. That Anderson has been set the task at all probably reflects the generally low profile of Italian wines in the UK marketplace, and the widespread ignorance among consumers of the myriad of regions and grape varieties that are found here. In fact, if I have a criticism of this book it is that Anderson resorts all to easily to the trotting out of facts – permitted grape varieties, ageing regulations and the like – when a description of what the wines actually taste like and a discussion of the key issues in each region would be of more use to the consumer. In addition, the producer profiles give little indication of the merits of each: instead, there’s often a rather neutral sentence or two leaving the reader none the wiser. However, a plus point is that while there’s no specific information about wine tourism (a feature lacking in this series), there is a list of recommended restaurants in each region, which is a step in the right direction. In summary, not perfect, but considering the huge scope of coverage and limited space, a good buy as a handy reference to Italian wines. 

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Handbook of Enology Vol 1: Microbiology of Wine and Vinification By P. Ribereau Gayon, D. Dubourdieu, A. Lonvaud, B. Doneche
Hardcover, 466 pages (March 2000) John Wiley and Sons Ltd; ISBN: 0471973629

Handbook of Enology Vol 2: The Chemistry of Wine Stabilization and Treatments By P. Ribereau Gayon, D. Dubourdieu, A. Lonvaud, B. Doneche 
Hardcover, 410 pages (June 2000) John Wiley and Sons Ltd; ISBN: 0471973637

These two books are not an easy read, and at £150 for the pair, they’re not cheap, either. But for the serious student of wine they provide an invaluable resource. This is life at the coalface for winemakers: you’ve seen the pretty diagrams in the obgligatory ‘how wine is made’ sections in introductory texts—well, these books cover in precise detail the actual issues involved in making wine in the real world. It’s complex. Volume 1 focuses on how wine is made, while volume 2 covers the equally important (but, for me, slightly less interesting) issues of what happens once the fermentation has stopped. Be warned though: these are scientific reference books, and while they are written at a level designed to be accessible to students as well as professionals, you’ll need to be reasonably scientifically literate to navigate them with any degree of ease (this immediately rules out most professional wine writers!). There are plenty of graphs and tables, and as befits a scientific work the coverage is pretty even handed and thorough. I’ve been dipping into both volumes for a few months now, and have found them a useful and authoritative reference source. The translation from the French is pretty good, and the text has plenty of references back to the primary literature. I can’t see a casual consumer stumping up for these books, but anyone professionally involved in communicating about wine would find access to them extremely useful. And if you are a winemaker, I suspect you’ve already got both of them. 

Amazon Catalogue entries:
Volume one | Volume two | The two volume set

Wines of California (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides)
by Stephen Brook

208 pages, New Ed (February 2002)
Mitchell Beazley; ISBN: 1840003936

One of the new series of Mitchell Beazley wine guides (replacing the ‘pocket guides’) this is very much in the mould of David Peppercorn’s Wines of Bordeaux that I recently reviewed. There’s some brief introductory material – covering the different regions, grape varieties and recent vintages – but the bulk of the book consists of an A–Z guide to the state’s producers. Contact details and a star rating are given for each, together with a brief description. It’s these concise producer profiles that are the key to this book’s appeal, and Brook has evidently done quite a bit of research over the years. Mind you, it can’t be too much of a hardship making repeat visits to California to stay up to date. Overall, an extremely useful book, although Brook’s rather pedestrian prose makes reading too much at any one sitting rather a slog. Mitchell Beazley’s new format for these wine guides works very well, and this volume comes highly recommended as a valuable reference book, although, because of the writing style, not one you can really browse through.   

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Wines of Bordeaux (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides)  
David Peppercorn
216 pages, New Ed (February 2002)
Mitchell Beazley; ISBN: 1840005505

Mitchell Beazley have revamped their Pocket Guides to the world’s wine regions, and they are now appearing in a new, larger format (about a third wider than the fiddly pocket size – and, let’s face it, who ever had pockets big enough to take them anyway). A great improvement, in my opinion. The first three volumes are out, covering California, Italy and this one, an update of David Peppercorn’s classic guide to Bordeaux. 

The book begins with the usual background material, and a guide to recent vintages. But the vast bulk of the text consists of a brilliantly useful collection of around 1000 Chateau profiles, arranged by appellation. They’re well written, and it is quite clear that Peppercorn (an MW who describes himself as a 'wine consultant'; he’s in the trade rather than being a wine journalist) knows his subject very well. It’s worth buying the book for this alone.

Some criticisms though. First, Peppercorn rather glosses over some of the key contemporary issues facing Bordeaux – and others he just ignores. There’s no mention here of reverse osmosis, a controversial technique used to concentrate wines, and which is employed by a large proportion of the leading Chateaux. There’s little discussion of whether the style of the top wines has changed over the last decade as certain American critics have had an increasing influence on the region. Nor does he describe the rather unusual process by which Bordeaux is sold.

Also missing is useful supplementary material. In a guide like this there should be information on visiting Chateaux and some general tourist tips, together with contact details for the Chateaux. And last, but not least, a section on how to buy Bordeaux would be welcomed by many consumers. These, I’m sure, would add to what is already a valuable, authoritative guide to the world’s most famous wine region.

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The wines of Spain by Graeme Chesters 
351 pages; Survival Books, London
ISBN: 1 901130 916; October 2001

The Spanish wine scene is changing pretty rapidly at the moment, and there's a relative scarcity of decent English-language reference material on Spanish wines that has kept up with these changes. So into the breech steps Graeme Chesters, an English chap in his late 30s who relocated to Spain to establish a career as a writer after spending 10 years working in the City. This book has been produced by a smaller publisher not noted for their wine portfolio, Survival books, and has a bit of a low-budget feel to it. To start with, the cover is dreadful, and the layout (with four colour plates of rather dodgy photos tipped in) could have benefited vastly from the attentions of a professional designer. But Graeme's text is pretty solid, and overall this is a useful, up-to-date reference work dealing with Spanish wines. Beginning with a concise overview of Spanish grape varieties, the rest of the book is dedicated to the different regions. Each region has a basic map and introductory text, and then the bulk of the coverage consists of producer profiles. These usually involve a brief sentence or two, and descriptions of a selection of their wines. In an effort to prevent the book dating quickly, these tasting notes are generic ones, without vintages. In the introduction it says that they are averaged over five years' performance, but it isn't clear how many times each wine has been tried; presumably some have been sampled on a number of times, others just once. It's not a book you'd read all the way through, but would make a useful drinking companion or purchasing guide, and I quite like it. Chesters' writing is accessible and non-buffy, and in most cases he gives a good indication of the style and quality each wine, without getting too geeky. I also like the focus on the individual wines, rather than the standard generic approach that regional guides often adopt. If you're a real fan of Spanish wines, and you don't want a pretty, lavishly illustrated coffee-table work, then this is worth the money. (Available direct from Survival Books, www.survivalbooks.net, for £11.95/US$17.95., or from amazon.co.uk at a discount)

The wines of Britain and Ireland by Stephen Skelton
542 pages Reissue (18 June, 2001)
Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571200451

Whether or not you rush out to buy this book will largely depend on your view of English wines. For the converts, it is likely to be a compulsory purchase -- no other texts of this breadth and authority exist on the subject. For those who aren't yet gemmed up, then I suspect it will come as quite a surprise to find out just how many vineyards there are in the UK. Indeed, the main bulk of this book -- which is written by probably the most prominent voice of the UK wine scene, Stephen Skelton -- consists of a regionally organized guide to more than 250 vineyards. These range in scale from the biggest, Denbies at 105 ha, to one of the smallest, Tudor Grange Vineyard with just 99 vines planted on 0.024 ha. Half an hour or so spent browsing through this list will convince you that viticulture in the UK is now quite a serious venture. The book kicks off with a historical perspective that makes interesting reading, followed with a rather dull chapter dealing with official regulations, MAFF and the UK Vineyards Association. This is followed by ample (rather geekish) coverage of vine varieties, and then without blinking we're on to the aforementioned vineyards-by-region section. I found it a fascinating read, but then I'm interested in English wines and I'm an anorak, and it's only fair to warn people that consistent with the Faber wine series style, this book is not written with the average consumer in mind: it's actually quite academic in its tone. My only faint criticism is that the producer reviews are more descriptive than critical. Having said this, Skelton is no doubt constrained by his visibility in the English wine scene, and the fact that this is clearly going to be such a key reference for the UK wine industry. It really would have been risking injustice for one person's opinion, however well informed, to be given in this context. A final thought: what is the goal of viticulture in the UK? From Skelton's writing you'd get the impression that it is solely to produce commercially viable wines. Isn't this setting sights a bit low? What about going after absolute quality, and let the commercial realities look after themselves? Is it any better for there to be 500 wineries making good, commercial wines and turning a profit, than just 10 making wines of real character and intensity? I'm not sure that it is. Having said this, no doubt this long-awaited and well researched book will be welcomed by anyone with more than a passing interest in the UK wine scene. But perhaps the author should consider writing a more consumer-oriented guide to UK wines, taking a more critical approach?

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The world atlas of wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
Hardcover - 352 pages 5th Ed (13 September, 2001)
Mitchell Beazley; ISBN: 1840003324

This is one book that hardly needs reviewing. The most famous of all wine books,The World Atlas of Wine has such a reputation that it simply sells itself. I suspect the only people who will be hesitating about whether to buy it or not will be those who already own a copy of the previous (1994) edition. With these people in mind, I'll briefly summarize the contents, and with the two editions open in front of me, I'll see how different they are.

First of all, kudos to whoever was responsible for choosing Jancis Robinson to take Hugh Johnson's mantle as author of this work. Whether it was Mitchell-Beazley 's idea or that of Hugh himself, it was definitely the right choice. It would have been a real shame for the existing text to be completely rewritten from scratch, losing Hugh's wonderful prose in its entirety; on the other hand, who else but Jancis would have been able to interleave her writing so seamlessly with his?

The book begins with a useful 50-page general introduction to wine. While some of this may seem like well trodden ground to the wine geek, it's entirely necessary context, bearing in mind that for many purchasers this is likely to be their only wine book. Side-by-side comparison shows that this has been rewritten substantially; I particular, all the artwork and photography is new.

The main bulk of the book, some 276 pages, consists of the atlas. Each double-page spread has one photograph, a block of text, one or two maps and typically several label images. Quite a lot of work has gone into choosing the label images so that they reflect the producers of real merit from each region. This is a nice touch, and certainly adds something extra. The maps are all new, and are drawn to a high standard. The design is superb; my only suggestion would be that more photographs would help the reader get a better feel for each region. However, it is hard to see how this could be achieved within the current space contsraints.

Appropriately, the atlas section begins with France, and I think it's significant that it begins with Burgundy, and not the rather obvious choice of Bordeaux. For while Bordeaux may be the more aristocratic and celebrated of these two great regions, it is the wines of Burgundy that are most rooted in their geographical context. Hugh got it right here. The text is little changed in this section, although it has been tweaked to reflect more accurately the current wine drinkers needs: for example, previously the Maconnais had just one page and map; now it has two. Champagne and the extensive Bordeaux coverage is little changed; appropriately, Cognac is gone and the coverage of Southwest France gets an extra page. The Loire Valley has been tweaked, Alsace gets a little more, and the Rhône is just as condensed as it was. But it's in the South of France that some much needed expansion has occurred, with new maps for the Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence.

The change in emphasis in the new edition now becomes apparent. In Hugh's scheme, Germany appears next, but in the new order it has been relegated behind Italy, Spain and Portugal, losing three of its 26 pages in the process. But this pretty gentle pruning is indicative of Jancis' insightful respect for great Riesling: others would surely have cut Germany's coverage yet further in light of its current unpopularity among wine drinkers. Another change is that Hugh begins his Spanish coverage with Sherry; it's now stuck behind the table wines. Still with Europe, we find that Austria has grown a little, in Hungary I'd question whether Tokaji still deserves a double-page spread, and Central and Eastern Europe have been updated to reflect the political changes there. The new world has been extensively rewritten, but the space devoted to it hasn't really expanded. As a result, it still feels a bit too condensed. The USA coverage stays much the same size, Chile gets an extra page and Argentina gets one of its own; Australia gets two extra; and New Zealand and South Africa stay the same (2 and 4 pages, respectively. To reflect accurately the modern wine world, there really needs to be more space for all these countries.

In summary, I'd advise anyone with the 1994 edition to do the upgrade, especially when the book is currently widely discounted by up to 30%. It's a book that has utility both as a reference work, and also as a well written reading book that can be dipped into at leisure. My final thought: let's hope that when the time comes for the next edition that geography will still be just as important in the wine world as it has been in the past. My worry is that with the increasing move towards branded wines in the marketplace, where the grapes are seen just as the raw material for an essentially manufactured product, the whole geographical context of wine—brought to life so effectively by this book—will have been rendered largely obsolete.

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New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson
Hardcover - 600 pages 4th revised edition (4 October, 2001)
Dorling Kindersley; ISBN: 0751327778

If you want evidence of how much the world of wine has changed over the last decade, then compare this long-awaited update of Tom Stevenson's Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia with the second edition, published 10 years ago in 1991. 480 pages have become 600, and the text has been largely rewritten. Such is the pace of change in the world of wine that the third edition (1997) now seems antediluvian, and no doubt in three or four years' time, this new version will be just as badly in need of an update—so it looks like Tom will be gainfully employed for many years yet. Overall, this Encyclopedia is a remarkable achievement. Fully illustrated with plenty of maps and photographs, there's a wealth of information here that successfully bridges the gap between the needs of the hardened geek and the enquiring beginner. The first 50 pages provide fairly standard reference material on subjects such as how wine is made, tasting techniques and grape varieties. The rest of the book takes us on a tour of the wine regions of the world. The prime focus is on appellations: after a general introduction, each region and subregion is described in detail, with a selection of the leading producers highlighted. Producer profiles are included for some of the key regions; to me, this is one of the most useful features, and I wish there could have been more. Each section includes a selection of the author's favourite wines from that region, adding a personal voice that doesn't interfere with attempted objectivity elsewhere. Throughout, Stevenson writes entertainingly and clearly; he's not afraid of expressing strong opinions where necessary, but when he does, they always seem to be defensible. Take, for instance, his views on how German wines can improve their tarnished image, and his suggested way forward for the English wine industry. I've spent the last few days browsing effortlessly through this book, and although I've only really scratched the surface, it has already become an indispensable reference source. Criticisms? I imagine a lot of interesting material never made it into the final 600 pages, and my only regret is that we don't have access to this. I'd be particularly keen on more producer profiles. As an aside, the almost-simultaneous publication of the latest edition of Hugh Johnson's Wine Atlas (now under Jancis Robinson's wing) should set up an interesting head-to-head. Many wine geeks will probably end up buying both. On this evidence, the Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia will be hard to beat. 

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Wines of the South of France by Rosemary George
Paperback - 544 pages (18 June, 2001)
Faber and Faber; ISBN: 057119267X

Few would disagree with the assertion that the South of France is one of the most happening places on the wine map. It's also one of the fastest-changing, so this book is a much-needed navigational aid for fans of this dynamic region. It's a substantial, bulky work of more than 500 pages, dealing comprehensively with the wines of the Roussillon, Languedoc, Provence and Corsica. Logically laid out, the different sub regions and communes are covered chapter by chapter, with the key producers in each profiled in detail. George has clearly done a tremendous amount of research (which must have been great fun), and the coverage is pretty comprehensive. It's not just about wine: there's plenty of historical and cultural context, too, and the text paints a vivid picture of the country and people behind the wines. There's a lot of discussion about the dynamic state of flux in region is in, with ambitious young producers replacing complacent vignerons, and moribund cooperatives being revitalized. Throughout, there's a great sense of optimism and hope, only partially dampened by the unwieldy officialdom of the INAO.

Overall, it's a superb work. However, I have a few slight frustrations (and bear in mind that these are just minor criticisms of an otherwise fantastic book). First, the format. It's a lengthy book, with the text broken up only by the odd black-and-white map. You get the feeling that a creative editor with more of a budget could have really done something spectacular with George's research and writing. As it is, the book isn't quite sure of what it's trying to be. Is it a reference work, or is it trying to tell a story? As a reference work its failing is that it's not laid out in an accessible enough format. You need to dig through the text pretty hard to find what you are looking for. And the producer profiles are just a little too short on detail; the tasting notes rather too sketchy. And as a 'reading' book, the huge scope of the work and relentless detail means it's not an easy book to read cover-to-cover, despite George's fluent writing style. And I suspect it's too much to ask for some photographs…? I would also have liked to see more strongly expressed opinions -- more infectious enthusiasm and passion. George rarely lets on that she's excited by the wines that she tastes, and hides what you'd suspect is genuine enthusiasm behind somewhat neutral, dispassionate prose. Despite these frustrations (which I guess are mainly with the Faber format, but credit to them -- who else would have commissioned this?) this book really is an essential purchase for anyone the slightest bit serious about Southern French wines, and you really ought to invest in a copy.

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Jancis Robinson's Concise Wine Companion
Paperback - 640 pages (31 March, 2001)
Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0198662742

Most wine geeks will be familiar with the Oxford Companion to Wine, the second edition of which was released back in 1999. Along with Hugh Johnson's Wine Atlas, this is one of the classic texts that should be on every wine lover's bookshelf. Well, the concise wine companion has some 2350 of the entries from the Oxford Companion included in its 559 pages, and from leafing through the entries it's hard to see what's missing -- there are no noticeable omissions (the preface mentions that only two subject areas -- distilled and fortified wine -- that have been omitted or substantially cut). The cross-referenced entries are well enough written, in a semi-formal, economical and precise 'lexicographer-speak' language to make casual browsing worthwhile. Maybe I'm an unredeemable anorak, but I spent a happy couple of hours just reading from one entry to another. So, if you already possess the Oxford Companion, should you purchase this book? I'd say yes, for one key reason -- portability. You can fit this book in your briefcase or find space for it on your desktop, whereas its hardback predecessor is an unwieldy doorstop of a book. If you don't already have a copy of the Oxford Companion, then the decision to buy this is a bit of a no-brainer, especially when Amazon are retailing it for a penny less than £8. Faults? Well, the cover design looks a bit 1970s: it is split vertically, with a weakly smiling, slightly embarrassed-looking editor on one side and the obligatory wine glass shot on the other. But we can forgive this, because this is such a useful, well-written book.

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The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Wines of Spain by Jan Read
ISBN 1 84000 389 8, Mitchell Beazley (February 2001), 216 pages, Hardback

I'm quite keen on the Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide series. The small format is attractive and they are nicely produced. Above all, they are extremely useful books to take with you if you are visiting wine country. First published in 1983, this is the latest updated version of the wines of Spain, penned by veteran wine writer Jan Read. The book consists of a systematic trawl through the regions of Spain, with entries for each of the key wine producers and sub regions arranged alphabetically. Star ratings are given for both (there are two parallel rating systems, with hollow stars being replaced by filled stars to indicate value for money). Within each regional section, there's also a brief guide to the local gastronomic specialities, hotels and restaurants. A thorough index finishes things off. Overall, I’d say this is a very useful book, and well worth popping in your suitcase if you are travelling to Spain. But I do have some criticisms. First, it's very 'old school': there's lots of emphasis on the wine regulations, and not a lot of opinion or descriptions of what the wines actually taste like. The coverage is also very even handed, where it could have done with more emphasis of the interesting producers and regions, and less on the dull ones. And while the writing style is thorough and correct, it's not a lively enough style to sustain casual browsing: this is clearly an information source. But my biggest criticism is that I get the impression that Read doesn't really have his finger on the pulse of the latest developments in the Spanish wine scene. However, it does seem a bit mean to single Jan Read out in this regard -- it is a criticism that can be levelled at most of the English language coverage of Spanish wine. Verdict: a useful purchase, even though it's not fully up to date.

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roboxcomusa.gif (6693 bytes)Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America by Bruce Cass (editor), Jancis Robinson (editor). Hardcover, 320 pages (August 2000), Oxford University Press; ISBN: 019860114X.

Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine is one of the classics of modern wine publishing, and this volume, edited by Bruce Cass (but with Jancis listed as consultant editor) is intended as a partner volume, dealing specifically with the wines of North America. It's perhaps a little unfair to Bruce Cass that Jancis' name should be associated with this book -- her direct contribution is limited to just a couple of short essays in the first section, although of course it certainly helps to raise its profile. The book itself is divided in two. The first 60 pages are devoted to 15 well-written, concise and essays on an eclectic range of subjects pertinent to the North American wine scene. These are quite absorbing, covering subjects as diverse as 'Commentators and the wine media', 'Microbiology in North American wine', 'North American geneticists untangle the vine variety web', and 'Cybersales and the future'. The next 220-odd pages consist of the A-Z entries, much in the style of the parent volume (which is extensively cross-referenced). Whilst these are pretty scholarly, they are written in a style that's lively enough to make this section fun to browse through (preferably glass in hand). Bruce Cass pens many of the entries, and his writing has a gentle but still-appropriate sense of humour to it; other entries are authored by a team of eight experienced contributors of different specializations. To finish off, there's a full index that makes a useful (and necessary) adjunct to the alphabeticized entries (a feature that books of this sort often lack). Although the majority of the book is black and white, and illustration-free, there are eight double-sided colour plates, tipped-in in pairs at four locations. This is a valuable addition to any enthusiast's library, and as well as a useful reference for answering specific queries, it’s just the sort of book I like to dip into from time-to-time for some absorbing browsing.
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jroxfcom.gif (13398 bytes)The Oxford companion to wine by Jancis Robinson. Oxford University Press, 1994 (Second Edition released in 1999)
The ultimate wine reference book. Editor Jancis Robinson has called on a large team of some of the most knowledgable wine experts from around the globe to produce over 3000 alphabetically arranged entries covering all manner of wine-related topics. These entries are nicely laid out in a substantial (and weighty) book, which is nicely illustrated by a mixture of line drawings, black and white photographs and a few colour plates. Comprehensive and scholarly, yet at the same time readable enough for leisurely browsing. This is a compulsory purchase for anyone who has a serious interest in wine. The big question for those who own a copy of the first edition is whether it is worth splashing out on the newly released second edition, which has been substantially revised. £40.

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hjatlas.gif (17694 bytes)Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine Mitchell Beazley, London, Fourth Edition, 1994
The fourth edition of a classic, first published in 1971. The book begins by giving some perspective, tracing the history of wine and following through with chapters on the vine, designing a vineyard, terroir, grape varieties, weather, making wine, wine tasting and serving wine. The rest (and great majority) of the book is concerned with putting wine firmly in its geographical context, largely by means of maps of all the main wine regions across the globe (and many of the minor ones too). Superbly designed and conceived, nicely illustrated and beautifully written, it is hard to overestimate how significant an achievement this book is. Hugh Johnson may have been around for ever, but his writing comes across as intelligent and fresh, and his perspective combines a respect for tradition with a balanced acceptance of modern trends and developments. At his best when dealing with potentially controversial issues, he always seems to give a fair and accurate precis of the issues involved. Although I've classed this book as a reference work, it makes pleasurable browsing, and is another 'must buy' for any self-respecting wine nut. £30.

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Oz Clarke's wine atlas Little, Brown and Company (Websters International Publishers, London), 1995 (ISBN 0 316 14697 8).
A cynic might accuse Oz Clarke and his publishers Websters of blatantly ripping off Hugh Johnson's winning formula. This book follows exactly the format of Johnson's classic 'World atlas of wine', with introductory chapters leading through to an atlas-style survey of the world of wine. However, Websters have given an intruiging twist to their Atlas, by producing a series of beautiful handpainted panoramic vineyard maps of each of the major wine regions, which succeed in bringing to life the various vineyard areas. In addition, Oz Clarke writes well in a lively style, and the layout and accompanying photographs surpass even the high standards set by Johnson's fourth edition. Hugh may have been here first, and both atlases are of a very high standard, but if forced to choose between them, Oz Clarke wins by a whisker.   

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Wine Atlas of Australia and New Zealand by James Halliday. HarperCollins, 1991 
Another atlas-format work, this time by the most influential voice of the Australian wine scene, James Halliday. This time there is less focus on the maps (which are rather simple), and more on the different producers (within each region there is a review of the leading domaines). Nicely illustrated and a useful resource for anyone planning a trip to antipodean wine country.


Wine and the vine: an historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade by Tim Unwin. Routledge, London, 1996 (paperback edition, original edn. 1991) (ISBN 0 415 14416 7)
This is a solid 400 page textbook, written in an academic style, and with just a few black and white photographs, but do not be put off. Tim Unwin, reader of Geography at the same University College that I attended (Royal Holloway), writes well and this book is pretty accessible to just about any wine lover who has an interest in the history and geography of wine. In fact, this book, with its authoratative scholarship, makes a refreshing change from the beautifully illustrated but often inaccurately written coffee table-style books that wine publishers seem to be so fond of. Beginning with a study of the origins of viticulture, Unwin traces the spread of wine production through the Graeco-Roman world. With the division of the Roman empire, and its eventual decline, he examines the survival of viticulture through the early middle ages, and then plots its course through history, finally reaching the development of the wine trade in the 20th century. Well referenced and with a useful index, I'd say that this book would make a valuable addition to the shelves of all thoughtful wine lovers, and compulsory reading for any wine journalists, writers or educators, for the sake of accuracy and context.