NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The publication of the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine is cause for celebration for oenophiles; the 820-page book is as engaging and well written as it is comprehensive.
Wine can be overwhelmingly complicated, not just for the neophyte, but for longtime consumers, too. Thousands of producers in dozens of countries make wines from hundreds of grapes in vintages that can stretch back more than a century in the case of a handful of top wines. Much of the fascination with wine lies in the many choices that vintners make as they grow their grapes and make their wine, but understanding those choices requires some knowledge of both agriculture and the chemistry of winemaking.
Below, we list the Oxford Companion and nine other books that are great resources for wine drinkers different sophistication and interests.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's Drink This: Wine Made Simple is a terrific introduction to wine. She systematically works through nine important grapes, including Chardonnay, Rielsing, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and invites the reader to compare wines made from those grapes in a range of styles. The writing is clear and engaging, and by the end of the book the reader who samples wines as Grumdahl suggests will have an excellent working knowledge of wine and a strong basis for further exploration.
Rajat Parr became one of the country's best sommeliers a matter of years before Michael Mina tapped him in 2003 to be the wine director for his restaurant group, which now includes 18 restaurants. Parr makes wines under the Sandhi label, which allows him to indulge his love of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Parr's Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals, written with Jordan Mackay, offers a peak into the clannish world of restaurant wine professionals and shows how the best of them think about their craft.
3. Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France
Kermit Lynch has been one of the most important wine importers in the U.S. since the 1980s, and his book Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France is a classic of wine writing. Wine writing can easily devolve into tedious descriptions of individual wines, but Lynch loves the personalities of the French wine world, from the alcoholic Burgundy wine merchant whose "car smelled like horse shit, anise, and after-shave," to a 90-year-old Vouvray merchant who survived mustard gas as a soldier in World War I and the German destruction of Tours in 1940.
One of the great themes of the wine world over the last fifty years has been the increasingly broad dispersion of technical knowledge about winemaking. Emile Peynaud was a central figure in that dissemination of knowledge both as a founder of the Center of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux in southern France and as a consultant to winemakers around the world from the 1960s until his death at age 92 in 2004. Peynaud is most famous for his aphorism "Tradition is an experiment that worked," but he had a profound respect for the role of wine in French culture, and his book The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation is a learned, witty, thoughtful exploration of serious wine tasting, which Peynaud calls "the rationalization of an epicurean activity."
Benjamin Lewin's first career afforded him the resources to take up a second as a wine writer as well as the scientific expertise to become a notable voice in the field. Lewin is the author of the best-selling molecular biology textbook series Genes and founded the journal Cell, then earned his master of wine in 2008. (The MW is the highest distinction in wine; there are only about 200 of them worldwide.) Two years later, he self-published Wine Myths and Reality, a survey of the wine world studded with insights about both economics and winemaking. For instance, he notes that the term "pencil shavings" is absurd as a descriptor for wines, since graphite has no taste, and that most minerals are flavorless, as well. Lewin has gone on to publish volumes about Burgundy and Bordeaux as well a recent book on 500 French producers.
The Oxford Companion to Wine sounds like a joyless tome, and its eight pounds do not rest lightly in the reader's lap. But editor Jancis Robinson, the wine critic at the Financial Times, crafted a work that's not only authoritative and deeply informed but witty, humane, and deeply aware of the contingency and subjectivity of its subject. In this sense, the most significant entry may be "fashion." Tastes have always changed, and, we learn "what has been most remarkable about fashions in wine consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been how rapidly wine production has reacted to them, and in some cases created them (see wine brands, rose wines, pale cream sherry, low-alcohol wine, and wine boxes among others)."
The OCW's perspective is informed by these changes, but it also conveys a sense of the magic of wine that its devotees have shared for thousands of years and that the ancient Greek poet Hesiod describes in a passage quoted in the book: "I love a shady rock and some wine from Byblos, a cake of cheese, and goat's milk, and some meat of heifers pastured in the woods, uncalved, of first-born kids. Then I may sit in the shade and drink the shining wine, and eat my fill, and turn my face to meet the fresh west wind, and pour three times an offering from the spring which always flows, unmuddied, streaming down, and make my fourth libation one of wine."
Along with Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, Robinson wrote the definite resource on the grape varieties from which wine is made. Their Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours is an indispensible resource, and its essays on the major varieties show how much they have changed over the centuries. Even the tag lines to the entries can be entertaining, like Aramon Noir, a "very productive vine once responsible for much of France's least noble wine."
The authors can't resist a good story. Cavus, for example, takes its name from the Turkish word for sergeant, one of whom brought it back from Taif near Mecca in the 1600s to give to the Sultan. In 1720, Sultan Ahmet III sent 37 vines of Cavus to the first Ottoman embassy in France, where Louis XV had them transferred to Versailles. Or the Swiss Completer, which derives its name from completorium, "the evening office during which the Benedictine monks were traditionally allowed to drink a glass of wine in silence."
Or the Jacquez, now grown mainly in Texas and Brazil, which may come from the town of New Bordeaux near the Savannah River, where French Huguenots settled in the 18th century and introduced Vitis vinifera varieties. They discovered that grapes from one new seedling were more resistant to disease, and a Spaniard named Jacques apparently took a sample to Natchez, Miss., where the grape got its name.
Winemaking has become a technical endeavor whose complexity often overwhelms the uninitiated. David Bird, a chemist and master of wine, skillfully guides even the scientifically challenged through the intricacies of winemaking in his classic text Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained. The book is an enjoyable read and essential as a reference work.
One of the strangest things about the wine world to newcomers is the passion and vitriol of its debates, the most intense of which is between those who prefer lighter, fresher wines and the advocates of heavier, richer wines with higher alcohol levels. Critic Robert Parker is the standard-bearer for the latter camp. He made his name by calling the great Bordeaux vintage of 1982, and he has become wealthy by publishing a newsletter in which he rates wines on a 100-point scale. Critics claim that Parker's palate leans to excessive fruit and oak, but thousands of consumers swear by his scores, which can make or break a winemaker.
Parker has issued several buyer's guides, and while the tasting notes can be eye-glazingly dull (and sometimes of dubious value - heedless of Lewin, Parker loves pencil shavings), they offer excellent discussions of wine regions and are a helpful catalog of producers.
Parker is now 68 years old, and many of his most vocal critics are a generation or more younger. They argue that his preferred style has come to dominate the wine world, especially California, whose warm, dry climate is perfect for the production of high alcohol wines. But there are 8,000 producers in the state, and they make wine from all kinds of grapes in all kinds of styles. Jon Bonné, a columnist at the
San Francisco Chronicle
, has championed a younger generation of California producers who often take as their model French wines rather than older California Cabernets and Chardonnays. He has collected much of his work in
The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste
. His next book will focus on France.