This is the uncut version of an article that appeared in the Guardian on Saturday:
Oddbins stocked a wine in the late 90s called Kiwi Cuvee. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the South France designed to taste as if it came from New Zealand. This summed up the direction wine was going at the time. For supermarkets flying wine-makers made products around the world to a formula and at the top end highly-paid consultants created lush ‘iconic’ wines for collectors. There were still plenty of interesting wines out there but the received opinion, not least from the European Union, was that unfashionable vines such a Carignan should be ripped out to be replaced with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This homogenising trend is over. Variety is now everything. Whereas before the concept of terroir – a sense of place – was mocked by Anglos as a marketing device invented by the French to sell wine without any fruit character, nowadays it’s a term used even by Australians. It’s telling that it is no longer italicised (though my spellcheck still tries to change it to terrier).
It couldn’t be a better time, therefore, for Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson to publish the latest edition of their World Atlas of Wine Atlas. It’s a very different book to the last edition in 2007 and now includes small scale maps of some of the most exciting emerging regions such as Croatia, around Mount Etna in Sicily and Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne which is rivalling Burgundy for its elegant Pinot Noirs. The book is a celebration of terroir and a logical companion to Robinson’s Wine Grapes (2012) – an expensive and exhaustive encyclopaedia of every grape variety in the world. More than just being thorough, there’s an infectious sense of glee about this new Atlas. One gets the impression that Johnson and, in particular, Robinson with her humorous pedantry, really enjoyed writing it. The other new edition of a classic that is well worth buying is Alex Liddell’s Madeira, the Mid-Atlantic Wine. Madeira is a wine whose long and colourful history you can actually taste – 19th century wines from this island are still good to drink. Berry Bros & Rudd stock an 1875 D’Oliveira Malvazia for £689 a bottle.
It’s not only wine in which variety is being rediscovered. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t easy to find a of decent pint of bitter in London but recently a new wave of pubs have opened dedicated to craft products. Cider, for a long time a joke drunk by teenagers in bus shelters and the Wurzels, is now attracting serious attention. Best known for his beer writing, Pete Brown, has produced World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw. Although it looks like a coffee table book with lots of, often stunning, photos it’s also written with wit, knowledge and passion. You might even go as far as describe Brown and Bradsaw as the Johnson and Robinson of cider. I had no idea that cider was so widespread outside the three cider superpowers of England, France and Spain. The Germans make cider and express surprise that anyone else does, the Irish drink the most cider per head and in Quebec they make a super sweet ice cider. It’s not all good news though, it’s shocking how few actual apples go into some commercial brands. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that cider is currently the most exciting drink in Britain and it will improve as growers match the best apple varieties to the right land just as the French did in Bordeaux and Burgundy generations ago.
It’s a great time to be drinking but it’s not necessarily a great time to be reading about drink. I saw far too many books along the lines of ‘200 Wines to Impress your Father-in-law’ or a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Craft Beer’. Most were illustrated and designed to be easily marketed to English language readers worldwide. They’re all starting to look alike when the products they celebrate are increasingly diverse. Drink books are now either for gifts or reference. What is lacking is the sort of book that you want to read in bed; an Elizabeth David or Jeffrey Steingarten of wine, perhaps, to make you smile, think and, rather than trying to educate, assumes a certain knowledge and interest on behalf of the reader. There are lots of people writing about drink in an interesting way on the internet. There are even some Americans trying to combine comedy with wine albeit not very successfully. None of these writers however, are producing engaging books for the general reader.
The two books that I enjoyed most this year didn’t come from traditional publishers. Don’t be put off by the rather exclusive title of the first, “Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition” shows how wine writers can entertain when they’re given a bit of space to breath. It features noted wine types letting their hair down or at least giving their toupees a good airing. I particularly enjoyed Oz Clarke on sticking it to the toffs as a grammar school boy at Oxford and Will Lyons on claret and the Auld Alliance. The second is an ebook only thing called the Sediment Guide to Wining and Dining. It brings a mixture of seriousness and silliness to the strange ritual of the dinner party. In the right hands wine and laughter can go together. Maybe next year a publisher will have the nerve to commission a full-length book in a similar spirit.