Monday, February 26, 2018



 Butler, Joel, and Randall Heskett: Divine Vintage, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
There are 280 references to wine, vineyards and wine-making in the Bible. Noah’s first task after leaving the arc was to plant a vineyard and Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine. These two Biblical scholars explore the fascinating central relationship between wine and our Judeo-Christian traditions.

 Clarke, Oz: The History of wine in 100 Bottles, Stirling Publishing, 2015.
By focusing on one specific aspect of wine, a particular vintage, the shape or size of the bottle, a famous wine maker or drinker, Oz Clarke manages to describe the history and development of wine in a series of entertaining and informative vignettes.

 Johnson, Hugh: Vintage – The Story of Wine, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Sadly, out of print but happily widely available through on-line booksellers, this hefty volume is a delightfully written and lushly illustrated pleasure to read from cover to cover. It is also in invaluable reference work written by one of the world’s greatest wine experts.

 McGovern, Patrick K.: Ancient Wines, Princeton University Press, 2003
McGovern is an anthropologist, a scientist, a chemist and a molecular archeologist who has focused his studies on the origins of wine in the Middle-East from Neolithic tombs, Noah and Gilgamesh to the Scorpion King and Tutankhamen. Fascinating.

 Phillips, Rod: 9000 Years of Wine, Whitecap Books, 2017
Covering much of the ancient history that McGovern discusses, this book takes the story further, tracing the spread of wine from the Middle-East, around the Mediterranean, throughout Europe and into the new world. The story ends with the international consumer market of the 21st century.

 Standage, Tom: A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Walker & Company, 2005
Wine plays only one aspect of this book, but Standage uses it to tell a fascinating history of human thirst. Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt, Wine in Greece and Rome, Spirits in the Colonial Period, Coffee in the Age of Reason, Tea and the British Empire, Coca-Cola and the rise of America.

And of course, it goes without saying that The Booklovers' Guide to Wine itself includes a most comprehensive historical overview of the story of wine told in a most informative and entertaining manner!

Friday, February 23, 2018



Johnson, Hugh, and Jancis Robinson, World Atlas of Wine, Barnes & Noble Books, 2017.
I have been reading Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine since the first edition was published in 1971. Since the release of the fifth edition in 2006 he has partnered with Jancis Robinson. That I have been buying, reading and enjoying each edition of this book for almost half a century I think says it all. The maps, the writing, the knowledge – fabulous!

Johnson, Hugh: Pocket Wine Book, Mitchell Beazley, 2018
This is a genuine ‘pocket book’ in the sense it will fit conveniently in your pocket. If you are interested in specific labels and specific vintages from anywhere in the world, this book, which is reissued every year, is indispensable.

Keevil, Susan: Wines of the World, Metro Books, 2010.
This is a beautiful, visual reference guide to wine with the focus on different countries, wine regions and individual terroirs. It is packed with great photographs and maps plus buying information and price guides.

MacNeil, Karen: The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing, 2000.
This is another general guide to all the major wine regions of the world, but the maps and illustrations only play a secondary role to the text. Karan McNeil’s metaphors, descriptions and informed observations are always, fresh, unique, entertaining and stimulating.

Robinson, Jancis: Guide to Wine Grapes, Oxford University Press, 1996. 
Sadly out of print, this wonderful, pocket-sized guide is still available for a few dollars at various on-line booksellers.  Her newer version is much more comprehensive, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours but with a price tag of about $140, I am perfectly happy with the pocket version.

Robinson, Jancis, ed.: Oxford Companion to Wine, Oxford University Press, 2006. 
At $40.00, this is not a cheap book either – but it is worth every penny. This is the ultimate reference book and source of all information about wine. If you have just one wine book in your library, this should be it, - in addition to The Booklovers' Guide to Wine of course!

Sunday, February 18, 2018


  CHINA [2]:   Although most Chinese wine comes from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, a new northern area, Ningxia Province, also bordering the Gobi Desert, is rapidly becoming the center of China’s fine-wine industry. With 160,000 acres of vineyards planned by 2020, Ningxia will be three times the size of Napa. The French luxury goods giant LVMH has recently invested $28 million in a state-of-the-art winery called Chandon. An international competition named "Bordeaux Against Ningxia" was held in Beijing in December 2011, when experts from China and France tasted five wines from each region. Ningxia was the clear winner, with four out of five of the top wines. The best wine in the whole competition was the 2009 Chairman's Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon which even Robert Parker rated as “not bad.” It is unclear whether the name referred to Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book.

    Another rapidly expanding wine-growing area is Shandong Province on the coast of the Yellow Sea, which, with 140 wineries, already produces 40 percent of Chinese wine. The latest company to invest in Shandong is Bordeaux’s Domains Barons de Rothschild, which harvested its third vintage in 2015. Based on Rothschild’s previous successes in California and Chile, Shandong Province is a region to keep an eye on.

    In just the past decade, China has become one of the world’s top ten wine markets, and is actually the largest consumer of red wine in the world, as well as being the sixth largest producer of wine. Between 2006 and 2015, China’s wine consumption grew by 54 percent. According to Sotheby’s, it is no longer London or New York but Hong Kong which is now the world’s largest market for fine wines at auction. Furthermore, China is one of the world’s biggest consumers of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru wines, and has had a significant effect on the price structure. Chinese billionaires have long had a predilection for Château Lafite (like the English aristocracy before them), followed by Château Latour, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Margaux and finally by Château Haut-Brion. This preference for Lafite has had the unfortunate consequence of making Lafite the most popular target of international wine-fraud, resulting in a number of recent scandals and uncertainty in the Chinese market. There is a growing tendency among Chinese billionaires, therefore, to focus on the previously overlooked Château Haut-Brion wines (Jefferson’s favorite), because its unique bottle shape makes it more difficult for criminals to reproduce.

    But despite China’s seeming integration into the international wine market, it retains certain Chinese idiosyncrasies. For example, the reason that Chinese are almost exclusively red wine drinkers has less to do with their appreciation of tannins and more to do with red being a lucky color traditionally associated with good fortune and good health. The Chinese still serve wine in small, shot-sized wine glasses, and, although it is a sign of progress that wine is replacing strong baijiu spirits at business banquets, it means that when that priceless 1959 Château Lafite is being poured, all the guests can toss it back in a hearty group toast without even needing to taste it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Wine and the Dragon (Part 1)

Strictly speaking, China is not part of the “New World.” Indeed, it is one of the oldest wine-producing countries on the planet. However, wine has not been an important aspect of Chinese culture until very recently. Already within the first two decades of the new century, China has become not only a major producer but also a major consumer of wine. Within the next decade, China could prove itself one of the leading players in the world of wine.

Although grape wine has been consumed in China for at least 4,600 years, a stronger version containing up to 20 percent alcohol, called Huangjiu, or “yellow-wine,” made from fermented rice and cereals, has always been more popular. Additionally, the Chinese have always consumed a distilled version called Baijiu, which has a 40-60 percent alcohol content. Alcohol in China is typically consumed in the form of toasts, drunk in small shot glasses and tossed to the back of the throat—the complete opposite of everything described in Chapter One of mybook.

Modern Vitis vinifera grapes were probably first introduced by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in the third century BC, and planted in the extreme west of China in what is today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Marco Polo referred to the local wines when he passed through this area in the thirteenth century. This Uighur populated province (ironically the most Islamic part of China) is still the major wine-producing region in the nation, even though it clings to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One of the vineyards covers twenty-five thousand acres at 262 feet below sea level!

Following Deng Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms in the early 1980s, agricultural land was de-collectivized, private entrepreneurs were permitted to develop vineyards, and foreign investment was encouraged. At the same time, a growing middle class was becoming exposed to the outside world, traveling to Europe and bringing back knowledge about foreign cultures—including wine.

The French brandy house, Remy Martin/Cointreau, established a joint venture in 1980 which eventually became Dynasty Wines, producing over one hundred types of wine products in China. Initially, Chinese wines were limited to the export market, but with the growing wealth of the domestic market in the twenty-first century and a fast evolving appreciation for wine, 90 percent of Chinese wine is now consumed domestically. While the disposable income of the growing middle class accounts for the consumption of home-grown Chinese wine, it is only the extreme wealth of the Chinese billionaire class that can account for an obsessive consumption of French, especially Bordeaux, wines. The Chinese love of Bordeaux wine is delightfully explored in the 2013 movie Red Obsession.

Friday, February 9, 2018

East European Wines [4]: Slovenia & Croatia

Emerging from decades of communist atrophy followed by the horrors of the late 20th century Bosnian wars, Slovenia is now home to some of the most exciting wines in Central Europe. Following the deadening effect of State-owned co-operatives, much of Slovenia’s wine production has returned to small, family-owned operations where individualism and experimentation have taken center stage. Long recognized for its oak trees, which make some of the world’s finest wine barrels, Slovenia is increasingly being recognized for its wines.

I hitch-hiked down the Dalmatian Coast through Croatia during the 1960’s when it was still part of communist Yugoslavia and fell in love with its wines. On the dramatic and beautiful Adriatic coast, facing Italy, Croatia has been producing wines since even before the Romans arrived. I was a young man in the 60’s but I still vividly recall the heady taste of freshly-grilled goat-meat washed down with generous glasses of the local Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel ) sitting on a moonlight beach beside the wine-dark-sea. 

Croatian emigres in the 20th century were very influential in the development of the Californian, Australian and New Zealand wine industries and now, following the end of the Bosnian conflict, they are returning home and promise to make Croatian wine a major player once again on the world stage.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

East European Wines [3] Georgia & Romania

GEORGIA: As discussed elsewhere in my Booklovers' Guide to Wine, Georgia’s border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan is the site of the world’s oldest wine making activity. This is where wine has been made and drunk longer than anywhere else in history. Even today, the Neolithic wine-making techniques dating back to Noah are still in use. The vast, underground amphorae called kvevri are still being used to produce wine in the traditional manner. 

Through most of the twentieth century, almost all of Georgian wine was exported to the Soviet Union where quality was not a priority and individual wine makers were not incentivized to excel. Switching to the competitive international markets after the 2006 break with President Putin’s Russia, Georgian wine makers are now starting to focus on quality. With 9,000 years of tradition behind it, Georgian wine is ready for a come-back.

ROMANIA: Proud of its Roman wine-producing past, Romania is now the sixth largest wine producer in the European Union. If not yet famous for its quality wines, it is already a best-seller in America’s Sam’s Club with a wide selection of red and white wines at less than $7:00 per bottle.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


 Described by Louis XIV as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” (the king of wines and the wine of kings) Tokaji Aszú, the unctuous, honeyed wine made from super-concentrated, botrytized grapes, has long been the archetypical Hungarian wine since it was first documented in 1571. 

Beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Russian czars alike, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria (who was also King of Hungary) had a tradition of sending Queen Victoria Tokaji wine, as a gift, every year on her birthday, one bottle for every month she had lived, twelve for each year. On her eighty-first and final birthday (1900), this totaled an enviable 972 bottles. 

As sought-after and expensive in the 21st century as it was in the 18th, these ebulliently floral, lusciously fruity wines are traditionally a blend of local grapes including varieties of Muscat, the world’s oldest varietal. Even under Ottoman and then under Soviet rule, Hungary still managed to somehow produce Tokaji wines which have never lost their international appeal. 

Following the collapse of the Hungarian Communist regime in 1989, Hugh Johnson, the great English wine writer founded a winery to revive the fortunes of this ‘Vinum Regum’ which he called Royal Tokaji. This sweet golden wine, tasting of ripe peaches, apricots, pears and mandarin oranges is made from three local varietals, Furmint, Hárslevelű and Muscat de Lunel.

The other famous wine from Hungary is Egri Bikavér - Bull’s Blood – which although weakened under Soviet rule is now once more being made in the traditional manner – dark, strong and powerful.