Tips for Christmas tipples

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

It’s telling that perhaps the best wine book of last year, Amber Revolution by Simon Woolf, was self-published, though you’d never guess from the quality of the design, photography or editing. Wine books are a tough slog for publishers unless they’re written by one of the big four: Clarke, Johnson, Robinson and Spurrier (sounds like a firm of provincial solicitors).

Hugh Johnson wrote the first World Atlas of Wine in 1971. Since the 1998 edition he has been, in his words, ‘progressively passing the baton’ to Jancis Robinson. It’s astonishing how much has changed; early editions were little more than France, Germany, Italy, sherry and port. Now this eighth edition (Mitchell Beazley, £50) contains maps of Croatia, Lebanon, Virginia and — a contender for the birthplace of wine — Georgia (the country, that is). It’s a beautiful object that no serious wine-lover will want to be without.

A little more specialist is Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs by Ian d’Agata (University of California Press, £40), an in-depth look at how the country’s myriad indigenous grape varieties fit into its varied landscape. I enjoyed it for the writer’s gloriously circumloquacious style and occasional swipes at fellow wine writers, including Jancis Robinson:

It has been written that Erbamat is identical to the Verdealbara cultivar [Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, 2012], but no doubt through a failing of mine, I have found no mention in any peer-reviewed scientific paper — the minimal acceptable standard in any serious scientific community.

It’s like the letters page of the TLS. Meow!

The Infinite Ideas series publishes the sort of books that Faber would have done under the editorship of Julian Jeffs. My pick of this year’s catalogue is Anne Krebiehl’s The Wines of Germany (Classic Wine Library, £30), a timely guide to a country whose wines, including its reds, just seem to get better and better.

Whereas the Infinite Ideas books are a bit basic-looking, you couldn’t say the same about releases from the new publisher Académie du Vin Library, co-founded by Steven Spurrier. I loved the full-colour extravaganza that is Ben Howkins’s Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! (Académie du Vin Library, £20) and found myself salivating while reading at the thought of a chilled glass of manzanilla. It’s clearly written by someone who is no stranger to long lunches by the Guadalquivir river; but Howkins can also be incisive, for example on the Rumasa scandal that did so much to upset the sherry business in the 1970s and 1980s.

For Howkins, old school is a compliment; for Tony Laithwaite, it’s a criticism. The latter was inspired to set up his own wine business as much from being patronised by a St James’s wine merchant as his Francophilia. His story, Direct (Profile, £25) is an entertaining, occasionally chippy account of his journey from selling wine from a railway arch in Windsor to owning the biggest online wine retailer in the world.

For many beer fans, particularly in Britain, lager is that nasty fizzy stuff, sold through amusing adverts featuring laconic Australians, dancing bears or cheeky cockneys. But it has just as interesting a story as more celebrated beers such as IPA, as Mark Dredge explains in A Brief History of Lager (Kyle Books, £14.99). The first two thirds, featuring figures such as Jacob Christian Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame, are riveting; but inevitably the story slows with the mergers and acquisitions that have seen the rise of Big Beer. Dredge, however, is no snob and recognises lagers such as Heineken for what they are: tasty, reliable, well-balanced miracles of brewing.

Next up is Just the Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water by Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt (Kew Publishing, £18). Well-researched and lavishly produced, it looks at how a malaria cure from South America ended up becoming an ingredient in Britain’s favourite mixed drink, the gin and tonic. Amusing fact: Oliver Cromwell died of malaria, which could have been prevented if he hadn’t refused quinine as a ‘Popish powder’.

A Spirited Guide to Vermouth by Jack Adair Bevan (Headline, £6.99) was recommended to me by no less a figure than Nigella Lawson. Like Howkins with sherry, Bevan is on a mission to revitalise the reputation of his drink. He’s a knowledgeable guide to the worldwide vermouth renaissance, mixing history, tips for how to make your own, and cocktail recipes. One question, though: is it pronounced in English vermuth or vermooth? Readers, let me know how you say it.

Another drink that’s had a hell of a time recently is cider, from a favourite of the aristocracy in the 17th century to that of teenagers in bus shelters when I was growing up. Happily the high quality end has exploded in recent years. The young cider merchant Felix Nash has become an evangelist for a drink that should have more in common with wine than beer. Spend some time with him and you can’t help but be swept up in his enthusiasm. His book, Fine Cider (Dog & Bone, £16.99), is the next best thing.

And finally, in his thorough and lucid Whisky Dictionary (Mitchell Beazley, £15), Ian Wisniewski has done the hard work for 100 lazier drinks writers, Thanks Ian, we owe you one!

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