Booze Science, German Geography & Essential South America: New Books for Wine Geeks

One of the most appealing things about the study of wine is that the subject is shaped like a “T,” broad at the top, with lots of aspects and elements that are fun to study  even at a superficial level, but with great depth, too, for anyone with a truly geeky disposition. There’s no end to what you can learn if you decide to drill down. Do you see the “T” shape?

Three recent books exploit these properties in different ways and will reward both browsers and drill-down geeks in equal measure.

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Adam Rogers, Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Adam Rogers is articles editor at Wired magazine and he combines his interest in science and his passion for spirits in Proof, which is organized around the T-formation. The chapters take us through the process of alcohol creation and consumption in order: Yeast, Sugar, Fermentation, Distillation, Aging, Smell and Taste, Body and Brain, Hangover. In each case, Rogers drills down into the science and history, but in a lively way, focusing on people as much as process. Inevitably the reader learns a lot about things that might not have seemed that interesting – he really draws you into the story.

I was disappointed that wine didn’t get a bigger role, but after  all it is not the only fermented beverage and Rogers admits that he is really a “brown spirits” guy. Still, there is enough here to make wine lovers happy.

Unexpectedly, wine economics makes an appearance in the form of the Princeton gang behind the Liquid Assets analysis of wines and wine ratings,which eventually evolved into the American Association of Wine Economists. “The entire endeavor has turned into a streamlined locomotive of skepticism about the vast, lucrative world of wine tasting and reviews. It’s not a train you want to get in the way of,” Rogers writes.

He may be right about the locomotive effect, but I’d like to think this group has more on its agenda than beating up wine critics. Interesting that this piece of wine geek trivia makes the book, but I suppose that concerns about critics and their influence are not limited to wine. Proof is a fun book and a good addition to your reading list.

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Dieter Braatz, Ulrich Sautter and Ingo Swoboda (translated by Kevin D. Goldberg), Wine Atlas of Germany. University of California, 2014.

I just love wine atlases and this is the first wine atlas of Germany that I have seen. I takes that T-shape idea to the logical extreme, moving from Germany’s long wine history and a discussion of the most important grape varieties down through the regions Ahr to Württemberg and then finally down to the level of the individual vineyard. This vineyard specific approach will remind many readers of an analysis of Burgundy.

Some of the beautiful maps are amazingly detailed – very impressive! The authors take up the challenge of identifying the best vineyards in each region, classifying them as exceptional, superior and merely good (plus the hundreds not classified). Then each of the noted vineyards is analyzed in suitable technical detail: area, steepness, soil, most important grape varieties, most important producers and the style of wine produced. The detail continues in the index, which provides specific information for each vineyard and village and contact details for each major wine producer.

Casual readers will enjoy the maps, the photos by Hendrik Holler  and overviews while the serious student will find her reward in the details. Because I have some general knowledge about the Nahe region I focused on that section and learned a great deal. Highly recommended.

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Evan Goldstein, Wines of South America: The Essential Guide. University of California Press, 2014.

Evan Goldstein’s new book on South American wine has a whole different shape from the others in this review. His topic is so broad — everything you might want to know about wine in the continent of South America — that depth is necessarily limited.

That makes this book different, but not necessarily less valuable, since most of us have as much to learn about South America as we do about booze science and German geography.  Pulling together this amount of information is quite an accomplishment and if it is a bit thin in places, well that’s what the web is for. At least you will know the questions you want to ask!

Let me give you a sense of this book’s broad scope. First there’s the geographical sweep — big chapters on Argentina and Chile, smaller ones on Brazil and Uruguay and then a quick survey of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. You might not have known that they produce wine in all these places, but they do and their industries are quite interesting (we’ve sampled some Peruvian Cab and it was very respectable indeed in a Bordeaux kind of way).

Then of course you have the regions within each country (and the top producers), the grape varieties and thumbnail profiles of dozens and dozens of producers.  That’s a lot to deal with, but wait because there is even more in the form of brief chapters on touring South American wine country, dining South American style, pages of lists of recommended wines of various types and prices, and a guide to understanding South African wine labels.

Here’s how I found the book. When I was in unfamiliar territory I discovered new and interesting facts around every corner. When I was in a region I already know quite well, I could sense limited depth.  That is actually not a bad balance, earning this volume a place on the wine geek bookshelf — unless you are that rare wine geek who already knows South America very very well.

One response

  1. I’ve added Proof to my Goodreads list and will probably pick it up the next time I go book shopping, and I’ll have to add the other two to my Christmas list…my family enjoys doing themes for me every year which center on one of my many geek interests, and I believe wine will be the theme of my gifts this year.

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