Archive for the ‘Wine and food literature’ Category

Two for One

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

For the fourth blog in my short (and very occasional) series on favourite wine writing you get two for the price of one because, uniquely, Rosemary George has multiple books on the list. Both are there for the same reason – they take lesser known wine regions and make you want to explore them.

French Country Wines by Rosemary George (or maybe you'd worked that out already)

French Country Wines by Rosemary George (or maybe you’d worked that out already)

French Country Wines was just one of a fantastic series of wine books published by Faber and Faber in the 1980s and 90s, but this is the one I go back to more often than any other. It includes detailed information on all of France’s lesser-known wine appellations while ignoring completely the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. While that appeals to the inverted snob in me, what makes the book a pleasure to read is the quality of Rosemary George’s writing. This isn’t a dry collection of facts or a list of scores out of 100 but a lovingly rendered description of the regions and their winemakers.

Of course, in wine terms it’s largely out of date, harking back to a time when wines like Marcillac were barely surviving and the wine revolution in the Languedoc had hardly started. Now you can find Marcillac on the shelves of adventurous UK wine merchants and supermarket shelves are awash with Pays d’Oc. Even so, there are wines mentioned that you will struggle to find outside their local regions and if you’re travelling in France the book still serves as a useful reference guide. And it’s still a good read.

The Wines of Chablis spends most of its time discussing, well, Chablis, but it’s the small section on the other vineyards of the Yonne region that makes this book special. When George writes about the northern Burgundies made in the villages of Irancy, St. Bris or Coulanges, or around the towns of Tonnerre, Joigny and Auxerre, there is an element of social history and nostalgia that I find attractive – frequently it feels like she is penning the obituaries of dying wines, that without her writing they would disappear without a trace.

The Wines of Chablis

The Wines of Chablis

At the time (the book was published in 1984), Irancy was already recovering from its post-war low, but elsewhere there were a often just a few acres of vines planted here, another patch there, while many winemakers were old, with nobody destined to replace them. The book contains reprints of detailed maps from the early 1900s showing once famous vineyards like (the unfortunately named) Migraines or Quétards that by the 1980s had disappeared, often swallowed by urban expansion.

An updated version, The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois, printed in 2007, still devotes most of its pages to Chablis but it paints a far rosier picture of the rest of region. A new generation of winemakers has come along, in the process replanting some of the long lost vineyards, while Yonne wines, although hardly common outside their immediate locality, are available in the UK and USA. But while the new edition has plenty of colour photos that the original lacks and is the more up to date as a reference guide, it has lost the maps and (naturally) the sense of nostalgia for better times, which for me made up a lot of the book’s charm.

Both books, or three if you count the updated version, should be available with a bit of searching on Amazon. Happy hunting and happy reading, perhaps with a glass of Marcillac or chilled St. Bris at your side.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I have the nerve to comment on other people’s writing. I also write about anything else Rhône food and wine-related that takes my fancy. Feel free to have a look around. There’s also a Facebook page with plenty of shorter bits and pieces and, last but by no means least, the Rhône Wine Tours website, which you’re only allowed to look at if you promise to book a tour or a tasting.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know…And Then Some

Friday, January 17th, 2014

The 3rd in a short and occasional series on my favourite wine books.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

Oz Clarke might have helped to get me interested in wine and Kermit Lynch might have inspired me to make wine my way of earning a crust, but it’s John Livingstone-Learmonth who has cornered the market when it comes to books on Rhône wine. I could have chosen my trusty battered copy of “Wines of the Rhône”, published in 1992 and still the best guide to the Rhône in general. But in the end it had to be Livingstone-Learmonth’s magisterial tome, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”.

There are downsides to the book – as the title makes clear, you’re not going to find anything about the southern Rhône vineyards and its 700-plus pages must weigh a good 5lbs. So it’s not the book to take on a wine holiday if you’re travelling the length of the river. But the scope of  it makes you believe that if JL-L had tried to cover the south too the book may never have been finished, or would have needed a trolley to be carried around.

The introduction looks at modern winemaking methods in the valley and the history of wine in the region; the grape varieties used and the climate they grow in. But the level of detail gets even more impressive when it comes to the different appellations. So, for example, Côte-Rôtie has its own chapter starting with a map precise enough to show individual vineyards, followed by a description of the geography and geology, the “terroir”, of each place in minute detail. That could, should, be dry as dust, but the tone is lively and JL-L has roped in the winemakers to give their descriptions of the vineyards and the different styles they produce. The result is certainly geared to readers with a real interest in wine – wine geeks like me, perhaps – but it hardly reads like an academic paper

Livingstone-Learmonth then describes what surely was every Côte-Rôtie wine estate that existed at the time of the book’s publication (2005), giving each at least a potted history, sometimes a number of pages, as well as a review of their recent wines. Finally, there’s a general overview of previous vintages back to 1955.

That whole process then gets repeated for Condrieu, St. Joseph, Hermitage, and so on. And for anybody whose head isn’t spinning by this point, there are plenty of statistics at the back of the book to get your teeth into.

The passing of time inevitably means that some details are out of date, what with new estates appearing and old ones being sold or split up, or one generation passing the reins on to the next, sometimes with a dramatic change in quality (for good or ill). But that shouldn’t detract from a remarkable achievement.

In short, this book is essential if you love Rhône wines.



PS. I once went to a tiny little wine fair outside the equally tiny (but sadly not very pretty) village of Les Pilles in the southern Rhône. Roughly half a dozen producers had turned up, a few small independents and representatives from a couple of co-operatives, all of whom make wine in the obscure little Coteaux des Baronnies region whose wines you rarely see outside the region, so hardly of interest to anyone writing for an English-speaking audience.  I had an excuse to be there – I work with one of the estates (I didn’t say the wines aren’t good) and I live nearby. Now I don’t know where John Livinstone-Learmonth lives, but there he was interviewing the winemakers and scribbling notes. That’s dedication.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, not the John Livingstone-Learmonth fan club. If you’ve found this you’ll know that the blog contains lots of other pieces about the Rhône, wine and most combinations thereof. There’s also a website – – and a Facebook page with fewer words and more pictures. We’re always looking for more “likes”, but occasional visitors are welcome too. JL-L has his own website, Drink Rhône.

My Wine Merchant Hero

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Number 2 in a short series on my favourite wine writing.

My copy of Adventures on the Wine Route, found in a second-hand bookshop. Thankfully, it’s now back in print.

If Oz Clarke’s book “French Red and Rosé Wines” did more than any other to get me interested in wine, Kermit Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route” was the book that introduced me to the joys of being a wine merchant. It’s witty, sometimes gossipy, warm, passionate, a bit rock ‘n’ roll, and despite being somewhat out of date (it was first published in 1988, but was reprinted, at least in the UK, recently), it still contains some of the most sensible views on wine I’ve ever read.

For those of you who don’t know, Kermit Lynch is one of the most highly respected wine merchants in America. The book describes his discovery of “authentic” French wines, for him the point at which he first grasped the notion of “terroir”, that complex interplay of winemaker, soil and climate.

The pen-portraits of individual producers and the different wine regions of France that make up each chapter are lovingly-written and entertaining (and make me want to drink the wine), but the real reason I love this book is the way Kermit Lynch scorns both the idea of scoring wines as if there are invariable absolutes of quality and the wine snob’s resulting search for only the “best”. As he asks, best for what?

“Take two impeccable wines, the Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé…and a bottle of Château Margaux…Compare the two side by side. Award points. Do not be surprised if the Margaux wins handily. Now serve the same two wines with boiled artichoke and rate them again. The Margaux is bitter and metallic-tasting, whereas the Bandol rosé stands up and dances like Baryshnikov.”

Comparing a “light, spirited” young Monthélie burgundy to a far grander Musigny, he says that there are meals when the supposedly inferior Monthélie would simply work better and that anybody who would only drink the Musigny is just a status seeker. I have to say that this appeals to the underdog-lover in me, but Lynch is only just getting started. This little rant feeds into another of his pet hates – the fact that better is often equated with bigger (oh I’m with you on this one, Kermit):

“Rejecting a wine because it is not big enough is like rejecting a book because it is not long enough, or a piece of music because it is not loud enough.”

“Study the vintage charts…you will see that the hot years, whose wines are dark-coloured and full of alcohol, receive the highest ranking. Vintages of light-coloured, light-bodied wines, no matter how aromatic or fine the flavours, receive low marks…I do not care whose vintage chart you choose, you could turn it sideways and upside down and it would still be no less helpful as a guide to buying a good bottle of wine.”

Despite the impression I may have given, this is a warm and generous book. It just happens to have an opinion. And in the end, that’s why its great – it agrees with me.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, packed to the rafters with wine and food related stuff. Take a look around. And if you click on the link – – you can have a look at the website itself, which is full of  information about our winemakers, things to do in the area and, yes, details of our tours and tastings. We also have a facebook page were plenty of shorter pieces and photos get posted. Go on, you know you want to.


Here’s Where it All Started

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

I suspect none of you has ever wondered why I became interested in wine, but I’m going to tell you anyway as a means of introducing a short series on my favourite wine writing.

Until I went to university I had never drunk wine, and when I did start it was with Lambrusco. I remember feeling terribly sophisticated when I moved on to the Entre-Deux-Mers sauvignon blanc (mixed with semillon, too?) that I bought in my local Sainsbury’s. I was in my early twenties before I visited France, when I used to drink the merlot made by the local Duras co-operative in the south west.

But it was when my then girlfriend’s father made me taste two St. Emilions side by side that something clicked. I don’t remember the producers but I do remember the vintages – 1983 and 1985 – and I also remember thinking that the wines tasted good but good in different ways. That started a mild fixation on the wines of Bordeaux, although strangely with the  rather chewier cabernet sauvignon-based wines of the Médoc that I bought in my local Oddbins.

The book that started it all.

I was given my first wine book, the rather hefty “Sainsbury’s Book of Wine”, around that time, but it was another, rather slimmer Sainsbury’s book that had the bigger impact – Oz Clarke’s “French Red and Rosé Wines”. For the first time, I read about wines from obscure regions like Marcillac and Madiran, Bandol and Bourgeuil. It didn’t actually matter to me that I   hadn’t drunk these wines, just that they were out there, and Oz Clarke’s writing made them seem the most exciting thing possible, his enthusiasm jumping from the page. Appropriately enough for a Rhône Wine blog, here’s an extract from his entry on syrah:

“…it was the startling mixture of flavours that got me hooked. So savage to start with – the tannins tugging at your gums, the tarry, peppery brashness overlaid with a thick, hot jammy fruit – that you feel sure the wine will never be remotely civilised. Yet the change does come. The tar and pepper subside into a smoky, leathery perfume, while the tannins drop away to reveal a wonderful sweet fruit – blackberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and plums – the black chewiness of dark treacle and liquorice, the slightly bitter edge of pine, the soothing texture of cream.”

I rest my case.


Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, a sort of open house for anything wine-related. You can read more on our website – – and see other bits and bobs on Facebook.