Drinks Oz Clarke Essential Wine Book

ISBN 13: 9780671670498

Essential Wine Book

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9780671670498: Essential Wine Book

Oz Clarke brings a fresh, no-nonsense, and often controversial approach to wine and adds a special sparkle to this encyclopedic reference with his humor, enthusiasm and erudition. Over 700 illustrations and maps in full color.

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About the Author:

Oz Clarke is one of the world's most celebrated wine authorities, distinguished for a unique writing style that renders his books both entertaining and informative. His passion for the subject dates from his student days at Oxford University, where he won tasting competitions at a precociously early age. Since then his tasting skills have won him an international reputation and he is acknowledged as having one of the finest palates of anyone writing about wine today. He has won all the major wine writing awards both in the UK and the USA, including the Glenfiddich (three times), Andrè Simon, Wine Guild (three times), James Beard, Julia Child, World Food Media, and Lanson (five times) awards. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

France

Nobody can do it like the French. Many try, none quite manage it. But the fact that all over the world, winemakers have taken the French model and are moving hell and high water to coy it must mean something.

By a mixture of historical chance, geological peculiarity and climatic conditions, France is still the world's greatest wine-making nation. By historical chance it had a series of natural trading partners to the north. France has some of the coldest and some of the hottest vineyards in the world, and consequently, between the two extremes, an array of wine regions where particular grapes can find virtually perfect conditions to ripen. But not to overripen; and this is the secret of France's success.

Wine Regions

France started off by influencing the New World -- even now, if you ask many an Australian or Californian winemaker about the models for his wine, he will name a village or two in Bordeaux or Burgundy. But then the New World began to have an influence on France. New wine-making techniques filtered in. The use of new oak barriques, introduced to the New World by Bordeaux and Burgundy, became so fashionable that other French regions have decided that they, too, want that rich, buttery taste in their wines. and most recently the south of France has started producing wines, often under simple Vin de Pays labels, that are every bit as upfront and fruity as their equivalents from South Australia or the Napa Valley. The wine world has got smaller. But still, no matter to which style you turn, France is there. And without ever admitting that she cares what other countries do, she still manages to absorb the best of what she sees.

So let's take a quick look around France's wine regions. In the far north Champagne uses classic grape varieties -- Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay -- to make lean, barely ripe still wine which is the perfect base for the greatest of sparkling wines. Just to the east, a rainshadow under the Vosges mountains allows Alsace to make intensely perfumed, yet dry wines from such Germanic grapes as Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Away from the German border, south of Paris, begins one of the most contentious, passionately involving wine regions of the world -- Burgundy. The whites, from the Chardonnay grape, range from the frosty, steely chill of Chablis to the power, ripeness and beauty of the Côte d'Or, where there are wines that combine honeyed richness with savoury fragrance in a way that has had two generations of winemakers across the globe wearing their fingers to the bone trying to reproduce them. Also on the Côte d'Or the Pinot Noir does its best to disprove its reputation as one of the two greatest red wine grapes in the world, but in the hands of the top growers makes wines of such haunting, perfumed brilliance that one is almost prepared to forgive the many mediocre bottles.

A short leap south to the Rhône and it is the Syrah's turn. This dark, strong, pungent grape makes the great red wines of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, as well as contributing to a host of others. Along France's warm Mediterranean coast, in Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, the vine grows almost too easily and vast quantities of ordinary red and white wine are made. But the region is undergoing a revolution and there are many exciting, modern wines being made from international varieties led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay.

On the south-west coast is the Mecca for red wine makers: Bordeaux. Any red wine maker who wishes to be admitted to the international top rank must sooner or later try his hand at Cabernet Sauvignon. The sweet wines of Sauternes, too, are indisputably some of the world's greatest dessert wines. Bordeaux's maritime climate also influences the great rivers of the Dordogne, Lot, Garonne and Tarn and here in the South-West, a colourful ragbag of grape varieties is used to make almost every wine style imaginable.

Finally, turning back north again, the Loire Valley offers a wide range of wines from different grapes. Loire Sauvignons used to set the standard for tangy, fresh whites; now, since New Zealand has shown what she can do, the Loire must share the honours.

The other way in which France has set the pace for the world is in its Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée laws. Except in Germany, these have formed the basis for demarcation systems elsewhere in Europe and in North America and the southern hemisphere.

CLASSIFICATIONS

French wine is divided into four categories. Vin de table or table wine is the most basic level. The regulations governing its production are minimal.

Vin de Pays Literally, 'Country Wine'. This category was created to improve the general level of basic table wine by giving the best of it a regional identity, and in this it has succeeded superbly. There are now almost 100 Vins de Pays. Quality is variable, from the dreadful to the superb, so buy from a reliable retailer. There are limits on yields but regulations are far more relaxed than for VDQS or AC wines. There are three levels: Vins de Pays Régionaux are four areas which between them carve up most of France's vineyards: Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France covers the Loire Valley; Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan includes the South-West (but not Bordeaux); Vin de Pays des Comtés Rhodaniens applies to the northern Rhône and Savoie; and Vin de Pays d'Oc (a name appearing on a lot of good-value wines these days) is for Provence and the Midi. Vins de Pays Départementaux cover a single departement: Vin de Pays de l'Aude, for example. Vins de Pays de Zone are the most tightly controlled and can apply to areas as small as a single commune. Vin de Pays de l'Uzège, for example, is for wines from the locality of Uzès in the Gard department.

Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) This is a kind of junior Appellation Contrôlée. There are rules governing yields, grape varieties and the like, but they are less strict than they would be for AC wines. Some wines are VDQS rather than AC because the wrong grapes are grown in the right place; for example, Sauvignon de St-Bris is VDQS because it is made from Sauvignon Blanc in the Burgundy area, where the only white wines accorded AC status are Chardonnay and Aligoté. Others are VDQS because the general standard of the wines is not yet good enough for promotion to full AC status.

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AC) This is the top designation for French wines. The area of each AC is determined by terroir, a French term that covers soil, aspect and climate. Appellation rules then govern the grape varieties allowed, the permitted yields (notoriously elastic, this), the alcohol level of the wines, the methods of pruning and picking, the density of planting and the wine-making. Sometimes bottling in the region of production is mandatory. All AC wines have to be submitted to a tasting panel to make sure they are typical of the appellation -- but an AC designation is not in any way a guarantee of quality. It merely guarantees that the wine has been produced in accordance with the rules, which is not the same thing at all. The consumer's best guarantee of quality is the name of the producer on the bottle.

Bordeaux

What a change in recent years. When the first edition of this book appeared in 1985 I wrote, 'Bordeaux is the greatest red wine area in the world.' I could still write that. But if I did I'd be ignoring California and Australia, not to mention the huge improvements in Burgundy. I'd be ignoring, in fact, years of dedicated recent work by red wine makers all over the world. Bordeaux is still the biggest red wine area in the world. It's still the most famous. At its best, yes, it still produces red wines that can outshine almost anything from anywhere for sheer style and excitement. But the world has changed. All those regions that, in 1985, were just beginning to raise their heads, look at Bordeaux and say to themselves, Hey, we could do that, are now doing it. There is good red wine pouring out of regions we hadn't heard of a decade ago. It's not so much that Bordeaux has gone down; it's more that the rest of the world is clamouring for its share of attention.

And is Bordeaux responding to the challenge? Is it saying to the newcomers, Forget it, kids. You want flavour? We'll show you flavour. You want reliability? No problem. Is it saying that? Well, yes and no. The top wines are, to some extent. But by top wines I don't necessarily mean those with the highest position in Bordeaux's official pecking orders, like the Médoc classification of 1855. I mean the wines made by people who care, who are passionate about what they do. Sometimes these are the most famous names in Bordeaux, sometimes they're not. It sounds harsh, maybe, but I'd say there are only around 200 properties in Bordeaux (out of several thousand) that meet those criteria, and even fewer -- about 50 -- producing wine that is genuinely exciting enough to be called world class. And as for the basic reds -- well, I think we have to ask ourselves if basic red Bordeaux really has a role in the world of wine any more. So much of it is thin, stalky stuff, from vines that have been allowed to overproduce that it has a failure rate far higher than ten years ago.

With the white wines, though, the story is different. They've improved at every level. At the top level, the Graves region produces fine dry whites, but basic Bordeaux Blanc is streets ahead of what it was ten years ago. And the sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac have gone from being ultra-unfashionable to ultra-fashionable. The producers have made tremendous improvements in quality (though some properties could still make more) and with the change in their fortunes they have come up against the same problem faced by the producers of red Bordeaux. Other countries -- New Zealand, Australia, Hungary -- can also make superb botrytis-affected sweet wines. Bordeaux is facing competition on all fronts. But it can count its lucky stars that it's so versatile and part of the reason for this lies in its location in the south-west of France.

CLIMATE AND SOIL

The Bordeaux region straddles the Garonne and Dordogne rivers which join up to form the Gironde just north of the city itself and benefits from several different geological and climatic advantages. First, its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean means that although Bordeaux is on a similar latitude to the Rhône Valley with its harsh, dry climate, it has relatively mild winters and summers. The Landes, a large wedge of forest between the vineyards and the sea, soaks off some of the seaside rain as well as stopping salt winds from blasting the vineyards. South of the city of Bordeaux the rainfall increases, and in the small area of Sauternes the ice-cold spring waters of the river Ciron join the warmer waters of the Garonne. In late summer this conjunction of warm and cold waters causes mists to rise off the water, to be broken up into hazy warmth by the sun which drifts back up the Ciron Valley past the village of Sauternes. Here, as in few other wine regions, the warm, humid atmosphere creates the 'noble rot' fungus (see page 63) which in turn creates many of the world's greatest sweet wines.

So Bordeaux's growing season is usually long and warm. But that wouldn't be enough without the soil being right. And, luckily, it is. The most important factor is the gravel banks that are a feature of the Graves and Médoc vineyards. In the best villages, like Margaux and St-Julien, this gravel topsoil can be about 1m (3 feet) deep. Gravel not only drains well, but is poor in nutrients and retains warmth from the sun. The warmth helps to ripen the grapes while the lack of nutrients and the relative dryness force the vine roots deep into the subsoil for food. It is said that vines don't like having wet feet but do like to be made to struggle; this gravel topsoil on a sandy-clay subsoil rich in minerals but well below the surface is ideal, and the Cabernet Sauvignon vine, which thrives on a good battle with its soil, is in its element here.

In Pomerol and St-Émilion, on the right bank of the Dordogne, clay is the dominant feature, sometimes mixed with gravel or limestone, sometimes packed with iron deposits, and the quicker-ripening Merlot grape likes this cooler, damper soil. And in the southern Graves and Sauternes, the soil is mainly limestone and chalk, the two most suitable bases for anyone wanting to make great white wine.

GRAPE VARIETIES AND WINE STYLES

Almost all Bordeaux is made by blending two or more varieties of grape, with the strengths of one balancing the weakness of another.

THE REDS

Cabernet Sauvignon This is possibly the world's most famous grape variety, and it is planted in every single country that has enough sun to ripen it. It has small, dark, thick-skinned berries and ripens late, so is ideal in the warm gravel soils of the Médoc and Graves. Cabernet gives dark, tannic wine with a strong initial acid attack, but when aged in new oak barrels it has stark, pure blackcurrant fruit and a cedary, tobaccoey, library-dry perfume which is stunning (new oak barrels give tannin, but at the same time the wine draws out delicious soft, spicy vanilla and butter softness from the wood). It is the main grape in the Haut-Médoc, but is always blended to soften its often austere character.

Cabernet Franc This second Cabernet variety produces lighter-coloured, softer wines than Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes slightly earthy but also with good blackcurrant fruit. It is used for blending in St-Émilion, Pomerol, tile Graves and the Médoc, only being grown for its own virtues in the cool Loire Valley.

Merlot Dominant in St-Émilion and Pomerol, and used to soften Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc and the Graves, Merlot ripens early as well as being a big cropper. It gives a gorgeous, succulent, minty, honeyed blackcurrant or plum-flavoured wine, which explains why Pomerols and St-Émilions take less effort to enjoy than Médocs.

Petit Verdot A tough, acid grape with a licorice and plum taste, and a heavenly perfume, but it ripens late and doesn't crop predictably, so isn't much planted.

Malbec A rather bloated, juicy grape, not much seen, though very important upriver in Cahors where it is known as Auxerrois.

THE WHITES

Sémillon This is Bordeaux's great white grape, and the mainstay of all Sauternes and Barsac. It gives lusciously sweet, honeyed, lanolin-rich wines when affected by noble rot. As a dry wine it can have an excellent full freshness like apple skins and cream that becomes waxy with age, and is often oakmatured.

Sauvignon Blanc Usually blended with Sémillon for its acid bite, though sometimes nowadays it is made very dry and unblended for its sharp, green nettly freshness. Oak aging adds spice and richness.

Muscadelle A musky, exotic grape traditionally used to create a sensation of false noble rot in poor vintages, and used in small quantities to add richness to the sweet wines.

Bordeaux produces enormous amounts...

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