It may be some compensation for the drinker decrying the difficult 2017 vintage (and the tiny quantities of wine it has given us) that this year has produced a bumper crop of drink books. There are histories and tasting guides, booze-soaked memoirs and a global tour of the most successful wineries caught up in the current craze for organic, natural and biodynamic practices.
This last is probably the most needed: as Jane Anson admits in Wine Revolution (Jacqui Small, £25), there aren’t any rules governing the designation of natural wines, so a celebration of the people making great wines while respecting the planet seems timely. Anson keeps in mind that most of us want something to drink with our supper, rather than a dissertation on winemaking styles; she taps sommeliers as well as winemakers for recommendations on food-matching and divides her wines by style. This has the advantage both of making the book more navigable and signalling the amount of alcohol you’re likely to encounter: a “fresh, crisp white” being less likely to knock you out than a “full and warming red” – although there are plenty of the latter here too, so you can lose consciousness with a good conscience.
The book – which looks gorgeous, too – is an extremely useful and well written compendium that, unlike a lot of writing on these new practices, never descends into finger-wagging or sanctimony.
Nobody could accuse Rachel McCormack’s Chasing the Dram (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) of sanctimony, either. A Scot who has spent years in Barcelona and London, McCormack loves whisky and hates the traditional food accompaniments, which range from bad pies to peanuts. She blames this on the tradition of whisky as a man’s drink, and sets out to change things, dragging friends along on a whisky-drinking odyssey and suggesting dishes to accompany their drams.
McCormack is about as interested in promoting the heather-dotted, loch-drenched stereotype of Scotland as an 18th-century whisky smuggler was in filing a tax return, and sometimes this, allied to a headlong writing style and a willingness to share the most disappointing or pointless elements of her journey, can leave the reader a little deflated. But then she will wax lyrical on flambé, or give serious consideration to a toke on a massive joint en route to Johnnie Walker’s grave in Kilmarnock. There is surely room, in an industry where rarified special editions sell for thousands, for a grumpy Scottish cookery writer who can, by her own admission, only afford supermarket blends, but knows a decent dram when she gets her hands on one.
Another idiosyncratic look at hard liquor is Ruth Ball’s Rough Spirits & High Society (British Library, £16.99). Ball, founder of a company that makes bespoke liqueurs, is interested in the public spaces where, historically, drink has been consumed. She draws careful class distinctions: inns and taverns for the wealthy, alehouses and gin shops for the poor, the suffragette drinking tea while discussing votes, the gentry fomenting political rebellion over coffee in private clubs.
The book is published by the British Library, which first contacted Ball to create a liqueur that evoked the smell of old books: she achieved this by blending musty citrus with vanilla. The library’s involvement means the illustrations are sumptuous: every page has something delightful, from a mischievous painting of a 13th-century French monk tippling from the barrel to a Cruikshank cartoon on fighting in the coffee shop.
For serious scholarship on drink’s history, turn to Rod Phillips. This Canadian historian has already written a “short” history of 9,000 Years of Wine; now he takes on the greatest wine-producing nation. French Wine: A History (University of California Press, £27.95) begins with the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans and progresses all the way to modern debates around terroir and the decline of French wine-drinking in favour of – whisper it – water.
The wine that the masses previously quaffed so enthusiastically was at best rotgut and at worst actually poisonous. In 1794, the new post-Revolutionary authorities analysed samples of “wine” from 68 bars and taverns. The tally of actual wines was eight. Since the disaster of phylloxera, the vine-killing louse that arrived in the 19th century, French vineyards have not reached their previous extent; still, over-production inspired a 1930s campaign to persuade the French to drink more (and they already drank plenty: 121 litres per capita, the highest figure in the world). Doctors advocated wine’s health benefits; children were taught wine regions in geography. None of which prevented the decline in quantity, even as quality rose to a standard no medieval baron, much less peasant, would have believed possible. This is addictively readable history, Phillips’s easy style backed up by formidable research.
Lastly, an indispensable guide to wine appreciation: Michael Schuster has updated his award-winning Essential Winetasting (Mitchell Beazley, £18.99). As well as grapes and styles, there are techniques from winemaking to decanting, and Schuster is not above the use of a piece of Parmesan to enhance the reader’s understanding of tannin. The updates include more on blind tasting and on organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking, though Schuster has the practical man’s impatience with trendy nonsense: “Wine no more makes itself,” he says of so-called minimal intervention, “than an egg boils itself.”
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special