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Book Review – Grapes and Wines, By Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand

By December 22, 2015No Comments

This is the completely revised edition of the book that was first published in 2001. It is in essence one of those timeless reference books that will always be useful for any wine lover. Subtitled “a comprehensive guide to varieties and flavours”, its proposed scope and depth could be seen as intimidating, both to write and to read. But without giving too much away, it does deliver.

Any serious wine enthusiast will have ‘Wine Grapes’ by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz as the source and ultimate reference book on grape vine varieties, their background and the flavours of the wines. The inevitable question is how does ‘Grapes and Wines’ compare, and indeed, if one has the masterly ‘Wine Grapes’, does one need to have Clarke and Rand’s book at all?

The Oz Clarke Style
‘Grapes and Wine’ is joint effort by two well-known wine writers, Oz Clarke being somewhat more than that; one could say a phenomenon, being appreciated as a personable presenter in different forms of media, and even better in real life. It is really Oz Clarke’s enthusiasm, passion, outlook and style that prevails in the book and its material. His writing is descriptive, evocative for the senses of vision, smell and taste, and he manages to convey a sense of place, culture, feeling and reference about all he writes. It’s infectious writing, and can be addictive to read. If you’re in a serious, academic frame of mind, you might find his comments flip and his humour out of place or unnecessary. But for the general reader, the tone and level is set perfectly. Clarke’s writing is what makes this book work. You want to keep on flipping over the next page, or refer backwards or forwards to related material to get the bigger picture continuously. It really is a reference book that one can read from cover to cover.

The scholarly ‘Wine Grapes’ by Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz is far more serious, and authoritative, and thoroughly convincing with its presentation of facts. It’s the go-to book if one wants to be absolutely sure about the background of a grape variety. It is written carefully and precisely, and is a true reference. For what it is, it’s very readable, but it doesn’t have the fun, flair and colour of Clarke and Rand’s book, but then it’s not meant to.

Comprehensive Scope
Clarke and Rand tackle the comprehensive scope of their subject with a number of introductory chapters, which cover the history of the vine plant and how the grapevine is managed today discussing modern topics such as clones and genetic modification. They give a global picture of the wine in today’s world, covering the essential factors of climate, sites, soils, and the contemporary methods growing and managing vines, and refers to organics, biodynamics and the seasonal patterns. And there is a chapter on the options on how grapes can be managed in the winery.

The heart of the book is the ‘A-Z of Grape Varieties’, which makes up nearly 270 of the 336 pages. Here, each of the entries has information on the name, origin, the style of wine it makes, and how highly regarded it is. Thus the reader can quickly gauge if the variety is of any significance in the scheme of things. There are over 300 varieties listed. (As a comparison, the ‘Wine Grapes’ book by Robinson and Co. has 1,368 vine varieties covered.)
Clarke and Rand have 17 varieties they regard as the world’s great classics, and a lot more attention is obviously given to these, with material describing its history and place in the world in a hierarchical view, geographical and growing history, information on viticulture and vinification, and how it performs around the world. And there are plenty of descriptive words on what the wines can taste like. The authors also list who makes the best examples and provide recommendations for readers to try. In alphabetical order, the 17 ‘Classic Grapes’ are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Garnacha Tinta (Grenache Noir), Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah/Shiraz, Tempranillo, Viognier and Zinfandel. I found Clarke and Rand’s overall feelings and respect for a number of these different to what I’ve come to think of them. One must remember the author’s global approach and experience, and how insular and parochial we may be towards some of these varieties.

There are 15 other varieties that Clarke and Rand call ‘Major Grapes’, these being: Albarino, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Dolcetto, Malbec, Malvasia, Marsanne, Mourvedre, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinotage, Roussanne, Silvaner and Touriga Nacional. These varieties get a more in-depth two page treatment over the lesser varieties, very much in an abbreviated form that the ‘Classic Grapes’ get. Again one might take issue with the placement of a couple of these: Malbec and Pinot Gris in particular, these being candidates for ‘Classic Grapes’ for me. But again, I must bow to the author’s greater global understanding.

Visually Plentiful
One must admit that this book is packed with visual features. Colour photographs of vines, vineyards, topography and people abound. Each of the ‘Classic Grapes’ has a painting by Lizzie Riches capturing the character of the grape. There are maps of the world and charts showing distribution, and graphs showing drinking windows, as well as strong bottle shots of top examples, supplemented by plenty of label reproductions. These make the book extremely accessible for readers and browsers alike.

Finishing the book off are appendices, one with a list of the world’s better known wines with the grapes responsible for them; there’s a glossary of technical terms, and an index of grape names and their synonyms.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its accessibility, brilliantly concise summaries of the varieties, and greater detail for the more important ones, and the positive enthusiasm of the writing. I believe I’d easily get an understanding of what each variety list would offer the wine drinker by looking it up in ‘Grapes and Wines’. If I needed more precise and technical information, I’d go to ‘Wine Grapes’. The truth is I keep both books together, and probably use Clarke and Rand’s book in the first instance. If that’s not a great recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Grapes and Wine, By Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand
Sterling Epicure, New York, 2011 ISBN 978-1-4549-1598-0
RRP USD$25.00

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