Top 5 books for wine lovers

Wine can be an intimidating subject for many people. With so many wines, varietals, vintages, and regions, it can be hard to know where to start. What's the difference between chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc? Why are American wines categorized by grape variety and French wines by region? Was 2009 a good year or bad year for wine? Is this bottle worth $27, or can I find one just as good for less?

Whereas you can pick up a six-pack and enjoy it without too much fuss and mix a cocktail with complete assurance, wines can seem dauntingly complex. You want to know something before you buy, but how do you get to that place?

You could spend a lifetime randomly tasting and comparing. Or pick a few dependable wineries, or a region or style you like, and never vary. Or, better yet, you can study a little and learn something before you leap.

Here are five books I think every wine lover would enjoy and learn a lot from. Combined with liberal tasting, these books should relieve any fears and answer most of your questions.

The Wine Lover's Companion
by Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler-Herbst ($16)
This pocketbook-sized dictionary of wine words is great to have at hand as you read other books because the odd nomenclature of wine is one of the biggest obstacles to initial understanding. Words from wine labels, words used to describe wine, alternative grape

names, obscure regions, technical language, wine making terms, and even specific wineries are all here. There are even phonetic pronunciations of every foreign word (why don't all wine books do this?).

How to Taste
by Jancis Robinson ($25)
This is a hands-on seminar with one of the top writers in the wine world. At its center are two chapters covering the grapes that make both white and red wine, each filled with practical insight and reasonable descriptions that don't go overboard. Chapters cover sparkling and fortified wines and the synergy created between wine and food. Robinson opens the book with step-by-step directions for assessing the qualities of a wine's appearance in the glass, its aroma, taste, and finish and what all those qualities can tell you about the wine. Throughout the author suggests wine flights to taste and build your understanding and tells you how to set up a tasting so that it will be the most meaningful.

The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia
by Tom Stevenson ($50)
This is not really an "encyclopedia," but it is the most inclusive survey, by country, of all the world's wine regions and wines. There are generous sections for every country broken into parts for each region, further subdivided into appellations, with the lowdown on grape varieties and production standards of every named wine you can think of. Each regional section includes a review of some of the top cuvees. There are also helpful sections on winemaking, vine growing, oak, soil types, and tasting technique. It's big and beautifully illustrated and so inclusive that it simultaneously elucidates and overwhelms. A geek's dream of a book.

The World Atlas of Wine
by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson ($50)
Like the Sotheby's Encyclopedia, this is organized by region and then by appellation. It's full of great, very detailed maps showing contour and elevation, bodies of water, woodland, and vineyard locations. With some close reading, it's easy to see the effect of land on grapes. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson are both Brits, nonpretentious, clear sighted, and less prone to the fruit-salad type of wine writing that enthralls wine magazines like the Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Exemplary wines and wineries are mentioned, but this is fundamentally a book about the intimate connection of land, vineyard, and grape.

What to Drink With What You Eat
by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page ($25)
The mania for "matching" food and wine is, too often, another reason to be nervous about wine, like you might kill someone if you make a poor choice. This book is refreshingly straightforward yet erudite and inclusive, and it makes suggestions that include beer, spirits, coffee, tea, and even water. There are two basic sections: One is alphabetical by beverage type with pairing foods listed; the other is alphabetical by food type or ingredient with pairing beverages listed. Sprinkled throughout are the thoughts of sommeliers, chefs, and restaurant and wine professionals that add insight to the very direct format of the book.

Look for the newest editions of each book. The wine world is always changing.
Look for the newest editions of each book. The wine world is always changing.

These books will take you far without the need for a wine score, an overblown, adjective-laden description, or an article that is nothing more than an advertisement. After some time spent with these books, you'll be able to enjoy your wine, buy it with confidence, and have a solid background for understanding and interpreting the rest of the wine media.

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