For the most recent batch of wine product sample roundup articles, I’ve been focusing on reducing the pile of wine book sample copies currently littering the floor of my home office. And so for March, I am slowly whittling away at said pile by offering up two more hardcover tomes for your vinous reading consideration. You still read books, right?
Firstly, we have French Wine: A History by Rod Phillips (University of California Press, 319 pages, about $30). That’s an unassuming title for a book with such an ambitious scope. Actually, its scope is bordering on insanity. Beginning from roughly 2500 years ago, Ottawa-based historian Phillips carves up the topical elephant into almost-digestible-sized time period chunks: the period before 1000 CE, the Middle Ages, through to the Enlightenment, the onset of the World Wars, etc. I say “almost” digestible because even each of those chapters is sizeable in terms of the rich historical content and context of the topic (remember, wine involves chemistry, historical events, economics, farming….).
The ground zero / linchpin moment of French Wine if there is one, after which all is forever changed, seems to be the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s. Like the rootstocks of its precious vines, nothing in the French wine world was ever quite the same after the country’s vineyards were decimated by that little louse.
All of this is told in dense, matter-of-fact prose, but Phillips isn’t afraid to call out others’ opinions (even somewhat challenging the venerable Hugh Johnson at one point). It’s not a fast or particularly easy read, but ultimately a worthwhile one. And its conclusion is appropriately bittersweet: France is growing fewer grape vines, producing fewer bottles, and drinking less wine than in its historical apexes, and yet the standard-bearer wines (in terms of quality and prices) are still at the top of the global game; and while we may be seeing a dip overall, the country’s vinous development has been anything but uniform, as French Wine dutifully shows us…
Secondly, there’s Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine by Bill Nesto MW & Frances Di Savino (also University of California Press, who presumably enjoy sending me sample books; 360 pages, about $39).
I have a few reservations about this book, though I suspect in time I will soften on those, considering that partners Nesto and Di Savino have crafted the most complete Chianti overview that has probably ever existed. Chianti Classico is part Chianti history class, part overview of the modern region/geography/winemaking, part review of some of its key and autherntically-minded producers, and part love letter to central Tuscany. This is a narrative that is ultimately scholarly, and quite informative.
But… it’s also a narrative that lacks a sense of cohesion. The style of prose is almost quaint, as if it came from an older time, in a charming way. That will endear Chianti Classico to some readers, and probably turn off others. And the price isn’t exactly on the cheap side. Having said all of that, it’s also a book that doesn’t have to be consumed linearly; and given its depth (history, geography, kick-ass ancient maps, etc.), it’s likely also one that can be consulted many, many times in the future.