Edith Somerville was a suffragist, and the first female Master of the Foxhounds in Britain and Ireland. One autumn in the late 19th century, she arrived in Bordeaux with her second cousin and literary partner, Violet Florence Martin (who wrote under the name Martin Ross).
Armed with notebooks and one of the earliest Kodak cameras, the pair breezed around some of the Médoc’s finest châteaux, gazing at vineyards that “ran like a smoothly swelling sea” and noting “the superhumanly well-bred and intelligent official who is invariably found in such places” (plus ça change, etc).
They can be unsparing: informed that the Baroness de Rothschild had had Château Mouton Rothschild built in imitation of an English villa, they comment: “We did not dare ask why she had chosen the square modern type, dear to the heart of the retired solicitor.”
Despite or perhaps because of their gimlet eye for social detail, the writing is so fresh and precise the words have barely aged. Reading it, you are there alongside them, peering into the “catacombs of silence and black heavy air” of a dark cellar.
Somerville and Ross published their thoughts on Bordeaux in 1893 in a book titled In the Vine Country. They are excerpted in a wonderful book published this year: On Bordeaux: Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region, edited by Susan Keevil (Academie du Vin, £30).
On Bordeaux gathers together almost 50 essays, many previously published, some commissioned for this collection, which together offer a multifaceted insight into the workings and the history of this most famous of wine regions.
We have Fiona Morrison MW (who with her husband, Jacques Thienpont, runs three Bordeaux estates, including Le Pin) on 1982 – “The Year Bordeaux Began Again”; négociant Mathieu Chadronnier on commerce, explaining why international wines are sold through “La Place de Bordeaux” (the Bordeaux marketplace); Edmund Penning-Rowsell on the historical rise of claret; Stephen Brook on the Culture of Hype.
It’s a brilliant book, perfect to dip in and out of, or curl up with for hours in an armchair. One of its contributors, Bordeaux expert Jane Anson, has her own excellent book out this year. Inside Bordeaux: The Châteaux, their Wines and the Terroir (Berry Bros & Rudd, £60) is an encyclopedic guide to the wineries and region, aimed more at the serious oenophile or collector. I wrote about it at length in spring, so this is just to remind you of its existence ahead of Christmas.
Another superb book published this year is English Wine: From Still to Sparkling, the Newest New World Wine Country by the peerless Oz Clarke (Pavilion, £16.99).
I sometimes think that Clarke has been around for so long (sorry, Oz) that we take his exceptional talent for granted. Few others share his ability to interpret wines in the context of the landscape in which they are made. No one else in wine (and not so many outside it) comes close to sharing his gift as a storyteller. Put simply: Clarke knows how to make stuff interesting, and here he is making English wine interesting.
The book is arranged by regions, in the format of a guide to key producers, but when Clarke writes or talks, he engages the great knowledge reserves of his brain so that each sentence delivers so much, with warmth and humour.
Here he is on Hambledon: “Hampshire is full of chalk enthusiasts, but they don’t come any more enthusiastic than Ian Kellett at Hambledon Vineyard. Just having chalk that seems to be the same as that of Champagne isn’t good enough for him…” And on Gusbourne in Kent: “Appledore? But that’s down on the marshes isn’t it? That’s a piece of Kent where few people live, few people visit, where the mists linger late into the morning and the sodden soil squirts and squelches underneath your boots.”
This isn’t just a book for those curious about English wine, it’s a book for those interested in the English countryside. If you have a friend or relative who owns a National Trust or English Heritage pass and who has even a passing interest in wine, then you could confidently buy them this book for Christmas.
So hackneyed is the claim, I have lost count of the number of wine writers/bloggers/influencers saying theirs is a new/fresh/disruptive approach to an arcane subject.
I don’t think Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew ever talked about themselves in this way, but to adapt Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, they don’t have to, they’re gonna do it. And they are doing it. Keeling is a former music industry man (he signed Coldplay); Andrew a Master of Wine.
The pair launched Noble Rot magazine, now in its 24th edition, and also run two successful London wine bars/restaurants. They talk and write about what would once have been called fine wine with the same enthusiasm that you might hear people discuss music and bands.
Their new book, Wine From Another Galaxy (Quadrille, £30) takes readers on a lively voyage, dealing with questions such as how to serve wine and offering profiles of favourite producers. A book for a generation that has moved on from the old world order in which only Bordeaux and Burgundy are taken seriously, but has not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
In a very different vein, Wine Girl by US writer Victoria James (Fleet, £16.99) also speaks to a new generation. This memoir is not an easy read. It is, yes, about discovering wine and becoming a sommelier, but also about a difficult upbringing – “I grew up in a household of manipulation and neglect,” as James puts it – and gender politics, and sexual abuse and harassment in and around the “toxic world of fine dining”.
It is hard, as a writer, to stay in control of such tough material, but James writes with lucidity and focus throughout. A must-read for any young woman working in wine or hospitality.
Finally, I only have a few words to dedicate to the fabulous books on smell that have been published this year. But Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee (John Murray, £35) and Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind by AS Barwich (Harvard University Press, £28.95) are both serious works that have brought me a great deal of pleasure.