Your complete guide to understanding, selecting and enjoying wine

Wine Wise - Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss

By Robyn Lewis
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WineWise - Your complete guide to understanding, selecting and enjoying wine

WineWise - Your complete guide to understanding, selecting and enjoying wine [©John Wiley & Sons Australia Ltd]

I confess I purchased this book for its cover - more specifically the colours. You might have noticed that we like lime green and burgundy...  Aha, someone else has had the same idea as us - the Culinary Institute of America no less - I thought as I raced to the counter. Normally I linger in the wine (and food) section of bookshops, but I was in a hurry, it was lime green, and I figured that I can always learn something new. So home it came.

And I'm glad it did. What lay within was a very pleasant surprise. WineWise is written and collated by three men who have been professors of wine at The Culinary Institute of America for over 20 years each, trained more than 30,000 students and, I learn, have visited almost every wine region of the world: Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss. Lucky them. Two of them, Kolpan and Weiss, were awarded Wine Educators of the Year by the European Wine Council. So, qualified to be wine wise they certainly are.

The first chapter is called 'Palate Pleasure: Enjoying Wine'. Some wine books are as much fun to read as a trip to the dentist - this is not one of them. Hurrah! Wine is to be enjoyed - and the more you know about and appreciate it, the more you can enjoy it. Sure, there are plenty of people who are content to quaff and not go beyond red, white, sweet or sparking, and that's fine - I have the same level of knowledge and interest in say, yachts or cars - but increasingly many people are becoming vinicurious, wanting not just to enjoy the wine lifestyle, but to know a little more about wine (or a lot) as well.

If you're already out of the wine starting blocks this chapter probably won't teach you much - it's more a beginners' introduction - but it explains the relationship between cost and quality (they are connected, if loosely on occasion, contrary to the opinions of some), brands vs terroir wines, the appellation system (comparing the US to France) and a very brief introduction on tasting wines, which has been the topic of many an entire book.

Two chapters on the major red and white grape varieties follow, coupled with the countries that specialise and to some extent have become synonymous with each.

The whites are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot grigio and viognier; the reds cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, syrah/shiraz, zinfandel, and grenache. The label examples are mostly American - my five-year-old daughter was particularly entranced by the fire-breathing bear adorning a Californian viognier; certainly memorable branding if not the experience one might normally associate with a fine viognier from behind the vineyard walls of Condrieu in the Northern Rhone.

Next come ten chapters on wine countries and regions: California and the USA, South America, the rest of the New World (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), then Europe: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Germany and Austria, and lastly 'Up and Coming': Canada and Greece (no mention of India or China, the latter now the sixth largest wine grape producer in the world, although still lagging in quality). Each chapter covers the main regions, ones to watch and/or 'what's hot now', and have excellent maps of the appellations.

By the time you've read all this you will know an awful lot about what is happening on the global wine scene. But chapters like this are only good if they are up to date. I happen to live in a small and relatively obscure (on a global scale) wine region, Tasmania, and it's a great test. Yes - not only is it there, but the information is current, and meaningful. The rest of Australia and NZ are the same, Europe looks good, and whilst I am not as familiar with what is happening right now in the USA, I figure that if the authors can get these further-flung countries right then their home bases will be thoroughly covered. (Maybe someone can fill me in on the currency of their South American and South Arican coverage? It's a while since I've been to the latter.)

Then follows a chapter with title straight out of the movies 'Eat/drink/man/woman'. Unlike the film, this chapter fully embraces the joys and challenges of matching wine with food - a subject dear to the hearts and stomachs of subscribers - and introduces the 'Tower of Power' by grape type and then by European regions and some makers' names.

The Tower of Power is based on matching the intensity and body of a wine with that of the food, and again is a good basic introduction to the principles of wine and food matching, a topic which is also the entire subject of many a book, most notably What to Drink with What you Eat - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers by flavour experts Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page.

WineWise also contains a 'cheat sheet' - simple step guidelines for matching a wine to a food, and a helpful list of problem foods: asparagus, globe artichokes, spinach, raw garlic, tamarind, eggs and squid ink, to which I woud also add nectarines, which seem to contain the same sweet chemical as the notoriously difficult artichokes. However when you get the matches right you are in nirvana, and the authors also share some of their own heavenly food/wine combos.

And thus to wining and dining - a subject that can strike fear into the hearts of even a connoisseur: how to select an appropriate wine from a restaurant wine list? This is becoming less difficult with time, as more and more restaurants employ qualified sommeliers to guide us, or rely less on wine sales reps to determine what is on their wine list and more on their chefs and other experts to select regional wine specialities to match increasingly regional cuisine.

As more restaurants move online and not only upload their menus but their wine lists, not only will they become 'wine destinations' in themselves, but our confidence will grow, as it allows us to plan ahead - perhaps referring to WineWise before we leave home.

The book ends with another favourite GFC topic - a list of good value wines. Whilst this can by no means be comprehensive in the space remaining, it does give some guide to what regional specials there maybe about (eg Entre deux Mers in France, Shiraz from the Barossa in Australia). In other words, look for a good region, put aside the variety they are best known for (which usually commands the highest prices), and look for others that thrive there, or which are produced in such quantity that the market is spoilt for choice (eg chardonnay). Alternatively, go for lesser-known appellations in France, or search out some of the new 'vin naturel' winemakers breaking the sourcing rules and making good wines that can only be called 'vin de table' and priced below their worth.

All three authors generously share their personal 'best bargain' wines under US$12 and under US$20, lists which go as far as brands if not vintages (impossible in a book of this scope). They have eagle eyes as well as good palates, and WineWise contains many finds. I'm very pleased I bought it, and not only because of the colour.


WineWise is published by John Wiley and Sons, New Jersey (2008). RRP A$49.95, US$29.95. subscribers and Members can purchase WineWise at 12.5% off RRP through our book partners SeekBooks (postage extra).








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March 08th, 2009
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