Serious Grape: Five Must-Have Wine Books

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, great wine books for your library or that of your grapehead friend or family member.

20080905-serious-wine-books.jpgIf you are an avid cook, you can probably rattle off the titles of the five cookbooks that you absolutely, positively could not live without. They are the books with the crusty pages, the singed covers, and the broken spines that you turn to again and again when looking for culinary inspiration.

So what are the five wine books that I can't live without? My list includes a reference book, a tasting guide, an annual report, a catalogue of grape varieties, and an indispensable guide to food and wine pairing.

The Reference Book

The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson ($65) may look and feel like an encyclopedia with its alphabetical arrangement of topics and hefty size, but it's packed with information on wine science, wine terminology, wine regions, and wine history. Robinson, one of the world's foremost authorities on wine, assembled a team of experts to help her compile this authoritative and wide-ranging book. No matter what your question is—from what is cellar temperature to what is the chemistry of malolactic fermentation—you will find the answer here.

The Tasting Guide

Andrea Immer Robinson's Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier ($27.95) was the first wine book I ever bought, and I still turn to it for down-to-earth advice. Robinson is a great teacher, and she takes you from the basics of wine tasting to how to shop for wine, store wine, and the basics of how to pair wine with food. I still go to Robinson when I want a clear discussion of topics such as how Old World Sauvignon Blanc differs from those made in the New World—a feature that is included in her discussion of all the major grape varieties. Even if you are no longer a wine novice, I still recommend this book for its clarity and its coverage of wine basics.

The Annual Report

Every fall, around the middle of October, I buy the newest paperback edition of Tom Stevenson's Wine Report ($15). Stevenson is one of the world's foremost experts on Champagne, and he draws on the expertise of other regional experts to profile new viticultural developments and wine releases all over the world. Because each author only covers one particular area, you get thoughtful analysis and unusual perspectives. One of my favorite features is the inclusion of the "most exciting wines" for each region. These are always great insider tips—and they're recommendations you won't find anywhere else. The 2009 edition of the Wine Report will be released on October 20, 2008.

The Grape Catalogue

If you're wondering what Zweigelt is, look no further than Oz Clarke's Grapes and Wines ($25). The book's subtitle is "the definitive guide to world's great grapes and the wines they make" and the great Australian wine writer certainly delivers. I enjoy finding new grape varieties, and often turn to Clarke's list to find out more about my latest discoveries. Clarke treats the fifteen major grapes (like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) in depth, but goes well beyond the big grapes to discuss the growing regions and flavors of more than 350 additional varieties.

The Wine Book for Foodies

Wine and food are natural partners. But exactly what should you serve with your Zweigelt to bring out its best characteristics? And what's the best wine to serve with your goat cheese tart? Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page have some suggestions in What to Drink with What You Eat ($35). I was a complete skeptic when I first got this book from the publisher. I had heard they list which bottled water goes best with certain foods. Most people are stressed enough about food and wine pairing, and I was worried this book might make you even more anxious. Now I'm a convert and turn to it so often, the book sits next to my chair in the T.V. room so that I can consult it while watching cooking shows. The book is organized so that you can start with a food (like sea urchin or pizza) and find a list of suggested wines, or you can start with a particular wine (like Barbera) and discover a wide range of foods that will go with it.

Do I have other wine books that I love? Absolutely. But if you are looking to start a wine library of your own or hunting for a perfect gift for someone you know who is just getting interested in wine, these titles should get you started.

What are your favorite wine books? Did I mention them here, or do you have some other titles to recommend?