The year’s best wine books

As delightful a beverage as wine might be, a deeper understanding of culture and history invariably enhances the pleasure of opening a bottle. Here are six of the best books on wine published in 2021, each of which will broaden your perspective on what’s in the glass.

Eric AsimovThe New York Times
Published : 6 Dec 2021, 08:07 AM
Updated : 6 Dec 2021, 08:07 AM

‘South of Somewhere’ by Robert V. Camuto

Through three books, the first set in France, the second in Sicily and the latest, in southern Italy, Robert V. Camuto has explored the passions, personalities and convictions that compel idiosyncratic winemakers to push against institutional forces to achieve their visions.

His new book, “South of Somewhere: Wine, Food and the Soul of Italy” (University of Nebraska Press, $25), is his best yet, a razor-sharp evocation of the people, places and points-of-view that captures both the fatalism so often encountered in southern Italy and the stubborn refusal of its inhabitants to knuckle under.

As a journalist with family roots on the Sorrento Peninsula south of Naples, Camuto feels the allure of the region. Where others might, uncharitably, see solely a culture benighted by poverty, he is enchanted by its natural riches, the vitality of its people and its beautiful bureaucratic messiness that he sees as a saving grace.

This relative lack of organisation slowed its march to modernity, Camuto suggests, saving the south from many of the mistakes that have plagued other winemaking areas, like planting international grapes at the expense of indigenous varieties or adopting nontraditional winemaking techniques. Not that the south has been immune, but it occurred to a lesser degree than in other regions.

Camuto succeeds in capturing southern Italy at just the right moment, when a younger generation, better educated and more worldly than their parents, is taking over. They want to improve farming, make wine with more precision and sell it for profits around the world rather than pennies locally, and they want to do it without compromising cultural traditions.

His underlying message is that wine is both cultural expression and self expression. With a culture as singular and personal as depicted by Camuto, it’s no accident the wines are just as beautiful and distinctive.

One more point: Food and wine are entwined in southern Italy. None of Camuto’s visits to producers proceeded, apparently, without great meals reflecting the power of the local cuisines. In his CNN series “Searching for Italy,” Stanley Tucci touched the surface of how Italian cuisine reflects its people. In “South of Somewhere,” Camuto gets to the heart of the matter.

‘Foot Trodden’ by Simon J. Woolf and Ryan Opaz

Few historic wine-producing countries have evolved as quickly and intriguingly over the past 30 years as Portugal. Likewise, few are as little known and as sparingly chronicled.

“Foot Trodden: Portugal and the Wines That Time Forgot” (Interlink Publishing, $35) by Simon J. Woolf and Ryan Opaz is an excellent introduction to the obscure history of Portuguese winemaking and its vitality and dynamic potential.

“Foot Trodden,” named for the traditional method of crushing grapes with the feet — still common among port-producers in the Douro Valley — is not a textbook that surveys Portuguese grapes and methods.

Rather, it’s an impressionistic travel guide through the major wine regions. “Foot Trodden” introduces readers to a well-chosen group of growers and producers whose deftly rendered individual stories and distinctive wines shine a light on the insularity of Portuguese history, the opening of the country, the challenges that continue to confront growers and producers, and the potential future of its wines.

Woolf, the author of “Amber Revolution,” an absorbing look at the orange wine genre, is a genial host with a knack for selecting the best and more representative stories. Opaz, his collaborator, took the many striking photos that underscore and amplify the writing.

In one particularly fascinating chapter on the southeastern region of Alentejo, Woolf dwells on the tradition of home winemaking in clay talha, amphora like vessels that at one time could be found in almost any cellar or garage. The tradition began to die out in the mid-20th century as the government pushed the country to centralised wine production, but it was resuscitated in the 21st century thanks to a few die-hards who refused to give up the practice.

Portugal’s peculiar wine history needed a book like this. As is increasingly the case with wine books, “Foot Trodden” was self-published with the help of Kickstarter supporters, of which I was a small contributor. This was a worthy project, beautifully done.

‘Champagne Charlie’ by Don and Petie Kladstrup

For a wine salesman, Charles Heidsieck led a surprisingly tempestuous life, with dizzying highs and unexpected, harrowing lows.

In “Champagne Charlie: The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne” (Potomac Books, $33), Don and Petie Kladstrup offer not only a fascinating portrait of the 19th-century founder of the Charles Heidsieck Champagne house but an evocative sketch of America and the wine business around the time of the Civil War.

Heidsieck’s life seems almost improbable. He was born into a family (and a community) of Champagne producers and merchants, but unable to find his place in the family business he started his own. He promoted his Champagne energetically and, against much advice, set his eyes on the United States as the market on which his company could make its fortune.

He achieved great success at first, selling Champagne through force of personality, a 19th-century model for today’s “brand ambassadors.” Through several arduous trips to the United States, he became something of a celebrity — Champagne Charlie — who was the toast of politicians and socialites and whose travels were chronicled by newspapers. “A glass of Charles” became a synonym for Champagne.

Though dogged by fraudulent bottles and a dishonest American representative, Heidsieck hit bottom during the Civil War. Travelling through the South in an effort to recover payments owed to his company, Heidsieck was arrested in Union-occupied New Orleans as a spy, locked in a disease-ridden prison and, after he was freed, forced into bankruptcy.

Compelled by honour to repay his debts in full, he restarted his company, achieving renewed success. His situation stayed grim, however, as the debt proved intractable until, startlingly, something of a miracle occurs.

As compelling as Heidsieck’s story is, I was especially absorbed by the descriptions of 19th-century business, before automobiles and telephones, when bottles of Champagne travelled across the Atlantic in cushioned baskets and across the country by rail and coach.

The writing is easygoing and inviting, and the Kladstrups do not shy away from the moral contradictions of Heidsieck, who strongly denounced slavery in the United States yet hoped for the South to win because it was good for business.

You won’t learn much about Champagne in this book. But it’s engaging social history and excellent storytelling.

‘Inside Burgundy’ by Jasper Morris

Many books have been written about Burgundy over the years, but none currently is as useful and comprehensive a reference as the new second edition of “Inside Burgundy” (Berry Bros. & Rudd Press, $90), by Jasper Morris.

The book includes all one might expect in a guide: detailed characterisations of Burgundy’s appellations, leading vineyards and producers, all enhanced by clear, detailed maps, along with examinations of the region’s history, weather and geology, grapes, viticulture and production and a look at how its wine trade is organised. Morris also addresses issues of terroir and style, which are particularly appropriate to Burgundy.

Even in the decade or so since the first edition was published, much in Burgundy has changed. Morris, a retired wine merchant who lives in the region, has extensively updated and expanded the book. Readers appalled by the skyrocketing price of Burgundy will be happy to see additional information on the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, where they might still find affordable wines.

Morris also addresses the fallout of climate change, the rise of aligoté (possibly a byproduct of climate change) and how the rising price of land in Burgundy affects the small family estates, which have formed much of the region’s image.

At nearly 800 pages, this is a big book. What it does not contain are detailed tasting notes, a wise editorial decision that permits more important issues to be explored. While Morris briefly addresses the issue of premature oxidation, which has plagued white Burgundies off and on over the last 25 years, I wish he had dedicated a little more space to clarifying exactly where things now stand. Nonetheless, if you love Burgundy, this is an essential volume.

‘You Had Me at Pét-Nat’ by Rachel Signer

Natural wine has spawned all sorts of fantasies among those peering in at that world. The unkind and deluded might sneer at hipster sommeliers saddling unwilling customers with their funky wines, made by unwashed hippies. More empathetic sorts might think of its denizens as wayward youth who must be permitted their mistakes before coming to their senses.

Rachel Signer’s new book, “You Had Me at Pét-Nat: A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir” (Hachette, $28) offers a view from inside the world, demonstrating that young people in natural wine can be much like young people anywhere, trying to find a way to make a living doing what they find meaningful while searching for love and companionship.

As the story opens, Signer is a young, would-be writer in New York supporting herself by working in restaurants. After falling in love with pétillant naturel, an ancient style of sparkling wine revived by natural wine producers, she is drawn headlong into this alt-community, which seems to have its own networks of shops, wine bars, restaurants and wine fairs.

She decides to focus her writing on natural wine, start a natural-wine periodical and, with a friend, open a wine bar in Paris, a natural wine mecca. Things take an abrupt turn when, despairing of her romantic relationships, she unexpectedly hits it off with a natural wine producer. Only one problem: He lives in Australia.

What follows is an inviting coming-of-age story that, though it takes place in a world of indigenous yeast and native grapes, crown caps and biodynamic, back-to-the-earth farming, speaks to the universal yearning of anybody trying to find herself, overcome insecurities and settle on her place in the world.

Signer is an engaging writer whose story will certainly make you thirsty for a bottle of natural wine and maybe even compel you to reexamine the twists and turns of your own journey.

‘On California’

Académie du Vin Library is kind of a cultural miner, prospecting for worthy-but-forgotten wine books to republish interspersed with occasional new works.

Its latest book, “On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo ... Wine Tales From the Golden State” ($45), offers a little of both. Its short selections from nearly three dozen writers offer impressionistic, thought-provoking views of the state and its winemaking history. Most were written within the last decade but a few stretch back to the 1980s and ’70s, offering a wealth of perspectives on how California wine culture arrived at its current state.

My favourite selections were historical rather than critical, including Kelli White’s look at some of the wine scientists who played crucial roles in guiding the growth of the industry in California, Elaine Chukan Brown on how the Gallos achieved dominance among American wine companies, and Steven Spurrier and Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher’s retrospective look at the Judgment of Paris, the famous 1976 wine tasting that they organised and which decisively thrust California into the global consciousness as a leading wine producer.

Over the decades, California wine has been glorified and vilified, but its importance is indisputable. This book is unlikely to change minds, but it is illuminating.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher