It's really not for beginners, but if you've a pretty firm grip on what wines you like and want to keep abreast of how they're doing, you'll be happy to know that the 2001 edition of Hugh Johnson's Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine (Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster, $13.95), truly pocket-sized and crammed with information, has just been published.
The book's 28 introductory pages and eight-page appendix also are worth a careful reading. Besides snippets of humor (Georges Duboeuf is “the Grand Fromage of beaujolais”), the critic I think is the English-speaking world's most reliable offers some trenchant comments on American wines and American taste. “The wines that score highest with most American judges,” he says, “are the darkest, richest, strongest, most fruity, most oaky, and usually most alcoholic . . . entirely out of place where wine belongs: on the table with food.” Provocative words, but not without merit.
At the other extreme, for those who know little or nothing about wine but would like to, a very good beginner's book has appeared at almost the same time.
You might keep it in mind, incidentally, if that profile fits someone on your Christmas list.
Great Wine Made Simple (Broadway Books, Random House, $25) really comes as close to the title's promise as anything I've seen. Drawing on a decade's experience in teaching both customers and waiters, master sommelier Andrea Immer anticipates all the questions a novice may ask, and does it in down-to-earth language. What do wine words like dry, crisp, oaky, and tannic mean? Ms. Immer prescribes carefully chosen pairs of comparisons, glass by glass, to illustrate the meaning of each (and no, you don't have to wash or rinse your glass between pairs).
She has brilliantly imaginative comparisons, some original, some borrowed, to illustrate characteristics of wine: body is mouth-feel, a texture, and from light to full is like skim milk to heavy cream. Oak? think of it as a marinade, adding layers of aroma and flavor to wine. Common sense oozes out chapter after chapter: what to expect of restaurant wine menus and service, contrasts between German, Alsatian, and North American rieslings, what's essential and non-essential in a wine glass, how to open a bottle of champagne (DON'T use a corkscrew!), and corkscrews graded from good to just barely so-so.
Happy surprise of the week: when I was going through some just released South African wines several weeks ago, I overlooked a '99 sauvignon blanc from the Fleur du Cap Country Estate, and only a few days ago it elbowed its way to the front of the line.
The surprise is a double header: the wine is a delightful people-pleaser, full-bodied, dry but fruity. It has a velvety edge that suggests that some of it spent some time in a barrel, though the press release says only that after two hours on the skins the must was cold-fermented over a leisurely 14 days. Surprise No. 2 is the importer's suggested retail price: $9.
Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.