For the novice or expert, wine books help demystify

To learn about wine, there is no substitute for tasting and drinking it. However, books help unravel the cloak of mystery that often surrounds that beverage. These two books, “Wine for Dummies” and Michael Broadbent’s “Vintage Wine,” while at the two ends of the oenological spectrum, would make fine gifts for the committed or aspiring wine lover in your life. My only complaint about Ed McCarthy’s and Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s 3rd edition of “Wine for Dummies” (Wiley) is the title. Without question, it is an excellent starting place for people who know nothing about wine. It’s easy to read, full of understandable concepts, and devoid of pretentious winespeak. Just as important, it teaches the oenophile a thing or two. To write a book that appeals to both the novice and the expert is a rare talent, but it is not surprising given the background of these authors. McCarthy was a high school English teacher and a highly regarded national wine writer. Ewing-Mulligan, one of only 19 Americans to have received the prestigious Master of Wine degree, runs the International Wine Center, a New York-based wine school.

They deliver detailed information when necessary — such as recommending specific producers, especially important in the maze of Burgundy where the person who makes the wine is more important than the names of vineyards — without being boring or tedious. The pronunciation guide, essential for ordering French and Italian wines, is superb. Their chapter describing strategies for ordering wines in a restaurant is reason enough to buy the book. The detailed index makes it easy to use as a reference the next time you find a wine you like and want to know more about it.

Now, if you want to know whether that 1986 Chateau Lagrange is ready to drink this New Year’s Eve, buy “Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine” (Harcourt). It’s indispensable for anyone who has ever wondered when to pull the cork of that special bottle and great reading for everyone else with a serious interest in wine. Broadbent, hired to head Christie’s wine auctions in 1966, probably has tasted more fine and rare wine than anyone else. He tasted, and drank, the 1870 Chateau Lafte Rothschild on 16 occasions.

“I packed . . . them up (41 magnums of 1870 Lafite) for a great sale at Christie’s in 1971,” he writes. “Naturally, to make sure that the wine was all right, I opened one at a dinner in the boardroom before the sale. . . . A lively drink.”

He has organized his notes for this book, “not . . . to be a gazetteer of every chateaux of every vintage . . . (but) to demonstrate the progress of wines from cask to bottle, thence to maturity.” His 50 years of notes on thousands of wines, mostly French, though he devotes a page to New Zealand and another to Chateau Musar from Lebanon, is captivating reading. His definition of quality in wine is the best I’ve read and something winemakers would be wise to remember: “Quality can be measured by length of flavour, and the way it expands in the mouth and lingers on the palate.”

Sprinkled among his notes is sound advice, such as when to serve a sweet wine (not with dessert, which makes the wine taste dry, but rather with cheese to highlight its sweet richness). Equally important, Broadbent’s assessments allow you to know how a grand wine is developing so you can save your precious cache until it’s ready to drink.

By the way, Broadbent describes the 1986 Lagrange as having “lovely texture and flavor. Complete . . . an unpredicted high mark. 4 (out of 5) stars. Drink now until 2012.” For those lucky enough to have any left, New Year’s Eve would be a good time to drink it.

December 18, 2003.