What kind of person reads a 620-page book listing all 2,000 native Italian grapes? Or an off-the-wall mystery that involves murder in a vineyard in Provence?
Why, it’s one of us — a wine fan. If we can’t drink it all day long, we can at least spend a few dozen sultry summer hours reading about it.
Here are some books that I recommend for the beach or the cellar:• “The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass (second edition)” by Jamie Goode (University of California Press, $39.95): At a time when “un-manipulated” is the buzzword in winemaking, it’s stunning how much modern science has changed the process — and how little we know about it. Goode is the man to tell us. He’s wine columnist for The Sunday Express in London, and he has a Ph.D. in plant biology.
He spills the beans on the widespread but little-discussed use of “reverse osmosis” to mechanically lower the alcohol of wines made in hot California climates. He challenges the sacred French concept of “terroir,” the idea that the soil in which vines are grown influences the flavor of wines. He finds no scientific proof that much-praised “old vines” make better wines. It’s technical stuff, but Goode’s background helps him make it compelling. It’s a splendid read for serious wine fans.• “Death in the Vines” by M.L. Longworth (Penguin, $15 paperback): The Provence winery owner suspects an inside job — someone has broken into his private cellar and stolen a very expertly selected group of his finest wines. The plot thickens when the eccentric wife of a friend goes on a crying jag, disappears altogether and is found in his vineyard — dead. Off-beat characters, lots of neat wine trivia and a real summer page-turner.
• “The World of Sicilian Wine” by Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino (University of California Press, $34.95): Wine first came to Sicily in the 8th century BC, with Greek and Phoenician settlers. In early days, Sicily’s wines served the Roman upper class, with urns found in the ruins of Pompeii.
Sicily landed on the world wine map after 1770, when a British merchant chose its grapes to make Marsala, a wine fortified with brandy, as a cheaper alternative to Portugal’s Madeira. A wave of modernization in the 1980s and 1990s brought such international grapes as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. More recently, thank Bacchus, Sicily is sprouting state-of-the-art wineries that are bringing back the island’s native wines: the red nero d’avola, the white grillo and others. It’s a nifty guide to an up-and-coming wine area.• “Down to Earth: A Seasonal Tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California” by Janet Fletcher with photos by George Rose (Wine Institute, $34.95): For all their good intentions, many California grape growers have found it isn’t practical or economically feasible to farm in a way that’s entirely organic.
Wente Vineyards, for example, uses all-natural fertilizers, but it might apply an occasional spray of weed-killing herbicide to avoid the extra expense of hoe labor or the extra fuel of tractor tilling. Honig Vineyards puts its wine in lighter-weight bottles to save energy. It’s a new way of growing called “sustainable farming.” Compelling text and beautiful photos by two veteran journalists.• “Native Wine Grapes of Italy” by Ian d’Agata (University of California Press, $50): I always say every house in Italy has a little vineyard behind it. Now I have proof. This Rome-based wine writer for Decanter magazine and others has attempted to count every grape that is native to his country. His totals: 2,000 varieties, 1,000 of them well-identified by experts, and 600 in significant production.
He describes a few hundred — from Piedmont’s Barbera to Campania’s coda di volpe to Sicily’s frappato to Puglia’s verdeca and on and on. His 620-page tome tells how they’re grown and how they taste. It’s hours of pleasure for those who are tired of drinking only chardonnay and merlot.