In the throes of a long, hot Utah summer, my thoughts tend to drift to the gentler climes of France and Italy. And so it happens that I finally got around to reading two terrific wine books that I picked up this winter when it was considerably cooler: The Wines of France and Making Sense of Italian Wine. What links these fine works, aside from being about two of the planet’s most important wine-producing nations, are that both are first and foremost useful.
In Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Italian Wine (Running Press, $24.95), the author says right up front that his book isn’t intended for knowledgeable lovers of Italian wine. Rather, his advice is meant for someone more like me who seems to know less about Italian wines the more I learn about Italian wines. Kramer calls this the Great Italian Wine Paradox. And so, the entire focus and structure of his book is different from just about every book on Italian wine I’ve ever seen. Which is to say, Kramer doesn’t use geography as a jumping off point, reasoning that a geographical approach to Italian wine 1. tends to focus on obscure regional wines that the reader is unlikely to encounter and 2. “presumes a map in the reader’s mind,” which most of us don’t have.
So Kramer virtually ignores all those DOCs, DOCGs and IGTs, preferring to guide the reader through the world of Italian wines in much the manner that we would peruse Italian wines in a store. The bulk of Making Sense of Italian Wine is divided into three dozen chapters about various types of Italian wine, from Aglianico del Vulture to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, with stops at Barolo, Lambrusco, Orvieto, Soave, Valpolicella and many others along the way. A chapter on Dolcetto, for example, covers the grapes and traditions involved in making Dolcetto, a discussion of noteworthy producers, followed by a really useful (each chapter has one) paragraph about what types of foods Italian locals eat with this wine. By the time you’ve read through Kramer’s chapter on Dolcetto (or Barbaresco, Chianti, Nebbiolo, etc.), you’re armed with enough practical knowledge about the wine to walk into a wine store and do some damage'which is the whole point, right?
In contrast to Kramer’s book, The Wines of France: The Essential Guide for Savvy Shoppers (10 Speed Press, $19.95) by Jacqueline Friedrich is a reference more than a read, although there are certainly endless hours of interesting minutiae to be savored within its pages. The great wine expert Hugh Johnson calls Friedrich’s book “the most useful single book to take with you to France or to the wine shop!”
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t almost every wine guide outdated by the time it hits the bookstores? True. But what is so unique about The Wines of France is that it’s a practical guide with a focus on French winemakers'organized by region'rather than a soon-to-be-obsolete breakdown of French wines by points and/or vintages.
Open up to the chapter on Champagne, for example, and you’ll discover lengthy entries for some 80 different Champagne producers, from Agrapart & Fils to Vilmart & Co. Interested in Gosset Champagne? Friedrich’s frighteningly vast knowledge of French wines will tell you that “the Grande Reserve brut, dominated by pinot noir, is suave and silky; the 1996 Grand MillÃ©sime is bracing and elegant; and the deluxe cuvees Celebris and Celebris RosÃ© are excellent â€¦ [with] bready aromas, and its core of rich fruit.” Now that’s wine info I can use.