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Wine Books: Neel Burton and James Flewellen

Neel Burton and James Flewellen are founders of the Oxford Wine Academy, which runs bespoke courses and wine events. Both come from an academic background, with Flewellen having led the Oxford bling tasting team to victory against Cambridge in the 58th Oxford Cambridge Varsity match.

Neel Burton and James FlewellenThe Concise Guide to Wine & Blind Tasting (2014)
Neel Burton and James Flewellen
Acheron Press
Available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)
ISBN-13: 978-0956035394

I wrote not that long ago, in describing a self-published text on St Estèphe by David Copp, that the age of generalism in wine writing was gone. Although once upon a time wine writers expressed their authority with huge works detailing either the entire history of wine, or the entire world of wine, these days more focused publications - such as that little book on St Estèphe - are perhaps more the norm. They allow the presentation of a level of detail appropriate for the 21st-century reader, who in many cases often knows much more about the topic in question than you might imagine. Well, at least that was what I thought then; now along come Neel Burton and James Flewellen, seemingly writing purely with the objective of proving me wrong.

Both Burton and Flewellen are founders of the Oxford Wine Academy, which offers bespoke courses and events focused on the appreciation of wine. Both have an academic background, and Flewellen put his skills to good use at university when he led the Oxford blind tasting team to victory in a number of different tasting competitions, including the annual Varsity match against Cambridge. Burton, meanwhile, is a prolific author and the recipient of a number of awards including the Richard Asher Prize from the Society of Authors. His usual fields are psychiatry and philosophy, essentially self-published through his own publishing house, Acheron Press. This is their first foray into wine writing.

This is a guide that, as I suggest in my opening paragraph, aims to cover the entire world of wine. Part 1 is your introduction to wine, spread over 56 pages, with chapters on the beginnings of wine, viticulture and winemaking. Nothing unusual there then, but the fourth and final chapter in this opening segment is a blind tasting guide, a distinguishing feature of this introduction to wine. The authors describe an approach to blind tasting, including not only all the usual aspects of any taste guide (vision, smell, taste) but also how then to interpret your findings in the context of a blind tasting, together with a trio of examples. There are more helpful hints in the blind tasting crib sheets, for all the common varieties and regions, provided in the appendices, where there is also information on how to set up a blind tasting, and on food and wine matching.

The real meat of the book follows, as in Part 2 the authors tackle the entire world of wine, starting with Alsace, and finishing not-quite 200 pages later with the USA and Canada. Naturally this is a lot to pack in, and so this book is the antithesis of the detailed examination of a wine region such as that by the aforementioned David Copp. The great risk with this approach is superficiality; general wine guides that are superficial can still be useful introductions (on a trip to France more than two decades ago I found my way round the Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Champagne using just one book by a well-known British author) nevertheless you quickly outgrow them. Remarkably, however, Burton and Flewellen avoid this problem, packing in as much information as is humanly possible. This is no flaky coffee-table book, as each little chapter is bursting with relevant detail, and so this is a book that will serve many readers well for a long time. After a brief introduction to the region under examination, there are sections on climate, soils, sometimes viticulture and vinification, as well as grape varieties and wine styles. Although the level of detail is not what you would need when studying for your Master of Wine examinations (nor should it be), it goes far beyond what I would expect to find in your average introduction to wine.

It is in achieving this that the academic background of the authors shows through most strongly, as I sense no sentence here has been wasted. This is a wine book free of superfluous fluff. Nevertheless, despite the dense text, which is devoid of any illustrations other than one or two black and white maps per regional chapter, this is a remarkably easy to read introduction to wine. It is fact-rich, but engagingly written and the authors have achieved an accessible rather than a dry style. It would serve as a fine introduction to the world of wine to anybody who is remotely serious about it, with or without an interest in the blind-tasting approach that the authors favour. And although it is a hardback copy I have to hand, I suspect its format would also work extremely well on a Kindle. (15/6/14)