Wine Books: Andrew Jefford
Andrew Jefford is one of the most thoughtful and insightful writers and broadcasters we have. He started off on The Evening Standard in London, but has since taken his talents to BBC Radio 4 and The World of Fine Wine.
Perhaps the most essential aspect of any review of a new wine text, especially one with a title that suggests education rather than solely entertainment, is to establish the target audience. Just who is Jefford inviting on his wine course? This is a vital question with Jefford, who can delight the wine-knowledgeable, as he did when he swam against the stream with The New France (2002), just as easily as he can enthuse and enlighten the novice. Having looked through Andrew Jefford's Wine Course from cover to cover, it is plain that this newly published book is for the latter of these two ill-defined categories. It is an introductory text which will open the door to wine for the interested beginner. Jefford will gently guide them through that door, and on the other side show them fleeting snapshots of wine that will, hopefully, start the reader on - as the author puts it - a journey without a destination, where the journey is everything. This book is a stepping stone, albeit a lavishly illustrated one, to greater things.
Jefford has divided his book into 20 projects, the term project suggesting to me that this was going to be a very interactive experience. What role would the wine beginner be expected to fulfil in this new learning experience? As it transpired, nothing more than the ability to read; this is true for the first nine projects - or perhaps chapters would be a better word - in which the author lays out the basics of tasting, drinking and learning, as well as the roles that the vines, the soils and we humans having in making wine. It is only when we reach Project 10 that we receive any coursework, starting with Bordeaux. This region is covered in a single page, a very brief rundown considering that the book totals 176 pages in all; opposite the lone page is a full-colour spread depicting the vines and château at Lynch-Moussas. Indeed, a multitude of full-page colour spreads of vineyards, craggy outcrops and creamy-grey coloured châteaux accompany every project that Jefford sets the reader, whether the subject be Bordeaux or Burgundy, Romania or Russia. Could ditching some of these images have facilitated more words on Bordeaux from Jefford? Possibly, but then to complain of this is I think missing the point of the book. Jefford is prodding the beginner here, providing a stimulus to learn, but not necessarily providing the information we would find in a traditional introductory text, or the answers to our developing questions. Instead, he suggests we taste, and as this is the best way (the only way, surely) to learn I would have to agree with him. We are to compare, if we follow his homework suggestions, a red Bordeaux with a similar blend from the New World. And then compare a Pauillac with a Pomerol, and an inexpensive white Bordeaux with a Sauvignon de Touraine, followed by a taste-off of Sauternes versus Jurançon. The knowledge gained would - provided the beginner follows Jefford's rule on note-keeping - educate the reader to a much greater extent than if he had chosen to regurgitate the 1855 classification followed by a rundown of the left bank communes and how much gravel they possess and other such crusty information (that's what my site is for). Jefford has, in writing this book, entered the world of self-directed problem-based learning; this is a method that can be very successful, although the results depend greatly on the enthusiasm of the student. But when there is no destination, only a journey, surely this is the only valid technique?
There are a few niggles with the book; in particular, would a true novice really understand what Jefford means by Pomerol versus Pauillac? What does Sauvignon de Touraine mean to the beginner? Where can I find one? What on earth is Jurançon? More specific recommendations would have been more helpful, although I suspect that a balance had to be found, a balance between increasing the ease for the reader and producing a book that would date too quickly, becoming irrelevant when the recommendations within were no longer contemporary. And I think Jefford himself may be addressing this issue, with a tasting case from Waitrose, accompanied by a free copy of the book.
In summary, this is a delightful book which is incredibly easy on the eye. The sumptuous illustrations will entice even the most reticent wine-avoider to glance at the pages within, even if some are of the cheesy Jefford-entertains-gorgeous-girls-with-a-wine-lesson ilk. With some well chosen wines it will make a delightful stimulus to the discovery of wine. A reference book, other than for some basic information such as on grapes and their flavours, it is not. But as a gift for the amateur with a burgeoning interest? Well, as the author suggests, it could be the start of one of life's best journeys.
The full title of this book - The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine - goes some way towards explaining why Andrew Jefford thought we needed what at first might seem like yet another guide to French wine. This book is much more than a simple guide - Jefford really gets to grips with the renaissance of French winemaking. Yes, he does spend some time discussing each region in the traditional fashion - a geographically orientated tour of the appellations - but in doing so he pays particular attention to the terroir, a recurring theme in this book. Terroir also crops up in the 'Flak' sections - where Jefford gives discourse on the hurdles that challenge each of the French regions. Select producers, each one in some way relevant to the changing face of French wine, are profiled in detail. Following each chapter are shorter profiles of many more producers. These contain valuable words - this is the first book I have read in years where I actually learnt something new about some of my favoured winemakers. Says Jefford of the book "..[my theme is] the championing of individuals rather than multi-nationals, of families rather than corporate shareholders, of agriculture rather than industry, of authenticity of origin rather than marketing stratagems..." His theme is a good one. Coupled with beautiful black and white portraiture (the colour images of the other wine regions are occasionally lacking, but are at least very original) this makes for a fascinating, quality read.