A book review of “English Wine”

by  |  01-09-2020

Four years ago, during the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton, England, I attended an English still wine tasting led by Oz Clarke. It was fascinating to see the state of the increasingly-popular English wine industry and to taste some of the wines for the first time. There were some wines I quite liked and others not as much but as Oz presented it, he was able to talk about all those wines with a passion I envy to this day.

So, it’s no shock at all that he’s now written a brand-new book on the subject titled, “English Wine“. Despite the title, it’s actually a book about both English and a little bit of Welsh wine, but as he states in the beginning, the vast majority is English so he just stayed with that, giving apologies to the Welsh who may or may not accept them–most probably the latter.

At a compact 175 pages, let’s first of all clear up what this book is not, which is a hardcore, deep-fried in fact-y text batter, nerd dive into the topic of wines in the British Isles. And since it’s not trying to be a reference book or the ultimate guide on English wine, it doesn’t cover each and every winery in production. That book would be “The wines of Great Britain” by Stephen Skelton, which includes nitty-gritty details and an endless wealth of definitive factoids. It should come as no surprise given that Stephen, as a Master of Wine, has been advising potential vineyard owners in Great Britain for many years now.

Oz Clarke, as an actor, singer, television personality, OBE recipient and yes, popular wine writer, has a different take on these wines and you’ll notice it immediately upon getting the book in your hands. For starters, good lord it looks gorgeous. Maybe the pink shades of the cover and embossed lettering will turn some off but to me, it just seems quintessentially “English”. It has this very classic look to it, but at the same time has loads of illustrations by Jay Cover and some nice color photos inside with a modern, clean design.

Other wine books often lack an attractive design in favor of content, like those from Infinite Ideas (who published “The wines of Great Britain”) which are always very, very rich on text and information, but singularly lack in an open, lighter presentation. This isn’t the worst thing as they’re targeted towards a very academic crowd and they’d be massive in page count if additional design was added.

And here’s where Oz’s book really sings in that it’s targeted towards pretty much anyone from normal wine drinker even up to those who have “learned a thing or two” about wine. There’s a lighthearted, airy aspect to the text that is a reflection of the design and that makes it enjoyable to read as well as incredibly approachable. It harks to what a certain wine “reference” from the US does in terms of concept, but that book then falls off horribly in accurate information whereas “English Wine” is on point throughout.

Much like what I saw in for instance Ben Hoskin’s Sherry book, what you have in Oz, is someone who has been following the evolution of English wine for literally decades, and this lengthy experience readily shows. At the tip of his tongue, Oz is always ready with some reference dating back years or even it seems, a half century. Despite English wine really only coming of age in the last 25 years or so, he readily commands an impressive body of knowledge that extends far beyond the modern “Nyetimber Age”.

Once in the book, while going through an overview on the history of wine in the UK, Oz delves into the different styles and grapes being produced. It was quite eye opening to see the hard facts here and learn what people are trying in this very new frontier. It was also interesting to note that while he really was talking up the Bacchus at the tasting I attended, he’s a bit more reserved and subdued about it in this book. Rondo he seems patently unimpressed with at the moment, so there is definitely some critique on what’s working and what’s not showing in that while he’s a tremendous cheerleader for English wines, he also has his own opinions that he lets be known.

The section on producing sparkling wine that comes next is quite detailed. I’m a bit torn here as for anyone with wine studies, it’s going to be a bit of a rehash and for anyone without wine studies, it might be the only portion of the book that’s a touch too detailed. Hopefully I’m wrong on that second part as, for anyone who doesn’t know how sparkling wine comes to be, it’s definitely going to fill in any and all knowledge holes they might have.

He touches upon the various sites in England where vines are being grown, but stops short of digging in too deeply. I can understand this as everything is very much in motion at the moment, but I could potentially see some of the more hardcore amongst the wine scene not really finding this adequate and wanting more information. They might also find some of his analysis of the wines not quite “deep enough”, to which I’d say, take a step back and approach the book as someone who just loves drinking wine and is probably living in the UK. For this segment (which is to say, most everyone), this is again, an excellent book.

The book closes with maps and overviews of the wineries spread throughout Great Britain as is often the case with these types of wine reference books. The reason being that the winery listings are more for reference at some point down the road say when drinking the wines or planning a trip to the wineries, rather than ingesting the whole thing at once. That said, Oz has included many insightful and charming details that show he’s actually visited all the wineries he heavily details and this isn’t just information he pulled from a website or social media–a practice far too common in many “guides” these days.

What Oz has accomplished here is to create a text on two things he’s passionate about: Wine and England. And, he’s done this is a very attractive book that’s hardbound, but not an onerous coffee table size, and is priced quite well at an official price of £17, although discounts abound at the moment. Most importantly, it’s a book you can proudly give as a gift to anyone (including yourself) who loves wine, especially if in the UK.

***/***

Review copy provided by the publisher

Please also see the Complete List of Wine Book Reviews

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