Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater

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Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A Notes and Queries style volume for wine. In fact, a very enjoyable dabble into history, public consumption and misconception, and a host more, in a style clearly leaving seasonal novelty trivia books way behind.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571241743

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Now, I'm the first person to admit I am not a wine buff. I know a lot more now than I did before my current relationship, but she is right to say I have a very masculine (ie dead weak) sense of smell. Added to that a blunt sense of taste and I'm left saying I know what I like when I drink it, and that's it.

Regardless of that there are questions I would definitely ask of any passing vintner or viticulturalist, such as why do people still insist on using cork tree bark to plug their bottles, when a screw-top is so much more reliable, and easy? (And don't get me started on those awful plastic bungs, they're the spawn of the devil.) Why do people insist on spending silly money – I don't know, say £5 or even more – on their wine when I am happy to show my appreciation of the grape with something that is 90% duty, and comes from a German four-lettered supermarket? Conversely, while speaking of Germany, how much would we have to pay them to let us have more of their Dornfelder reds, rather than keep them for themselves?

Luckily, our authors know a bit more about wine, and hence this book. You can summarise it as a Notes and Queries volume for wine – and look in that box to your right and you'll see I did just that – and as such offers a rough and ready survey of many pertinent questions.

You will see from my examples above that I would not have the inkling to ask anything about a blushful hippocrene as I don't know what one is, blushful or not (it turns out to possibly be a lovely Federweisse Rote – yum!), nor Was Pliny the first Robert Parker?, as I didn't know we had a potential second one. Nor would I have been able to inspire answers regarding the origins of viticulture (in what is now Georgia, of all places), Judaic ceremonial drinking, or comet vintages, but all of the above and a lot more are in these pages.

There is, of course, discussion of bottle sealants, and the book opens, even before asking itself what wine actually is, by covering the corking of bottles as per the title (they smell of forest floor fungi, apparently, when corked). That initial chapter leads us on to the origins of wine, and its place in history, from Cleopatra, to America's dearth of useable grapes to Napoleon and beyond. It's a very scattershot rush past old heroic labels – Constantia gets several mentions, Antipaxos more – through wine in literature and life and death. It still manages to be a well put-together book, hardly suffering from repetition, and covering the science in wine, eiswein, and gout, equally as well as the personal anecdote. Some people might prefer a bit of a more sectioned survey of topics, however.

The clear thing is that this book is very entertaining while educating the ignorant as well as the oenologist, and now you know which I call myself. For what will be given to many people this festival season (and how many festivals are yet to be purloined by the toters with their increasing capacity for alcohol?) this book is no novelty. It covers, in a very nice way, a lot of trivia (and by which I don't mean facts and figures, they hardly get a look in, apart from when really necessary), always having a nice approach married to an authoritative style. Never does it seem to be going OTT in its appreciation of its subject, or waffling for the sake of it. Even with 230 pages and more to fill – bar a few cartoons here and there – there is a commendably small print, and a large spread of details. It's no mere cash-in for Christmas, nor does the pairing of authors seem to leave any gaps.

Of course, I'm not qualified to say whether there are mistakes or other flaws in this book, but I feel I would be surprised if there were too many. I thank Faber and Faber for sending the Bookbag a copy. And of course I'll drink to its success.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David.

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Buy Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater at Amazon.com.

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