For Mr. Liem, an American who lives in Champagne, the increasing exploration and understanding of the region’s terroirs is the crucial element in improving the wine and deepening our comprehension of it. But that does not mean, he insists, that a Burgundy-style shift to producing microscopic expressions of the land is in the best interests of the wine or the producers. Nor does he countenance any of the various trends as intrinsic improvements. He is admirably unbiased and authoritative.
The history is illuminating, as is the section describing individual growers and houses. Yet the beating heart of the book is a careful examination of Champagne’s terroir, village by village and almost plot by plot. This is enhanced by Mr. Liem’s discovery and reproduction of intricate 1940s-era maps of Champagne, demonstrating that the understanding of the land is not something new, but something old that is being rediscovered.
These maps are included as a separate element of a boxed set, a packaging decision that explains the $80 list price. Nonetheless, this is a welcome, essential guide that succeeds in transporting our understanding of Champagne into the 21st century.
Speaking of terroir, wine books are often organized around places, grapes or people. Seldom do they focus on dirt, or, more accurately, bedrock. “The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavors From Ground to Glass” (The Countryman Press, $24.95), by Alice Feiring with Pascaline Lepeltier, takes a big step toward looking at wine from the underground up.
Ms. Feiring, who has written numerous books on natural wine, and Ms. Lepeltier, a leading sommelier, survey the various geological formations on which the most distinctive wines are grown. Whether granite, limestone, basalt, shale, gravel, slate or clay, each, they argue, imparts consistent characteristics when matched with the proper grapes, particularly when carefully and conscientiously farmed.
The link between soil and wine, they acknowledge, is not clearly understood by scientists. Indeed, some scientists reject it, preferring to focus on climate as the most important factor for growing grapes. Yet anyone who has ever compared the chardonnay grown in the Kimmeridgian limestone of Chablis with any other grown elsewhere can’t help but think that soil must play a crucial role in shaping the distinctive qualities of that wine. I certainly do.
This book is not intended as a scientific treatise. It’s more a once-over-lightly juxtaposition of soil types and wine characteristics, along with a look at the grapes that thrive in each type of soil and suggestions of wine producers to seek out. Still, it is exhilarating to apply this paradigm to wine, even in a decidedly general way.
Ms. Feiring is occasionally prone to eye-rolling self-absorption — asserting, for example, that she wasn’t the first to discover Barolo, which is a little like reminding people that she didn’t discover fire — and to unconvincing statements that seem primarily ideological, as in a wholesale rejection of first-growth Bordeaux since 1986. This book, though, is an important and useful challenge to think about wine in a different way.
“The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know” (Ten Speed Press, $14.99) packs a lot of wisdom into its slender, 150-page, stocking-stuffer frame. The author, Jon Bonné, whose 2013 book, “The New California Wine,” outlined the evolution of California wine in the early part of this century, here takes on a less daunting task: Soothsaying fearful, inhibited wine consumers.
To that end he has enumerated 89 “rules” (perhaps a more marketable term than “suggestions”) in no particular order, with the goal of helping consumers to relax and to better discern between what is important and what is not.
How to select a wine, how to serve it, how to store it, how to pair it with food: These are among the topics that many consumers find so challenging. Mr. Bonné succeeds in extracting the answers from decades of overwrought expert instruction and presenting them in a clear, easygoing manner
This is not a reference work. It has no index. Rather, it is a Zen-like reminder that wine is a joy, not a chore; a journey, not a race. Beginners and even confident wine drinkers will find much of value, even leafing through rules at random.
Wine books tend to find their audience among wine lovers or those interested in becoming so. The exceptions to that rule are books like “In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire” (The Experiment, $25.95), by Peter Hellman, which merge wine with tales of true crime, a genre with wider audience appeal.
“In Vino” examines the story of Rudy Kurniawan, a wine collector of mysterious wealth and origin, who fooled a coterie of even wealthier collectors along with covetous hangers-on, bilking them all with fraudulent bottles of rare, old wines, many of which he created in his kitchen.
Ultimately, Mr. Kurniawan’s scheme was revealed, partly by the efforts of the Burgundy producer Laurent Ponsot, who sought to protect the integrity of his estate from counterfeit wines, and with dogged detective work, financed in part by William I. Koch, a collector whose wealth stems from Koch Industries. Mr. Koch became a litigious crusader against wine fraud after he was victimized by wine con men like Mr. Kurniawan and Hardy Rodenstock, who once sold Mr. Koch bottles supposedly owned by Jefferson.
Mr. Hellman, a veteran journalist who covered the case, allows the story to unfold with spare prose. He presents, without overt judgment, the macho, competitive, one-upmanship world of the collectors, an atmosphere that perhaps contributed to their gullibility in the high-rolling economy of the early 2000s. This, along with the desperation to possess, seemed a greater motivation among these collectors than an actual love of wine.
While Mr. Kurniawan is currently serving a prison sentence, Mr. Hellman acknowledges that many unanswered questions remain. How exactly did the forger accumulate his nest egg? Could he really have been working alone? And for anyone about to open a bottle of expensive, old wine, is it real?
The best way to drink better wines, I have argued, is to think of wine as food. Good wines are agricultural products, and just as many people are concerned with how the produce they buy was farmed, so, too, should they care about how the wine is grown and made. But such information is not always so easy to come by or to understand.
“Wine Revolution: The World’s Best Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wines” (Jacqui Small, $35), by Jane Anson, is a helpful and enlightening guide that aims to decode these often baffling categories.
Ms. Anson, a contributing editor at Decanter, the British wine magazine, briefly outlines these agricultural and winemaking philosophies and offers capsule profiles of wine producers and their bottles. Her taste is exceptional, and while she at times retreats to the sort of winemaking jargon that you would typically find in a wine-oriented publication, general-interest readers will profit as well.
Purists might complain about some of her entries, but I find the absence of rigidity refreshing. The producers she cites, and their ways of thinking, will have you drinking better in no time.