15-08-2018

A book review of “43 Wine Regions”

Author, Michael Biddick sets out with an interesting proposal to analyze the world’s wine regions and essentially generate a group of 43 that encapsulate what is wine in the world, thus the title, “43 Wine Regions“. I was intrigued by the idea and given that he has a technology background that slid into wine, I could readily relate to where he was coming from.

His goal is one that we can always use more of in that he strives to make wine more approachable and accessible. It’s a vast, daunting subject and I always applaud anyone who tries to further easier understanding of an alcoholic beverage that has probably been with us as long as taxes and prostitution–and was probably the reason for both.

I found the initial text rather direct and to the point but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the most revered wine tomes are in fact a pain in the ass to read as there are so many fluffy words it’s actually hard to get at the meat of things. So Biddick’s style of writing may appeal to some but not others although it readily gets the information across.

He delves into his methodology, which has been made a lot easier in Europe’s wine regions as there is commonality among supposed “quality” levels of wine. This is harder in New World regions, but he covers this in a way that will make the newcomer to wine feel comfortable.

And from there, he’s pretty much off and running into the wine regions with some infographics on one page and a brief overview of the region on the other. I immediately thought it was striving towards being a blend of 24 Hour Wine Expert which is very sparse on visuals and then Wine Folly, which is very sparse on accurate, reliable information although full of pretty pictures. If someone could pull this off, I’d readily tip my hat to them.

As an aside, I have to admit that I’m pretty boring when ordering dessert at a restaurant I haven’t been to as I always go for the most boring, common dessert option. I use that to rate the restaurant overall as it provides a base point of reference no matter what the dishes were that came before it. I use the same approach in wine books in that I flip to the section on Spain. It’s an area that I feel most comfortable with and it gives me a sense of rating the book overall via this baseline for factual accuracy.

Unfortunately this is where things started to quickly unravel for the book. I don’t know why, but Biddick is extremely hung up on giving vintage classifications. This is an exceedingly dangerous territory to wander into as critics will often not agree and the main wine bodies are actually not qualifying the resulting wines from a vintage, but the quality of the harvest (i.e. was it reduced of abundant, lots of rot or clean, etc.) So, you can’t really rely on either and you have to know a region very well in order to make any attempt to pass on this information and I can think of no one who would make the claim to know the last 15 years of vintages personally and solidly for 43 of the world’s wine regions.

But in addition to vintages being very much off (2011 and 2012 in Priorat were very much not “excellent” also 2007 and 2013 actually were instead of being listed as “good”) there are countless facts that are wrong. Priorat has nearly 2000ha of vines, not 1600–a total more than 15 years out of date. “Vino de Pueblo” isn’t listed on a single wine label as they’re all “Vi de Vila” in Catalan, not Spanish. And “Recommend drinking bottles five to nine or more years after the bottle date.” is simply not true as there are some wines to consume the year after they’re made and others to wait 10.

For Rioja, 2014 in Rioja was much higher than the middling “very good” among other errors such as the text says “Roughly eighty-five percent of all wine production in Rioja is red wine.” yet the infographic shows a 90/10 split. Don’t know why “Garnacha” is listed after Tempranillo but not Graciano and Mazuelo which are just as equal secondary grapes.

In Penedès, Macabeu is misspelled in a Spanish version of “Macabéo” and is actually more often called Viura. Also, Xarel·lo is spelled Xarel-lo, which is wrong and if you’re trying to be a wine reference text, you should get these things right as they propagates an incorrect spellings and knowledge. And of course there’s a ton of mixing Catalan and Spanish in this section as well as using the three zonal classifications that are now actually defunct–oops.

I could go on, but it made me start poking around and in the section on Paarl, South Africa, on page 119, that photo is actually Buitenverwachting in Constantia which is essentially the opposite direction from Cape Town than Paarl. How do I know this? First, that photo doesn’t look like Paarl which is more open and rolling in terms of vineyards than say Stellenbosch or Constantia. Secondly, I’ve actually been there.

I reached out to a friend who is an expert on wines in Napa Valley who told me that, with just the quickest of glances on that section, there were countless issues, again starting with the vintages: “I would classify 2016 as outstanding, as well as 2010 and 2007. I would move 2015, 2012 and 2005 to Very Good and move 2003 to good.” For the whites, “I would move 2011 to outstanding, 2016 and 2009 to excellent, 2002 and 2004 to Good.” The first commercial winery was in 1861, not 1859 as stated in the text. Biddick interchanges Napa Valley and Napa County when there is most definitely a difference. There are in fact 16 AVAs in both Napa & Sonoma Valleys not the numbers stated in the book. And well, there’s more.

Given the lack of detail in the text, which is exceedingly detrimental, I tried to deduct how he analyzed and came up with these 43 regions. It’s just well, weird. For a quick example, DO Montsant (which wraps around DOQ Priorat) places in the bottom third of the list. The Croatian coast is near the end of it. And there are other anomalies as well. To some degree, despite Biddick’s sampling of only vintages from 2000-2016, I feel like there wasn’t enough done to balance things given that Montsant didn’t start releasing wines until the 2002 vintage so it would be missing two vintages that would have then scored a zero if you’re doing some kind of analysis based solely on numbers and thus heavily brought down its overall score.

There’s the other issue that many regions are neglected by critics as seen with Croatia, Georgia, or others until maybe the last five years. Same goes with China’s Yunnan which is dead last. There haven’t been any wines of note whatsoever from there until very recently and so it’s going to be dragged down by its history which isn’t at all relevant to the wines it’s producing now.

As it’s easy to see, I have a great many issues with the approach as well as the content of this book which looks largely lifted from very dated material on Guildsomm (which is always updating its Compendium to the latest info btw) as well as Wine Folly. Looking in the references section, indeed, I find both of them listed which goes a long way in explaining why I can’t help but give an F in terms of usability.

There most definitely is a place for this format of book or another in the future, but as it sits, this book does not live up to what it was intended to do and should have been subjected to a thorough factchecking instead of just being rushed out to market with the hope that no one would notice because it has catchy infographics.

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