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Wine Myths and Reality - Wine Book Review

The Growing Gap Between New and Old World Wine Production

by Benjamin Lewin MW

(Vendange Press, 2010)

Benjamin Lewin's Wine Myths and Reality

Many books about wine are published every year, but few have as much of substance to say as Benjamin Lewin's Wine Myths and Reality. Its sheer size and scope are breathtaking — more than 600 pages weighing in at four pounds. The book's twenty chapters, covering such topics as Terroir, Vintage Variation and Global Warming comprise five sections: Growing Grapes, Making Wine, The World Market, The New World and The Old World. More than half of the book is taken up with the geographical peculiarities of wine production, with the Old World taking the lion's share. Well-illustrated with maps, charts and photographs on nearly every page and extensive notes and bibliography, Lewin's book is well-researched and scholarly, yet pleasantly readable.

As a Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin is uniquely qualified to write Wine Myths and Reality. The title Master of Wine is bestowed by the Institute of Masters of Wine based in London and held by only 288 individuals worldwide. Lewin also was the founding editor of scientific journal Cell and published many books on genetics before turning his attention to wine. His previous book What Price Bordeaux? (2009) received excellent reviews; his next book will be titled In Search of Pinot Noir.

Wine Myths and Reality seeks to bring to light the reality that is often obscured by myth, history, false advertising and poor regulation. "Many myths stand in the way of understanding why wine is like it is," writes Lewin in the preface, "myths about viticulture, myths about winemaking, myths about the historical verities of wine. I'm interested in the context of each wine, not just how it is made, but also why the winemaker decided to make it like that." One of these myths that Lewin sets out to correct is the notion that a bottle's label accurately represents the wine's alcohol level. He notes that accuracy varies widely depending on regulatory body and taxation. In the EU, alcohol level must be accurate within 0.5%, whereas in the U.S., only 1.5% accuracy is required. This means that a bottle labeled 12.5% alcohol by volume in the U.S. could contain anywhere from 11% to 14% alcohol. Moreover, countries often impose higher taxes on higher alcohol content.

Another myth is that lower yield means higher quality wine and vice versa. "The ideal situation for quality is for every wine to have a low, but adequate yield, but it's a myth that measurement of yield in terms of production per unit of land accurately reflects each vine's activity," writes Lewin. While it may be generally true, there is also the reality that many vines produce little because of disease. For example, Spain's yield is nearly half that of France. The discrepancy, according to Lewin, is explained by the poor state of Spain's vines. Wine Myths and Reality is not just about debunking, however, it is full of history and interesting facts. For example, organic viticulture only accounts for about 1.5% of global wine production. Lewin also notes that of the thousands of grape varieties, fewer than twenty account for a quarter of the world's vine production.

The underlying theme, then, is that viticulture, wine production and the international wine trade are changing rapidly as a result of globalization, evidenced by the narrowing of grape varieties, countries scrapping old vines to put in more popular varieties, and much cheaper New World wines flooding the market. As to the latter, the New World is far less regulated and has far more freedom in making and marketing wine. The unanswered question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Much of the book is about the vast differences between wine production in the Old and New Worlds, while leaving the question of benefits and disadvantages open. Wine Myths and Reality is sure to educate, perhaps delight, and certainly provoke.

Reviewed by Barnaby Hughes


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