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on May 10, 2002
See the Amazon review dated September 29, 2001 for an excellent treatment of this book.
Since I first became interested in blind wine tasting almost 25 years ago, I have searched for a book that provided a complete and authoritative guide to describing the taste of different wines and grapes-a reference point or sounding board, if you will, against which to calibrate my own impressions. Never mind that the essence of blind tasting and the apprehension of quality depend on forming your own innate vocabulary of scents and flavors. There have been many times when I have struggled, and have just wanted an expert to tell me what the heck a textbook Crozes-Hermitage, for example, is supposed to taste like.
Jancis Robinson's Guide To Wine Tasting is an excellent contribution to this subject for beginners. I didn't realize until around page 150 that the book had originally been published in 1983 under the somewhat unfortunate title, Masterglass, but I think we can forgive her this youthful indulgence. Because over time, she has truly become the heir apparent to mantle of most prolific British wine commentator, eclipsing my other English heroes Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, and Clive Coates. With multiple books, a TV show, videos, a weekly column, a new DVD and a website ... she is, to paraphrase wine newcomer Howard Stern, the Queen of All Wine Media.
This book systematically lays out the factors that contribute to the taste of a wine, and how to appreciate them. It follows the model of a "wine course," in that each chapter combines theory and practice, the practice consisting of specific instructions of what wines to try that best illustrate the principles being taught. Like all good teachers about wine, she staunchly advocates blind tasting as the key to developing your own wine appreciation faculties. Just keep in mind that to pursue the practice, you'll need a willing accomplice to pour the disguised wines for you so you can really benefit.
Two things make this slender volume particularly noteworthy and a valuable contribution for amateurs of all stripes. First, Jancis is one of the most democratic and unintimidating wine writers on the planet. She goes out of her way to make beginners feel at ease, correctly observing that in many cases the less you know, the more accurate your initial impressions can be. She also makes it clear that even experts routinely embarrass themselves at this game, which is half the fun and often offers a better learning experience than actually guessing correctly. No one interested in learning more about wine appreciation will feel condescended to within the pages of this book.
Second, I give Jancis a lot of credit for being willing to describe specific flavors that derive from major grapes, variations in winemaking practice, and geographical differences, since that is after all why I most wanted to read the book. It is not as detailed or quite as specific as I would like, but it does an admirable job nonetheless and can refresh the core knowledge of a more experienced taster just as well as empower a newcomer.
I don't have much to criticize about the book. There's a very bad typo on page 47 where Brunello di Montalcino is described as coming from the nebbiolo grape (instead of the sangiovese clone, brunello), but this is correctly stated later on. I also think the selection of some of the second-tier grapes she characterizes is a little odd (why even bother with trebbiano if she says it's undistinguished, when she ignores other Italian white grapes that make wonderful wines). Finally, there are a few pages whose layout contains very little information (I counted one with fewer than 50 words) and since this isn't an art book, it gives the appearance of padding.
Nevertheless, this book provides all the basics of what you need to know to not just enjoy tasting wine, but to actually appreciate it.
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on March 4, 2004
The topic of wine can intimidate many people and Jancis goes out of her way to diminish the fear factor. Many of her explanations are excellent, her exercises are fun and she is always encouraging and positive. The best part is that she really does help the reader identify and isolate the different building blocks of taste: for example, what does acidity feel like on your tongue, and what does it taste like in a yoghurt versus lemon, and finally in a young pinot noir versus and aged cabernet? However, at times I found that Jancis did not give enough information and left me confused. For instance, she says that Riesling wines fall into the semi-sweet category, but neglects to mention that this is only for German Rieslings; Rieslings from Alsace are very dry. Buy this book if you are willing to spend homework time in the wine store and reading other books, supplementing what Jancis tells you herself. Also, since most of these exercises are based on blind tastings, buy the book only if you have someone with whom to do them.
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on April 22, 2003
This book get 5-starts from me, as it relates to being an introductory "course" on the fine art of tasting wine. All the major grape varietals are described in easy to digest language for the novice, and Jancis' writing style is witty and fun. Like all artistic endeavors -- in order to refine one's art, more information is required. While this is an excellent foothold for learning the art of tasting wine, the true beauty of this book is that it subtly entices one to move forward in a search for more information and guidance. I also recommend "Windows of the World - Complete Wine Course" for a more intermediate step toward gaining more knowledge, and then the ultimates - "The Oxford Companion to Wine" and "The World Atlas of Wine".
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If you decide to read only one book about wine tasting, you can happily make it this one.
Unless you have tasted many wines, chances are that you have not yet found the 20 wines you would like the most in your price range. If you are like me, you don't want to spend thousands of dollars to locate wines you would like better than what you now drink. What can you do? Read this book, and start tasting along with some adventuresome friends!
In the mid-1970s, I was fortunate to work for Heublein which made and imported many fine wines. At dozens of tastings, I was introduced to hundreds of superb wines and had a chance to buy them very inexpensively. From that rich experience, I have been given the opportunity to select wines at many great restaurants and many social occasions. People always marvel at how much I know about wines.
Can I let you in on a little secret? If you use the process in How to Taste, you will probably exceed my wine knowledge in a few months. What's the reason? Well, I haven't tasted geographically as widely as this book suggests. I know a great deal about French, German, and California wines but relatively little about those coming from other locales. In fact, I plan to use this remarkable book to guide myself into a broadened palate.
Jancis Robinson is a wonderful wine tasting resource. She obviously knows her stuff. She breaks the most complicated issues down into simple, constituent pieces that can be easily grasped. She knows how to give you the experiences you need to find wines you will like better with a minimum of effort and expense. And she writes well, so the words go down easily.
Each chapter has theory and practice sections, along with tasting exercises (sometimes of common foods rather than wines). The bulk of the book has separate sections for the major grape varieties and wine types that builds on the basic knowledge she helped you build in the beginning (white -- Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and the Rhone Whites; red -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sirah, Grenache, and the southern French and Italian reds; sparkling; sherry; port).
The exercises usually involve "blind" tastings, so you'll need a partner. But that is what makes wine tasting fun! It's an enjoyable social event.
Did you know that the average adult can detect over 1000 distinct flavors? I was fascinated by the regional taste influences. Californians often detect "bell pepper" notes in their wines, for example, while others usually do not.
Taste is heavily influenced by smell. So you'll learn to taste when you sense is smell is very fine, and to be sure that the room and people are as odor free as possible. The tricks for helping the wine develop its bouquet are detailed here, especially having the right kind of glass with a stem for twirling and sniffing.
As to tastes themselves, the most significant are sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness. You will learn to detect where on your tongue you detect each one. You will also come to appreciate which balances of these qualities appeal the most to you. Sweetness without the right acidity lacks spark, for example. Naturally, with wines you also have the effect of how much alcohol the wine contains (weight), the impact of oak casks (when those are used for aging as with Chardonnays), and the various ways that wine can spoil (usually because of a cork failure).
Finally, mouth feel is part of the experience of tasting. The tiny bubbles of methode champignoise explode gently against all parts of your mouth while induced carbon dioxide bubbles leave wholes in the taste and seem coarse.
You will learn a way to test a wine for cleanliness, balance, length, and look and how to take notes so that you'll be able to "remember" your experience.
A big problem with wine tasting is that the more you taste, the more your tongue becomes anesthetized by the alcohol. You can also become tipsy. So tastings often feature spittoons or other places to expectorate. The book explains how to handle that. Soon, you will know "the noble art of spitting."
Each variety and wine type is then characterized by these taste qualities so you'll have some idea of what types of wines are likely to tickle your newly trained palate.
Now that you know what you want to taste, the book also directs you on when, where, and how to direct your tasting.
Once you have identified your favorites, Ms. Robinson goes on to suggest some unusual combinations of wines and foods that you may not have considered. Obviously, foods and wines can wonderfully compliment or negate one another. She also has some non-traditional ideas about red wines and fish that I suggest you try.
How to Taste is also delightfully enhanced by many beautiful color photographs. I particularly liked the ones that captured the subtle colors of the grape varieties and wines made from them.
After you have learned all of this about tasting, I suggest that you also put your new talent to work in identifying healthier foods that you can eat which will also make your dining tastier for you.
A votre sante!
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on October 11, 2001
Jancis Robinson has so many credits I've given up on them. I simply call her the high wine priestess of Britain. That might seem intimidating, but fear not. For all her encyclopedic mind, Robinson delights in passing her knowledge on (as distinct from the kind of person who won't share for fear other people will know something too). Some wine writers like to bully and mystify their readers, but Robinson has her ego under control. She'd rather make new friends for wine than just about anything else except drink the stuff.
And so she is the perfect guide for learning <how> to taste: how to focus on and identify--and later describe--the layers of aroma and flavor wines contain; how to remember them so you can compare in the future; how to match them with food; how to get interesting insights from tea cups and a mouthful of toothpaste.
I said "really short" and I mean it. In the past two years I've seen a handful of books for wine beginners that ought to have been <weighed.> Robinson gives you about 200 pages--pretty small pages, too, with plenty of excellent and informative illustrations. Moreover, this book isn't necessarily for beginners. Most people <haven't> been taught how to taste effectively. And that means there are plenty of serious wine amateurs around who know a great deal about wine except how to taste it.
This book will open your eyes and reward your taste buds.
Bill Marsano is a contributing editor of Hemispheres, United Airlines' in-flight magazine, for which he often writes on wines and spirits. One of his Hemispheres articles won him a James Beard medal in 1999.
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on October 2, 2001
I really love the concept of tasting wines from different regions...during a single event.
This book, when paired with the Discovering Wine Book, and the 'Dummies' book, form a nice basic library for wine appreciation.
If you are impatient, like me, you might also want to try a gadget called Perfect Sommelier. It ages your wine quickly, so you can taste the difference, from a single bottle, in less than 30 minutes. I found one using Google.
I do like red and white wines equally, and it was nice to see them treated as equals. So often, a book is focused on just one, which is a shame.
The book is also nicely illustrated, and would make a great gift.
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on December 21, 2001
Excellent book for the novice winetaster. It is as interactive as a book can be, setting exercises to supplement the theory involved. It doesn't allow the reader to become bored with the language of wine, rather it explains it in a non-patronising manner. Will be a constant reference book for me.
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on February 25, 2016
Just got into this wine. This book was a tremendous starting point. It will still be useful years on as well no doubt. Written in a very readable way that will make you appreciate wine whether your intention is its simple enjoyment or whether you are seeking to become an all out wine snob.
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on May 24, 2014
Great reference. Robinson's easy to understand writing style makes this book a pleasure to read. As a wine studies instructor this book is a core reference for me.
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on December 27, 2001
Best book on 'using' wine I have ever read. A must read for novice and all us 'intermediates.
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