Just as a national language demands a great dictionary – both for its use value and as a tribute to its subject – so the noble subject of wine has long needed a magisterial work about the meaning, as it were, of grape varieties. Here we have it, in a substantial book with a wonderfully simple title: Wine Grapes.
As a reference work, Wine Grapes stands alongside, first and foremost, the Oxford Companion to Wine and the World Atlas of Wine. The name that is common to the authors or editors of these three books is, of course, that of Jancis Robinson, who has come to occupy a unique eminence in twentieth and twenty-first century wine. With the eye of history you can forget Robert Parker, for example – as a founder of a fashion, and the greatest influence on the sales of fine wine for a time, he will be forgotten in 20 years except as a phenomenon and a symptom. Perhaps the only wine-person’s name that will have as persistent a lustre as Ms Robinson’s is Hugh Johnson’s.
She’s joined in the great enterprise of Wine Grapes by Julia Harding, who brings her customary assiduity and meticulous care in, I suspect, her responsibility for a lot of the laborious research that has gone into the book; and by the Swiss José Vouillamoz, a leading botanist and grape geneticist, whose presence guarantees that the book reflects the latest research into the gloriously tangled world of grape varieties, particularly as expressed in DNA investigations into their complex genetic relationships.
For some years now science has been revealing interesting and sometimes remarkable relationships between different varieties – many will remember that early (1997!) finding that Cabernet Sauvignon was a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Others have followed and several new ones are shown in this book – which also includes some bewilderingly complex family trees.
Some of the latter will no doubt give more comprehending satisfaction to the specialist than they do to me, but no lover of wine will, surely, be able to resist poring over the pedigree of Pinot, in a large family in which Pinot shares the major role with Gouais Blanc and Savagnin. Who wouldn’t be at least slightly interested to know that, for example, Savagnin apparently met up in some vineyard with an as yet unidentified variety to produce Chenin, and then that Colombard is a cross of Chenin and Gouais Blanc? Pinot, you might be shocked to learn, is to the scientist a single variety with Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and a few other Pinots as mere mutations rather than distinct varieties. And Pinot is there amongst the ancestors of Syrah.
So here, between two sturdy covers, are the “1,368 wine varieties” mentioned in the book’s subtitle, from Abbuoto (summarised as a “Rare, central Italian variety producing plenty of alcohol, generally blended”) to Zweigelt, (the “Most common red wine grape in Austria producing firm, full-bodied wines if yields are controlled”). Every single letter of the alphabet is populated, by the way, with W coming last in terms of the number of entries – just one.
And if you think, after following a series of announced discoveries over the last decade or so, that looking up Zinfandel is going to lead you via a cross-reference to Primitivo, or even Plavac Mali – wrong; try Tribidrag.
Each of the varieties in the book is discussed under the same basic headings (with, obviously, great disparity of length): Origins and parentage, Viticultural characteristics, and Where it’s grown and what its wine tastes like.
A must-have book? Well, frankly, that depends on your degree of geekishness – and your bank balance, as it’s shockingly expensive. It’s not going to be of much relevance to most consumers, especially here in South Africa, where the range of varieties grown is pretty small and we see few of the rarer international bottlings. But, as with the great dictionary and all its unusable, fascinating words, many winelovers will want Wine Grapes glowing on their shelves, even if it is rarely consulted and rarely riffled through.
Problems with the book apart from the price (which I assure you I felt, as no review copy has been forthcoming!)? Just a few that I’ve noticed. Firstly, I don’t think the publishers have done justice to the text. The book could have been better designed – probably a two-column format would have been preferable, for example, allowing for wider pages, and hence fewer pages, which could then beneficially have been a little thicker, as the degree of “show-through” is getting close to problematic here.
Especially as it no doubt added to the cost, I can see no real advantage in having the five blocks of colour plates (on good paper!) scattered through the book. The 80 illustrations are nice enough paintings of bunches of grapes, taken from an early twentieth-century ampelograhical work. They add a rather old-fashioned note which doesn’t appeal to me, especially as for some reason I can’t fathom why the pages they are on are a centimetre narrower than the text pages, which looks odd and ugly (you can see the effect, as well as the transparency of the paper, if you look carefully at the photograph above) and also results in vertical creases on the adjacent text pages.
A more serious problem is that some of the pedigrees cover more than one page and their central sections are unreadably sunk into the gutter and binding. This is unacceptable, especially at this price. Which is more culpable – the book designer who didn’t realise this would happen, or the publisher who allowed it to happen? My sympathies to the authors as well as the readers.
Of course, I am not in a position to judge most of the text. I’m rather proud to say, however, that I did respond to queries from the authors, and my name is there amongst the list of “informants and collaborators” (an alarming characterisation for someone with a political sensibility!) But there are a few places where I could have been of further use, although most of the descriptions related to South Africa seem first-rate and well-informed. Under the entry for Crouchen (“Cape Riesling”), for example, Theuniskraal is misspelt, and mischaracterised as “a Distell brand”.
More important is the list of four specifically South African varieties included (all crosses, of course): Chenel, Colomino, Nouvelle and Pinotage. Colomino I confess I have never heard of, and I’d have thought its 3.22 hectares (declining!) wouldn’t qualify it as a variety producing “commercial quantities of wine”, the criterion for inclusion cited by the authors. Weldra has a magnificent 11.05 hectares, and isn’t there (and could have doubled the number of varieties under W!). Nor is Therona with nearly 100 – and Roobernet with nearly 140 hectares should certainly be mentioned.
Very minor matter, especially in light of a magnificent achievement that the wine world should be grateful for (and easily rectified in the later editions which will certainly follow). I imagine the juries for wine-book awards will be grateful, anyway – Wine Grapes makes their task ridiculously easy.
Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 wine varieties, including their origins and flavours. By Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. Published in UK by Allen Lane and in the USA by Ecco, 2012. British edition available currently on Loot for R1539, and on Kalahari for R1831