Decanter book reviews

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books, Wine Grapes

Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and, José Vouillamoz, Allen Lane, £120

In 1986 I wrote a glowing review of Jancis Robinson MW’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines, a pioneering consumer guide to a complex but important subject. A quarter of a century on, she has co-authored a more compendious guide to grape varieties. Her original book, which I still refer to, seems a mere pamphlet compared to this tome, which could double as a weapon if dropped from any height.

Wine Grapes is a truly authoritative guide to 1,368 varieties. The amount of research the authors must have embarked on is hard to fathom. DNA profiling has transformed this subject since Robinson first tackled it, and the parentage origins of each grape are enthralling.

Take Nebbiolo: the authors cite a string of references from the 13th century onwards, before embarking on the tricky topic of its clonal variations. Each entry concludes with a section on where the grape is grown and how the wine tastes. Here too the research is prodigious, and even growers of Nebbiolo in Tennessee and British Columbia have been tracked down.

Pedigree diagrams sort out the relations between the members of the extended Pinot family. Did you know Pinot is a grandparent of the Italian grapes Lagrein and Marzemino? The intricacies of the Malvasia family – like the differences between Bianca di Candia and di Lipari – are elucidated. This may all seem abstruse to the average wine lover, but to anyone who cares about individuality and regionality, such information is welcome.

My first instinct was to try to catch the authors out, looking up the most obscure grapes and wines I’d recently tasted. First, Uvalino from a single producer in Piedmont. There it is, on page 1106, with a detailed account of its origins and its recent revival by Cascina Castlèt. Then I tried Alibernet, encountered this summer in the Czech Republic. A cross-reference directed me to Odessky Cherny, so now I know this variety originated in Ukraine.

I can’t praise this book enough. The only fault is the small type (necessary to avoid a book of 2,000 pages, I assume).  In every respect it’s a triumph of scholarship, communication and design. Its usefulness will outlive us all.

Stephen Brook

books, Wine Grapes
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