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Comment: Time to look beyond what you know

Why Hugh Johnson is always wondering what's next in wine...

I’ve celebrated new grapes, new regions and new ideas of all sorts. The question is always, what next?

At this time of year I’m head-down in my next Pocket Wine Book. It’s the 43rd time I’ve done it, and no, it doesn’t get monotonous.

When I say ‘I’, by the way, it’s really a big ‘we’. Every year Margaret Rand commissions and collates revised material from our 30-odd correspondents round the world; Hilary Lumsden edits them; I pore over them, compare them with my own recent experiences, do a lot of fussy subbing, cut out any disposable words without mercy (‘mineral’ is a frequent one) and round it off with my annual ‘Agenda’; a summary of what strikes me as new, different, better or worse. Even ideas for improvements.

This is the tricky bit. There are a thousand changes I could mention: of style, ownership, quality, maturity… But can I detect a theme, or themes? Over 40 years I’ve described many, and got quite shirty about some of them. I’m not averse to sharing the credit when, for example, the world notices that wines are getting too samey, too strong, or too oaky.

I’ve celebrated new grapes, new regions and new ideas of all sorts. The question is always, what next?

My hunch is that we should look east – and not just to the arrival of China on the wine scene. It is scarcely news these days when vines are planted yet higher in the Andes, or Pinot Noir does well as far south as you can go in Australia. Sicily now makes very fine wines. South Africa is on the quality level of California – and often above it.

But what about the countries in Europe that have been at it for centuries and were eclipsed for 50 years by communism?

Austria was the first to emerge definitively as belonging in the first rank. Then Greece took its bow with a giant leap no one could have anticipated. Hungary, with its own elaborate wine culture, masked by names we can’t pronounce, is still only half-understood. What is holding back Romania and Bulgaria? Nothing, I’m sure, that translation and time can’t straighten out. As for Slovenia and Croatia, natural advantages of their geography and climate will soon see their wines compared with Italy’s.

I know not everyone is blessed (or is it cursed?) with my nosiness – wanting to stick my nose, that is, into every wine in reach.

But how boring to stick with what you know; pizza every day, roast on Sundays. I am intrigued when new foods appear on the high street, new wines on the shelves. Aren’t you?

Hugh Johnson OBE is a world-renowned wine writer

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