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Jefford on Monday: Stepping out with the Companion

In this week's column, Andrew Jefford discusses several issues raised by the recently published fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

You’ll all know that the new (fourth) edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine has been published.  Santa will, I’m sure, drop it down many wine-lovers’ chimneys with a house-shaking thump in eleven days’ time.  The availability of an alternative electronic format is more than usually worthwhile in this case, unless you like to combine wine research with weight training.

The book functions as a kind of compendium of all other wine reference books, and as such is invaluable.  If you are curious about wine in any way, you should have a copy – though I don’t see a compelling need to buy each successive edition, in contrast to The World Atlas of Wine.  The book is ideal for quick fact-checking, for elucidation of a new or strange name, for researching technical terms and for admirable summaries of national and regional wine-making endeavour.

I recently spent the best part of a day working through a number of different entries in the Companion: an illuminating through occasionally a frustrating experience.  Perhaps this is inevitable, given that it is the work of many hands, and given that it must treat a number of highly complex issues in a cursory manner.  That’s why I think it’s really at its best when fulfilling the instant reference role.  Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

I mentioned in a recent article that Nebbiolo was a thick-skinned grape, and some Chinese readers have queried this, so the nature and influence of skin thickness on wine structure and flavour is a topic I’m pursuing for a future column.  I am, moreover, fascinated by the role of tannins in red wine in general, so I thought I’d read my way into these topics as a way of putting the new Companion to the test.

The issue of skin width is briefly and usefully addressed in the ‘grape’ entry, though not in that for Nebbiolo (an otherwise excellent entry).  The entry for ‘tannins’ I found less satisfactory, principally because the scientific aspects of the entry are presented in undigested form (a wider problem with many of the scientific entries).  I chased on through most of the cross-referenced entries from that entry, hoping to find answers to two of my, and surely many drinkers’, principal questions about tannin.

Why might it be, first of all, that identical grape varieties furnish ambitious, carefully made wines with hugely different tannin profiles, depending on where those varieties are grown (Merlot, for example, from the right bank of Bordeaux compared to Merlot from almost anywhere else in the world)?  And why do the tannins of different varieties, expressed in their emblematic wines, taste and feel so different from one another (compare and contrast Cabernet tannins from Napa with Nebbiolo tannins from Barolo to see what I mean)?  But I didn’t end much the wiser.  The entry for ‘oenological tannins’ was unsatisfactory and almost irritating, like almost everything I’ve read on this touchy subject, and the tannin section of the ‘oak flavour’ entry didn’t really explain why powdery oak tannins taste and feel so disappointingly different to the ‘thicker’ tannins derived from grape skins.

The sheer number of entries, it would seem, is problematic for the publisher (or so Jancis Robinson outlines in her Preface).  Given that, I think a sharper scalpel could have been taken to existing entries (a few examples would include the entries for coffee houses, dining clubs, ochratoxin, oenogyanin, quercetin and a lot of the spectacularly obscure grape varieties, especially given that those buying this book will usually also have Wine Grapes).  The ‘cultural’ entries don’t always seem to merit their presence (how many readers will ever find their way to Abu Nuwas, ‘Eiximenis, Francisc’ or Petrus de Crescentiis?).  The entries for commercial wine entities could also surely go, since that information is routinely duplicated in guides and this book will not be the first port of call if you want to know more about Guigal, Harveys of Bristol or Jacob’s Creek.

Other key entries, by contrast, are abbreviated.  Limestone is one of the most significant wine-soil media, at least as far as wine literature and back labels are concerned, yet that particular entry is shorter than the entry for the now discredited and barely sane technique of minimal pruning.  (You’d be better off looking up ‘calcium’ or ‘calcareous’ than ‘limestone’, though there is no cross-reference here.)

There is surely a case for greatly expanding many of the key viticultural and wine-making topics, and rendering them into multi-author entries as some of the national entries are, while cutting back on the plethora of cross-referenced individual entries (this particularly applies to everything connected with soil, climate and terroir).  Among the climate issues which seem to me to merit better coverage are wind (the mistral, for example, is only briefly alluded to in the Rhône entry, where it is oddly said to be one of the ‘chief hazards’ rather than a redeeming and vital feature of the region’s climate; the same applies to foehn winds in Jurançon and elsewhere).  Cloud and cloud cover are vital issues which are missing as topics: they’re surely one of the key climate elements which distinguishes most old-world fine-wine regions from their greatest New World challengers.  In this case, admittedly, it may be that there is a research gap in the source papers.

Handing over many entries to academic and ‘industry-funded’ researchers to write is a sound and logical commissioning gambit, yet it has its drawbacks in terms of lack of critical bite.  Nowhere in the entry for ‘terroir’, for example, is there any discussion of impact of winery practices on the expression of terroir, though must adjustment is the swiftest way to efface the sense of terroir from an otherwise assiduously grown and crafted wine.  The coverage of additives in general is brief and perhaps disappointing, especially given the curiosity which now exists about these in a world where natural wines have proved commercially significant.  I would also have hoped that the entries for ‘acidification’ and ‘acid’ would contain some discussion of the key figures for acidity in finished wines, since these are often available in data sheets sought out by consumers on-line, and are highly illuminating in themselves as well as revealing stark cultural contrasts in winemaking practices and national palates.  (You’ll find a few figures if you chase off to ‘total acidity’ – but that chase underlines why the entire topic would be better covered in one single entry.)

Am I being a pernickety dork?  Probably, so let me finish by stepping back.  What I’ve mentioned are not blemishes on an otherwise magnificently comprehensive book so much as revision challenges for the future.  If you’re a wine novice, this one volume could teach you more about wine than any other; and if you’re a full-time wine professional, you will still find much in here that you didn’t know.  I’m enthusiastic about Alex Maltman’s geological contributions to the new volume and would like to see him given more space next time around, together with every other contributor prepared to challenge the received wisdom of the wine world, and to explain and elucidate as well as merely present.

Any compilation of this sort is necessarily imperfect, and the truth is that no editors could have brought us a volume closer to perfection than Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding have done.  They deserve the success that this fourth edition will undoubtedly have and which will, in due course, spawn a fifth.

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