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Jefford on Monday: The Grammar of Wine

Is there a grammar of wine? Is there, in other words, a system or set of first principles through which the mass of 'wines' can be articulated and comprehended? The analogy isn't an exact one, but ampelography comes closest to making the metaphor work.

Nothing sends me more regularly back to my reference books than the need to understand grape varieties. Over the last decade or more, though, the insights of genetics have reshaped the varietal horizon, and made the old books redundant. We’ve all, consequently, become a little nervous about definitive varietal pronouncements, in case the ground had moved under our feet. What if Viognier turned out to be genetically identical to Fiano, or Merlot proved to be Sangiovese’s aunt? And what do we call Zinfandel this week?

That’s why an almost audible sigh of relief will go up across the wine world on Thursday: at last the wine world can lay its hands on the reference grammar we all need. Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and Dr José Vouillamoz (all 2.66 kg of it) is a magnificent achievement: colossally informative, illuminating and intriguing. No one but Jancis Robinson could have marshalled such a project, galvanizing and coordinating the efforts of the international wine community. The genetic researches of Dr Vouillamoz and his colleagues provide the book’s wow factor, while the painstaking scrupulousness of Julia Harding surely lies behind its seamless grafting of scholarship and academic rigour to informative, descriptive prose.

Once I’d ripped the cellophane off the book’s fabric-coated box, I couldn’t resist road-testing it with a couple of recent queries. I’d been astonished recently by the almost overwhelming minerality of the 2010 ‘La Mar’ from Terras Gauda in Rías Baixas (85% Caiño), yet also puzzled by that variety’s appearance on the labels of other red wines from the same area. Ah, I see: those reds should be labeled Borraçal.

A summer visit to Piedmont left me simultaneously beguiled and perplexed by the extraordinary Ruchè, a musk-perfumed yet grandiose dry red: surely it had some Moscato Rosa parentage? Apparently not – though in this case, the space between the lines implies, its full DNA story still awaits telling. The beauty of Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli blends from Georgia recently blipped up on my radar (more of this in a week or two), so I was keen to find out more about each. The book’s descriptions of each of these impressive varieties chimed with my experience, and I was intrigued to learn that the DNA of Rkatsiteli make it a close relative of local wild vines.

The big stories in the book, though, are the lengthy accounts of the most polyphiloprogenitive varieties or, as the authors call them, ‘founder varieties’. Some fourteen varieties, too, are given family trees or pedigree diagrams, which usefully schematize the relationships between them, though it’s a pity that a significant section of the most important of these, that of Pinot, disappears into the book’s gutter. (Those for the Wisconsin hybrid Brianna and the German hybrid Prior are really of interest to geneticists and grape breeders only, and you’d have to be Swiss to take much interest in Completer and Prié.)

We all, note, need to revise our terminology, and stop muddling our mutations and our varieties. A sobering lesson of Wine Grapes is that La Tâche 2009 (offered by Justerini & Brooks recently at £2,416 a bottle) is in fact made from the same single variety as Tesco’s Linoti Pinot Grigio (on offer online for £29.94 per case). What we used to consider two separate varieties “are simply skin-colour variations of the same variety produced by a particular type of mutation” (p.XV). There is no more perplexing aspect of the book’s insights than this, and I still find it hard to grasp how a bottle of tangy, tart, taut Côtes du Jura Savagnin can really be made from ‘the same grape variety’ as Olivier Humbrecht’s luscious Herrenweg de Turkheim Vieilles Vignes Gewurztraminer, produced just 180 km away. Grape-vine genetics is, for drinking purposes, a highly theoretical branch of knowledge.

And the price? The book notionally costs £120, but in fact is available for £75 (plus postage if you live outside the UK) via http://winegrapes.org/special-offer/, an astonishing £45 difference. (Amazon.co.uk wants £78.) Bookshop owners, look on and weep. Personally, I would rather the book had excluded the faintly anachronistic Viala and Vermorel colour plates, and cost £49.95, a price I’m sure would still have made ample profits for everyone involved. There will be an electronic edition next March. Let’s hope it will be tagged less graspingly.

By the way, Fiano and Viognier have nothing to do with each other. But Merlot is Trebbiano’s aunt. And, Zinfandel producers, get ready to re-label your wines …Tribidrag.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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