When I wrote my column for today’s Washington Post Food section on books to buy the oenophiliac on your list, I left out the most imposing one. Primarily because of space, but also because I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a book with a list price of $175, even though it actually sells for about $110. This is a book wine lovers will buy for themselves, without asking permission from the spouse or the bank. And they will be proud to own it.
The book of course is Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz. Readers of this blog will know, especially if you’ve been reading since before it was a blog, of my admiration for Robinson. I’ve never hidden this admiration, and my wife is okay with it. Jancis writes about wine with authority but without a trace of pretension – in fact, often humor – and with a grace that makes it look easy despite all the effort that obviously goes into her work.
This is a book of biblical scale that should occupy space on your shelf right next to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Better reinforce that shelf, though – the book weighs more than seven pounds. It comes in a beautiful slipcase, so on second thought maybe it belongs with your Oxford English Dictionary. Which should, come to think of it, be right next to your Oxford Companion to Wine.
Wine Grapes catalogues 1,368 grape varieties that are in commercial production around the world today. Jancis and her team (Harding, a Master of Wine, is Robinson’s assistant on the wonderful JancisRobinson.com, and Vouillamoz is a leading ampelographer and world authority on grapevine genetics) dig deep into detail to give us the parentage of each variety. (There are more “begats” here than in the Old Testament.)
This book is a must-have for anyone working toward any type of wine certification, or simply obsessed with the grape. And it is great for studying up for your next dinner party encounter with a wine know-it-all.
Take tribidrag, for example. Ever hear of it? Neither had I, I’ll confess, until I looked up zinfandel expecting to be redirected to some hard-to-pronounce Croatian variety with more syllables than vowels. Indeed, crljenak kastelanski is another, more modern name for the grape in Croatia, and the last one I had heard before I must have dozed off. But no worries, the tribidrag entry in Wine Grapes includes an account of the decades of genetic research into zinfandel’s identity, from its identification with primitivo in southern Italy to the original (mistaken) Croatian link to plavac mali.
This is not really a book to read cover to cover, or one to take to bed. (If you doze off and it whacks you in the face, you could get seriously hurt.) I can’t resist just opening it at random and learning something new. It’s sitting here on my desk, calling to me, making deadlines fade away …
Let’s see, page 365. Frappato. “Fruity, fresh and floral Sicilian often blended with Nero d’Avola.” Ah, those wonderful Sicilians …