This article appeared in The Washington Post in slightly different form on November 6, 2013. Coming next: My full interview with Hugh Johnson.
There are books that teach you how to taste wine and books that describe how to make wine. There are primers on grape varieties, “pocket guides” to the best wineries and wines of the world, and encyclopedias that cover rootstock, barrel cooperage, vine pests and diseases all in one massive volume. There are even books to tell you all the other books are nonsense and that you don’t need to know anything about wine, just what wines you like.
And then there’s The World Atlas of Wine, recently published in its seventh edition. Co-authored by the eminent British wine writers Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, this book is the essential rootstock of any true wine lover’s library.
No one in the last 50 years has written about wine in the English language with more charm, grace and wit than Johnson. While expressing his love for the finest Bordeaux, he makes wine accessible to all through his total disregard for pretense and a keen sense of how the grapevine’s tendrils are interwoven through our history and culture. For Johnson, wine is not just a good drink, it’s a good story. The Atlas, which he first published in 1971, is a multi-layered snap shot of wine and how it has evolved over the 42 years and several editions since.
Johnson enlisted Robinson as co-author for the fifth edition, published in 2001. With her team of writers and researchers, Robinson has created a global intelligence agency on wine, becoming the most prolific and knowledgeable of modern wine scribes in the process. The seventh edition reflects a remarkable synergy, merging Johnson’s romanticism with Robinson’s meticulous attention to detail.
“Wine is the only thing you buy whose value depends on where it comes from,” Johnson told me in an interview in Manhattan during the recent U.S. launch of the seventh edition. (I immediately thought of Italian shoes, but never mind.) Wine growers around the world today are repeating in rapid fashion the experience of growers over hundreds of years in Burgundy and Bordeaux as they discovered that certain parts of their vineyards produced better wines – and that they could charge more money for them. The new edition reflects this trend with more detailed maps denoting famous vineyards in major wine regions.
The world of wine is also expanding dramatically, and the seventh edition contains more than 20 new maps of regions such as Croatia, Georgia (in the Caucasus, believed to be the birthplace of wine), and New York’s Finger Lakes.
Virginia has made its grand entrance onto the world wine stage with a two-page spread. It reflects not only the Old Dominion’s new prominence as the fifth-leading U.S. wine producing state, but its global importance as it exports wine to Britain and China.
China is here too, with the rapidly growing vineyards of Ningxia getting their own map. We think of the Chinese market driving up the price of top Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the Atlas reminds us of China’s potential as a producer and – two or three editions hence – maybe even a global wine exporter. It’s a game changer in the making.
The emerging emphasis on different wine grapes is a “subplot” of the new edition that is likely to carry over to the next, Johnson said. “When the last edition came out” – in 2007 – “how many people were excited about Italian white wines?” he asked rhetorically. “Now everyone’s falling all over the falanghinas and grechettos.”
And he offered some advice for wine lovers. “Taste around. Don’t make up your mind right away about your preferences, and don’t spend more than you can comfortably afford.
“Great wine doesn’t make statements, it poses questions – and I don’t mean ‘Why is this so expensive?’ It engages you, makes you want to pursue it. What is that flavor? What does it remind me of?”
At age 74, Johnson is still pursuing wine’s endless possibilities. “I do still want to know what is under every cork or behind every label, but I can’t, because life isn’t long enough. And life is too short to drink bad wine.”
Then he sighed and said, “That’s a tee-shirt not enough people wear these days.”