Best Book of 2012: Wine Grapes

By Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz
(Ecco, NY, 2012; $175, winegrapes.org)


It takes some chutzpah to price a reference book at $175. But this isn’t any reference book. This is the book on wine grapes.
    Before Wine Grapes, we had Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes and Wines, and the handy, pocket-sized Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes, culled from The Oxford Companion to Wine. Now, Robinson instructs us to toss out those books immediately, because this one obliterates them in terms of scope and accuracy.
    She’s not exaggerating. Collaborating with her right-hand woman Julia Harding, MW (a formidable researcher and editor profiled in W&S October 2012), and José Vouillamoz, a botanist who’s extremely active in wine genetics, the team covers 1,368 varieties—a fraction of the approximately 10,000 known, but all of which are commercially produced somewhere in the world. Organized alphabetically and cross-listed by country, each entry details the variety’s origins and parentage, viticultural characteristics and synonyms as well as mistaken identities—a listing, often fascinating in itself, that highlights how misunderstandings and false assumptions have shaped our collective wine world. The entries also illuminate where you’re most likely to find the variety planted today, how its wines may taste and, in many cases, who is doing the most impressive work with it.
    What’s more, the book does all of this in the style of the horticulture books of yore—those showpieces on thin, satiny paper printed in a variety of elegant fonts interspersed with full-color illustrations (in this case, from Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel’s seminal Traité Général de Viticulture: Ampélographie, published in 1910). The upholstered slipcover is rather beside the point, as this is the sort of book you’ll want to leave out and open somewhere, to dip into at leisure.
    Setting aside the book’s beauty and reference value, there’s a lot of good reading here. A series of 14 “pedigree diagrams” offers insights into the complex familial relationships between vine varieties, some of which turn our current understanding upside down. Pinot is the most dramatic example: Working from the generic “pinot” (pinots blanc and gris being simply color mutations of the noir), it maps out 156 parent-offspring relationships, highlighting DNA-proven relationships (with varieties such as aligoté, gamay noir, melon and romorantin, to name just a few) as well as others yet unproven but likely—and often surprising. If Vouillamoz’s research is correct, pinot is also the grandparent of Italian varieties teroldego, marzemino and lagrein, as well as dureza, a variety from France’s Ardèche. And, since dureza is the father of syrah (crossed with mondeuse blanche), that makes pinot its great-grandparent—blowing away previous theories that they are two distinctly different varieties, and giving strong credence to the idea that syrah originated in the Rhône-Alpes region.
    The text throughout the book opens up many more interesting possibilities, and gives the sense that, if one were to read it cover to cover, one would have an exceptional understanding of the history of grape vines and winemaking culture throughout the world. For instance, an entry on mencía, a Spanish variety that’s become popular in recent years, reveals that the grape is identical to jaen in Portugal’s Dão—perhaps brought there by pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela. The entry on malvasia, followed by 25 malvasia “somethings” (their term for grape varieties that share a name) amply illustrates that there’s no such thing as a malvasia family, dealing a blow to the Greeks who believed that their land was the original source (yet reflecting, perhaps, how vaunted were the wines once shipped out of the Greek port of Monemvasia, from which the word “malvasia” is thought to come.)
    Pithy observations and, occasionally, opinions enliven the volume rather than hamper it. Müller-Thurgau is elegantly trashed with the subhead, “Prolific invader of the world’s vineyards producing soft, semi-aromatic whites in over-abundance,” while the tag under Completer (“Rare Swiss variety making very distinctive, ageworthy whites”) inspires an Orbitz search for the next flight to Lucerne. (That would likely be the only way to score a bottle, as there were just seven acres existing in 2009.) Winemakers looking for alternative varieties to plant could discover useful possibilities in here; wine lovers will find an endless array of wines to hunt down and check out. In other words, Wine Grapes is awesome, a reference that anyone interested in wine, botany, culture and history should have on hand. —Tara Q. Thomas