Wine Book Reviews: Three Faces of Global Wine

Here are brief reviews of three recent books that approach global wine from very different perspectives. Each makes a distinctive contribution to our understanding and appreciation of wine. Together they suggest what a complex world it is and why so many of us find it endlessly fascinating.

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https__m.media-amazon.com_images_i_41tumphtglHugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2021 (Octopus Publishing Group, 2020).

Hugh Johnson’s pocket guide to the world of wine has been a hugely popular standard reference ever since it was first published 43 years ago. Updated annually, it packs a lot of content into a compact package. The Hugh Johnson pocket wine book is required reading for consumers and trade alike.

You will find something for all interests here: a vintage guide, new wines to try in 2021 (think Austria and the Iberian Peninsula),  a survey of grape varieties, a pretty interesting primer on pairing food and wine (what do you suppose goes best with haggis?), and for the new edition a special color section on terroir.

The foundation of the book and its success is a survey of world wine organized along classical lines, which means vintages, countries and regions, the wineries, and the wines. The wineries are rated on a four-star scale with brief commentary and noteworthy wines  are singled out. Obviously it is impossible to cover every winery and every wine, so it is interesting to go through the book to see if favorite wineries made the cut or not.

newyorker_mar291976_1What does the world of wine look like from Hugh Johnson’s classic perspective? Well, it reminds me a bit of that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker magazine cover that showed a NYC resident’s view of America.

The first thing that Johnson sees when he surveys the wine world is France, and it is hugely important. Indeed the section on France is 80 pages long, of which 20 pages are devoted to Bordeaux. By comparison Asia, which includes China, India, and Japan, has one single page. All of South America wine — Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and more — fills less than 10 pages. No doubt about it — France rules the world of wine and readers who want to understand and appreciate wine need to start there.

The United States gets about 30 pages (with individual sections for the most important wine-producing states), which is about the same as Italy even though Italy produces much more wine and has a much more complex regional wine structure. Given everything, I have no complaints that wine from my home state Washington gets only about four pages — that’s more or less the same as the space given to Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and North Africa … combined!

Is this a distorted view of the world of wine? Well, yes. But the lesson of the old New Yorker cover was that any single perspective on a complicated subject is arbitrary and distorted. Johnson’s perspective has served him and a great many others very well because, page counts aside, the detail provided in each section is quite remarkable given the compact overall format.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think  you’ll find Johnson’s classic viewpoint useful and interesting even if your interests aren’t exactly aligned.

This is a fascinating little book, packed full of information and insights. It you haven’t looked at a copy in a while you don’t know what you are missing.

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f28420adc2e634602079d783a8f823480a43eb91Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert, Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys (Luminare Press, 2020).

The professors Gilbert view wine from a different perspective that I find particularly interesting. Wine is made by people — men and women — but not in equal proportions.  Men have traditionally dominated the winemaking field and women have only risen significantly in the last generation or so. 

The Gilberts want to understand this phenomenon and their book provides observations based on interviews with selected  leading women winemakers in California; Champagne, France; Piemonte, Italy; Rioja, Priorat, and Penèdes, Spain; the Douro Valley, Portugal; and Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

The authors identify several waves of women winemakers in California, which allows them to see how conditions have changed over time. My reading here is that certain important individuals and networks were key to opening doors for others.

The interviews make good reading on their own as they give a sense of the barriers and opportunities that each woman confronted. The Gilberts synthesize their fieldwork results to establish four typical pathways that women have followed: family, science/agronomy, enology, and sensory analysis.  Chapter 9 summarizes advice for women who seek a career in wine.

There are lots of stories here, but the big story is simply to make these women winemakers visible — to shine a light on them — and so to inspire other women to follow in their footsteps (or maybe forge their own paths).

This is a scholarly volume, but not a stuffy or boring one. The Gilberts are careful to allow their subjects to speak for themselves as much as possible. These are important voices and the Gilberts do a great service by giving them this opportunity to be heard.

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Anderson, K. and S. Nelgen (2020), Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture (Revised Edition), Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. Freely available as an e-book at www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/winegrapes, and in Excel format at https://economics.adelaide.edu.au/wine-economics/databases.

which winegrapes

Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen have released a new edition of their survey of global winegrape production and it is available as a free download (see link above) or for purchase in paperback from Amazon.com.  It examines  global wine through a third lens — that of the grape vine itself — and it sees a world that is changing very rapidly.

One paradox found here is this. When I survey the retail wine wall I get the sense of a greater variety of wines made from a greater variety of grape varieties. More of these wines make it to the broader market today than in the past or at least seem to be more visible.

But, as data shows here, this casual empiricism disguises the fact that grape plantings are actually becoming less diverse. More of the world’s vineyards are planted to a handful of grape varieties.

In Spain, for example, Tempranillo is the only red variety that has increased in vineyard area (and it has done so massively). All the others have decreased. As Spain has reduced its overall vineyard acreage it has also shifted to its most marketable red grape variety. Fascinating.

One of the most important new features of this book is found in Section VII, where climate data for each of 800+ winegrowing regions is provided thanks to studies by Prof. Gregory Jones. Climate change data are combined with winegrape planting statistics to estimate to what extent winegrowers are mitigating climate dynamics through their grape variety choices.

This is a big, dense book that invites casual browsing of its many clear charts and diagrams but really rewards close study of the detailed tables. The price is right for the ebook version.  You should check it out.

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