“Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours” was recently released. The prime author, Jancis Robinson, is one of the most prolific writers about wine extant and has focused a good portion of her attention on digging up information about grape varieties. The second author, Julia Harding, like Robinson a Master of Wine, has been her assistant for years. The third author, José Vouillamoz, has long been recognized for his DNA work on grape varieties. Together they have compiled this landmark collection.
The title pretty much describes the contents. Like Robinson’s earlier work,” Vines, Grapes and Wines” published over a quarter of a century ago, it details each grape’s color, the flavor of its wines, growing areas, its viticultural strengths and weaknesses and its synonyms. But so much has happened since that earlier work that the result is a richer, deeper more complex work that weighs in at about 7 pounds (another reason for making it a tome not to be taken lightly).
The biggest difference is the DNA factor. Today we hear about DNA identification commonly. DNA was first isolated in 1869 and Watson and Crick proposed the first model in 1953. But even as late as 1986 folks were just starting to get a handle on it and how to deal with it less expensively. Prior to this, if ampelographers (people who study a grape via its color, bunch shape, leaf shape, etc.) wanted to find a relationship between two grape varieties, they visually compared them and made their best guess. Today there is no guessing. Vouillamoz’ contribution to this work is stunning and in many cases surprising. He has even created interwoven “family trees” of varieties, foldout charts of the relationship between, for instance, the lofty Chardonnay and the lowly Gouais or the Italian Nebbiolo and the French Viognier. (some of them are marred by embarrassing printing problems; but this can be remedied by a download from Robinson’s website. Go to : http://winegrapes.org/perfect-pedigrees).
But DNA is a two edged sword. You’ll definitely be fascinated by what it made possible to reveal, but you will have to slog through some geeky jargon as well. In short, if you are only mildly interested in grape varieties, take a pass. But if you swoon over Sauvignon or are delighted by Dolcetto (sorry), this is the book for you.
By the way, one stance the authors have taken with respect to DNA may turn a few heads. Many if not most students of the grape maintain that, for instance, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris and Pinot noir are three distinct varieties. The authors state unequivocally that there is only one variety and that it is Pinot with the others being color variations and not genetically distinct. If this is correct, then, for instance, Châteauneuf-du-Pape reverts back to 13 approved varieties as opposed to the 22 recently asserted (and tacitly endorsed by the Féderation des Syndicats des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape).
Last note. You’ll probably be tempted to head straight for the descriptions of the grapes. Do yourself a favor, however, and start at the beginning as the Introduction and Historical Perspective pages, especially, are extremely informative and will make some of the jargon easier to take.
Published by Ecco, a Harper Collins offshoot, it sells for $175.00 although Amazon offers it for $65 less.