This is the 33rd edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. The rolecall of contributors (though they are not listed as such) is unassailable. They are all experts in their respective fields. Sometimes one is left wondering who wrote what—is it HJ or his stringer? At any rate, his style and tastes permeate the book like a red wine marinade seeping through a coq au vin.
HJ’s introduction, the “Agenda 2010,” shows him at his best—opinionated (in the best sense), witty, lyrical and immensely readable. Apropos of the French Minister Levin’s wish “to give consumers back their choice,” he retorts: “Freedom from culture? Goering wanted that, didn’t he?” (p.6). He cites the legal war that broke out with attempts to reclassify crus bourgeois and Graves crus classés as examples of what can happen when production codes are interfered with: “tamper with the status quo and somebody will send you a writ” (p.8).
On the whole he is right to give a good kicking to the EU’s proposed abolition of appellation contrôlée and its equivalents, though this is not necessarily a bad thing if it prevents poor wine being made under a glamorous AC name, such as “the nastiest Champagne” (p.8). He (or his stringer—Michael Edwards, perhaps?) gives a very pithy and balanced overview of the proposed expansion of Champagne’s vineyard area, conceding that the “new” sites are in areas that were planted with vines in the nineteenth century. “A greater danger,” he says, “is that Champagne will be made by arable farmers who don’t understand wine ” (p.47). One is reminded of all that nasty Champagne.
The introduction to the Italy section is very evocative and enthusiastic (bravo, Nicolas Belfrage?), describing the country’s “range of scents and flavours”, its “commonwealth of localities,” how sometimes its “grape varieties are similar (but) styles of wines are not” and how “an open mind and a sense of fun are the only essentials on a voyage of discovery” (p.108). The latter of course can be applied to the world of wine as a whole.
Sometimes his sybaritic enthusiasms get the better of him. For coq au vin, he advises “one bottle of Chambertin in the dish, two on the table”—though this is of course “in an ideal world” (p.25). Probably there are not too many people who would willingly spend £300+ on wine for a fairly basic dish—and certainly not at the moment.
The Pocket Wine Book is very comprehensive, with just about every winemaking country worthy of mention getting an appropriate write-up. Even Russia makes wine, apparently (well done Eleonora). There is plenty of everyday stuff to sit alongside the three-bottles of Chambertin, too. Mateus and Yellowtail are both included but not Blue Nun. Perhaps HJ still has a bee in his bonnet over the use of the Piesport name with such wines.
In such a text-dense book, typos are inevitable: “Wathc Terras do Sado” (p.162) and “swpet aside” (p.230), for example. “There’s aëëë definite buzz in Austria’s vineyards,” apparently, though I am not sure if the umlauted e is a typo or a joking reference to the recent Brüno film. For Guigal, “all reds are big volume,” though as only 5,000 or so bottles are made of each of the La La wines, the writer surely means their vinous power rather than production level. Howard Park’s wines are called Madfish, not Madfish Bay (p.274). And it seems curious to refer to S Smith & Sons, which is the Hill Smith family’s distributing company, when the wine-producing arm is universally known as Yalumba. But a few such minor errors in 320 pages is not bad at all.
The full colour “Wine in South America” section at the end of the book looks like a joint-sponsored effort by the Chilean and Argentinean generic bodies. But it is done discretely and tastefully, like the book as a whole. Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book remains the best of its type.