Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz

Published by Sally on October 31, 2012

Title of book: Wine Grapes
Author: Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz
Publisher: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
Publication date: 2012
ISBN 978 1 846 14446 2
Pages: 1,242
Price: £120.00

 This book really will cause structural issues for any but the most robust of bookshelves.  It broke the bounds of my 3kg kitchen scales, and has replaced theoretical kilo bags of Tate and Lyle as my unit of weight loss measurement – fewer units, but, boy, the heft.

With its subtitle – a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties including their origins and flavours – I’m faintly disappointed, in a slightly OCD way, they couldn’t stretch the page count to match the number of varieties. That would have made a nice symmetry.

In all seriousness, this has been a much-awaited and anticipated book. It will undoubtedly race to its place ahead of the few other ‘must stock’ books in any serious winey-person’s library.

In the future, possibly the very near future, the question that people will ask is going to be – what was the first cultivar you looked up?  Our gravitas, perhaps nerdiness or eccentricity, will be marked out and judged according to ‘our first’.  So, confession time, mine was mauzac.  Having done a ‘stage’ in Gaillac as a prelude to my MW studies I’ve retained a fond affinity for this refreshing grape and the various styles it makes. Indeed my vinous ‘alma mater’ Domaine de Causse Marine is mentioned in the book as a top producer, so perhaps symmetry is restored already.  And the second grape I looked up? Ah, but like the Olympics, who will ever remember the name of the second-placed?

I was momentarily intrigued by an index in an alphabetically-ordered book, until the surprisingly useful ‘how to use this book’ informed me every synonym of all the 1,368 grapes is listed in the index which directs the reader to the name under which the entry is actually made.  The authors decided to use anteriority to rule that the oldest name should be the point of entry, or perhaps the name most commonly used.

This really came into its own for ugni blanc … which of those pesky trebbiano varieties is ugni blanc?  Trebbiano toscana, as it happens, the last of six discrete cultivars considered by the authors having trebbiano at the front of their vinously-aspiring, double-barrelled names.  And neither primitivo nor zinfandel had that variety’s entry, which was found under tribidrag, letters I’ve never before knowingly juxtaposed to make a deliberate word, and one firmly ensconcing the origin of the variety in Croatia.

The book genuinely breaks new ground, which is (a) quite rare for wine books, (but see here), and (b) always a joy to fact-nerds like myself. Its main premise is to trace genetically the origins and ancestors of these grape varieties, and there are some surprises here. The Bordelais may yet have to cede the home of cabernet franc to Spain’s Basque country for example. And staunch Tuscan cultivar sangiovese turns out to be a half-blood from Calabria.

The book also details where the cultivars are grown and gives indications of what the wines may taste like.

I love the idea of family and sibling rivalries between cultivars: that sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc are likely siblings, both the offspring of savagnin and an early anonymous donor; that savagnin is a grandparent of cabernet sauvignon. With such heritage, perhaps the Aussies may yet be reconciled to their inadvertent import of savagnin, believing it to be albariño.

Nor did I expect to see gewürztraminer referred to the savagnin entry, which turns out to be an ancient mother (or father) of (not quite) all varieties, even getting it together, in some familial form, with pinot partner gouais blanc. As well gewürztraminer and cabernet sauvignon, savagnin is genetically linked to petit and gros manseng, silvaner, rotgipfler and grüner veltliner, among others.

My only genuine disappointment is that our industry’s leading lights continue to (allow the publisher to?) capitalise grape varieties when, as far as I can see, all the evidence from English language usage suggests this should not be case.


4 Responses to “Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz”

  1. Alison Flemming Says:

    Yes, I laughed. At almost all of it. Sal in top form………..

  2. José Vouillamoz Says:

    Dear Sally Easton

    Together with my co-authors Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, I am thrilled with your laudatory review of Wine Grapes, many thanks!

    I just want to provide some official information about the ‘disappointment’ that you had with our use of capitalized grape varieties names. Cultivars’ names [NB: grape varieties are cultivars indeed] and the rules to name them are strictly regulated by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP, latest edition here ). According to the ICNCP, each word of a cultivar’s name must start with an initial capital letter (except conjunctions and prepositions), eg: Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat of Hamburg. In addition, cultivars’ names must be enclosed within single quotation marks (double quotation marks, and the abbreviations cv. and var. are not to be used, which is sadly still often the case, including in scientific literature), eg: ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’, ‘Muscat of Hamburg’. While the latter examples illustrate the most correct way to write a cultivar’s name according to ICNCP, we have deliberately chosen to drop the single quotation marks for obvious space reasons: with the thousands of cultivars’ names in Wine Grapes, the book would be twice as big. Having names starting with an initial capital letter was the least we could do to respect the ICNCP in an international reference book such as Wine Grapes, without paying attention to the English language usage.

    Many thanks again for your excellent work

    With my best regards

    Dr José Vouillamoz

  3. Sally Says:

    Thanks indeed for the information José. Notwithstanding this I shall continue to advocate, and employ, English language usage. One brief scan of the page you linked to illustrates my point amply – it is littered with incorrect mid-sentence capital letters.
    Great book though!

  4. Franchesca Says:

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something which helped me.

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