Book Review: Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz

Why would any wine lover want to know something about more than one thousand different grape varieties? For the same reason that wine lover would want to taste them. A certain class of wine enthusiast, whether or not they accept the moniker of “wine geek” will experience a small shiver of delight as they peruse the pages of the recently published tome Wine Grapes, provided they haven’t gotten a hernia in the process of lifting the seven pound book onto the table in the first place.

As its subtitle suggests, this book attempts to be “A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours.” While the authors haven’t used the term encyclopedia, perhaps because it went out of fashion in the Eighties, this massive book is just that, an encyclopedia of all the grapes you’re ever likely to drink.

Perhaps more interestingly, the book represents the most authoritative understanding of wine grapes, their heritage, and their genetic relationships ever published, thanks to co-author José Vouillamoz, one of the world’s pre-eminent grape geneticists.

The advances in DNA sequencing and analysis that have occurred in the last decade have begun to unlock some of the mysteries of wine grapes that have sat, unnoticed in some cases, right under our noses for centuries. What kind of mysteries? Well for starters, how about the fact that most wine grapes in all their infinite varieties, just like the vast world of dogs in all their shapes and sizes, primarily belong to the same species (American natives and odd hybrids aside). So how did they all end up looking and tasting so different?

Like dogs, many were bred deliberately in an attempt to produce a sum greater than the parts, and still others arose as clonal mutations that we recognized as interesting or valuable for certain characteristics. But the parent / child relationships of grapes, with the exception of certain famous crossings such as that of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc which yielded our beloved Cabernet Sauvignon, have remained a mystery until quite recently.

The large format, fold-out “family tree” diagrams in Wine Grapes that show the genetic lineages of many of the most common wine grapes will particularly fascinate a certain type of wine lover — perhaps the oenological equivalent of those who care to know the etymological roots of certain words.

For those who don’t care that Pinot Noir may, in fact, be a genetic parent of Syrah, Wine Grapes offers more pragmatic and helpful information for anyone trying to make sense of the bewildering jungle of grape varieties that one can encounter in any well-stocked international wine store. For instance, who knew that the pleasing Portuguese white grape called Fernão Pires is in some cases (but not always) actually the same grape as Torrontes? And good heavens, are there really 10 genetically distinct types of Muscat?

While the length and detail of the entries about each grape vary, most contain a list of the grapes principal synonyms, other varieties commonly mistaken for it, a description of its genetic heritage, some discussion of where and how it is grown, and for most entries, a description of what the grape tastes like. Each entry also contains an indication of the berry color of the vine, but this is provided as a line under one of five standardized color dots, which essentially represent light green, dark green, pink, red, and black — hardly the true spectrum of colors for most wine grapes and only marginally helpful to the curious reader.

The book also contains the requisite (and admittedly quite beautiful) paintings of many of the primary grape varieties, offering something of a visual catalog of major grapes in addition to the detailed text. These ampelographic plates, with their hand lettered labels and parchment backgrounds, are certainly in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the book, which leans decidedly classical. In this day and age, however, it’s surprising that there aren’t decent high resolution images of most grape varieties that would prove more useful to most readers. The images, too, are grouped quite unhelpfully into evenly spaced chunks throughout the book — half the varieties beginning with the letter “s” live between Pukhliakovsky and Pules (the former a “Russian variety with erratic yields” and the latter a “minor Albanian white”) while the other half are sandwiched between VB 91-26-4 and Vega (“a minor and usefully disease resistant Swiss hybrid” and a cross between Malvasia and Furmint, respectively).

Minor aesthetic considerations aside, Wine Grapes instantly joins books such as the Oxford Companion to Wine and the World Atlas of Wine as a definitive reference work of the highest caliber. While it is not the kind of book most will want to curl up with and read for extended periods of time (at least not without some sort of supporting structure to avoid cutting off the circulation in the thighs), like the Oxford Companion, it will yield answers to many a question an adventurous wine lover might ask in her exploration the world of wine.

And for those wine geeks (and MW candidates) who want to delve deep into the heritage and minutia of the technicolor grape pantheon, you now have 1242 pages of delight ahead of you. Enjoy, but keep it on a sturdy shelf.

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, Ecco 2012, $110.25 (Hardcover).

Disclaimers for those who care: I received a review copy of this book, and I write a paid monthly column for Jancis Robinson, one of the authors.