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Heavy but Rewarding
on 27 March 2015
In 1986 Jancis Robinson broke new ground in popular wine writing when she published her book 'Vines Grapes and Wines', a comprehensive and very readable account of the characteristics, geographical areas, vinification techniques and lineage of many of the grape varieties grown around the world. This book is now out of print but is readily available on the second-hand market and is well worth reading if you have not already got a copy.
Like many others, when 'Wine Grapes' appeared three years ago I assumed that this was some form of updated version of the previous book. However this is a very different work, much more academic, covering a larger number of grape varieties and concentrating particularly on the lineage and history of the different varieties.
To write this new book Jancis Robinson teamed up with two co-authors: Julia Harding MW (one of Jancis Robinson key team members in the running of her website) and Dr José Vouillamoz, a Swiss grape geneticist with particular expertise in the DNA profiling of grape varieties. One of the outstanding features of the book is the use of original DNA research by Dr Vouillamoz to elucidate the provenance of many grape varieties whose origins were previously obscure. The results of this research form much of the core of the book and often make fascinating reading; to take one example, the book comprehensively puts to rest the Italian versus American argument about the provenance of the Primitivo / Zinfandel variety and which country has the right to make use of the name Zinfandel. Not only is it established beyond doubt that Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically the same variety, the book goes a stage further and lists both these varieties under the main heading of 'Tribidrag', a previously unknown Croatian grape genetically identical to the other two varieties whose cultivation predates both of them.
While this book contains much information of great interest to serious wine lovers, apart from some introductory sections at the beginning, it is not a book to read through: it is a book to dip into and use as a reference resource. One of its most pleasing features is the inclusion of several family trees illustrating the ancestry of some of the more important modern grape varieties; these are often in double page pull-out spreads and show incredibly complex interrelationships between many modern varieties. They also illustrate how most grape varieties grown today have descended from quite a small handful of ancient varieties, the Pinot Noir of Burgundy being one of these. Unfortunately earlier editions of this book had a binding fault which made some of these diagrams difficult to view (see my note at the end).
The book is well indexed but it comprises a large number of relatively short articles with very many cross-references; this can make it quite tedious to trace the relationship between varieties that do not happen to be shown together on one of the included family trees. For this kind of exercise the Kindle edition of the work would be much more useful; on the other hand the large format and layout of the printed book is a great pleasure to browse and read. The ideal but rather expensive solution would be a copy in each format! The book is a very valuable complement to the earlier work and has become one of the most-thumbed books in my small wine library.
Like many books these days this book is printed in China and the first printing run had a serious defect in the production of the case binding: the rear of the case was solidly glued to the back of the page block which prevented the pages from opening flat when the book is laid down on a surface to read - see photos. The most annoying result of this was that it was very difficult to see many of the double page lineage diagrams because they were partly buried in the deep fold at the centre of the book. The publishers made available downloadable PDF copies of the diagrams which somewhat mitigated the problem. It is very hard to understand how one of the most experienced UK publishers, the Penguin group could have made such a serious error in the production of very expensive volume.
I became very frustrated with this problem and ended up taking matters into my own hands: using a knife I forcibly separated the rear of the case from the spine of the book. This allowed the book to open properly but in achieving this I did do some slight damage to the rear of the case resulting in some lumps and bumps on the spine. With hindsight a better tool might have been a thin strip of metal sharpened at the end like a chisel. Attempt this at your own risk!
I would hope that this problem has been corrected on current editions but not having seen a new copy I cannot be sure about this.