The joy of grapes
Authoritative new reference tome tracks lineage of world's 1,300-plus wine grapes
Page turner: The destiny of this hefty text is as a permanent resident on your wine shelf. But if that's its rightful place, and at nearly 1,300 pages and costing close to two benjamins, it had better deliver. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
These three phases in the life of a wine grape offer different forms of appreciation and education. A wine grape, at base, has primary tastes. Those change or develop into secondary aromas and flavors when made into wine. Finally, as some wines age, they acquire tertiary scents and savors.
For example, a ripe syrah grape tastes like black raspberry and blackberry, flavors it carries over to the wine it makes. Growing it in a certain place or climate matters. So do the choices made when making it into wine; for instance whether to age it in wood barrels or not. And a mature syrah, well-cellared, will gain further aromas of leather, tobacco or cocoa, among others, all a result of time.
In order to track and learn from these stages, especially the first two, you'll find no better guidebook in English than the new "Wine Grapes," by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (Ecco, $175).
It's such a joy to have a book back in hand; something on one page forces a finger flip, furiously, to another page. Like every American, I wanted to know who's zinfandel's daddy, but the entry tells me to "See Tribidrag." Instant adventure.
The destiny of this hefty text is as a permanent resident on your wine reference shelf, alongside such indispensables as Robinson's own editorship of "The Oxford Companion to Wine." But if that's its rightful place, and at nearly 1,300 pages and costing close to two benjamins, it had better deliver.
So I put it to a test. I had a "random integer generator" cough up five numbers between 1 and 1,200 and turned to that page of the book, just to see what lay there. What I found was, by turns, valuable, fascinating, new and, most important, a goad to further learning.
Here's a sampling
Page 94: Terrific, enticing writing on "Beaunoir: Virtually extinct black-skinned variety with one illustrious and one promiscuous parent." Pinot is the former; gouais blanc the latter. By these two parents, Beaunoir is also sibling to our very familiar chardonnay, gamay noir and aligote. More adventure.
Page 207: The Turkish grape cavus (so named after the army "sergeant" who brought it from Mecca to the sultan) is rare among grapevines because "it has female-only flowers and needs a pollinator." Most wine grape vines are hermaphroditic. Cavus is primarily a table grape in Turkey, but also makes much wine there.
Page 418: Not much captivating about the vowel-challenged Georgian grape goruli mtsvane, but the following page is the first of four on gouais blanc. You have no idea how important gouais blanc has been as a grandparent to the globe's grapes and, hence, to so much of our wine.
(Which compels me to mention one of the book's more startling overall conclusions (page 807). It's commonly assumed that the hundreds of grape varieties of Europe, from which we make nearly all of our table wine, have as many independent origins. But new DNA research upon which this book largely is based argues instead for "a small core set of founder varieties," of which, yes, gouais blanc is quite the queen.)
Page 736: The native American red grape Norton sports two times the resveratrol (an antioxidant) as cabernet sauvignon and, thus, is important to the health debate about red wine consumption and coronary heart disease.
Page 1129: The last of the discussion of the widely planted white grape, vermentino, about which it was interesting to discover is "found in Brazil," and the beginning of the vermentino Nero talk. I had no idea there was a red vermentino. But most valuable to learn is that, like hundreds of other red grapes, it's mom is a white grape.
Other delights of this book
• The authors head each significant multipage entry by telling you how they will proceed; good professorship.
• Every grape's final section, "Where It's Grown and What Its Wine Tastes Like," gives you stages one and two of basic wine knowledge — for more than 1,300 grapes.
• Every once in a while the text simply lapses into a language other than English; no italics, just the flow of German or French as an original source. It's like standing in an elevator in New York City, beautiful sounds least expected.
• It's as if a playwright wrote each grape variety's short profile, as if that grape were a character in an ongoing drama. See, for example, these two on page 406:
"Geisenheim 318-57: Minor German hybrid surviving but not especially valued in Canada" and "Gellewza: Second most planted Maltese variety but being edged out by international invaders."
• Dozens of gorgeous, Audubon-like illustrations of grapes from "Ampelographie," by Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.