Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
It was reading Jancis Robinson’s Confessions of a Wine Lover which initially pushed me to learn more about wine, and the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine that became the first port of call in the search for any information when I started working for Oddbins (wine merchants) in the late 1990s. It is still The Oxford Companion to Wine, now in its 4th edition, that I turn to when I want to clarify, be reminded of, or generally learn about some wine related matter. If you only ever get one book about wine, though I might respectfully suggest one book is never enough, this is obviously the one to go for.
In fact it seems so obvious to me that the idea people might not already own a copy is mildly shocking and this is because I consider wine as something to be enjoyed rather than as primarily something to drink. It’s not that every glass has to be an intellectual exercise, but that the more you learn about wine the better equipped you are to enjoy it. This might take the form of assessing each glass before taking notes on its appearance, aroma, and flavour, or it might be that reading about something like Madeira, understanding the unique way it’s made and knowing a bit about its history will lead you to try something extraordinary. It should probably be noted that the first approach may not always make you the best company…
This new edition runs to around a million words and is no light weight to tote around – it’s not going to make bedtime reading (not without wrist braces at any rate) and I could use my phone to access all of this information, and yet I wouldn’t be without an up to date edition. Haven’t been without one since 1999. Back then the book was the obvious option, and I still think it’s irreplaceable. Browsing my new copy I found an informative essay on English literature; wine in, leading to medieval literature (there is of course the entirely separate literature of wine) and then a dozen other references to be chased regarding specific grapes and wines. It’s not that these are necessarily new entries, just that this is the first time I’ve followed that particular lead.
This isn’t something I do on the Internet. An online search may lead to following other references, but I can’t open it at random and start following a trail of knowledge. The book allows me to do exactly that, and what’s more do it with information that can be trusted implicitly. It’s a luxurious way of learning that leads to all sorts of unexpected places, as well as an increasingly long shopping list of wines to be tried (in a responsible fashion).
The moment wine becomes more than something to be picked up cheaply and drunk as much for its alcoholic content as for its flavour a whole world opens up, one in which good guides and companions, both written and human, are extremely helpful. As a hobby wine appreciation doesn’t have to be expensive, and doesn’t need a lot of tools but this book is certainly one of the more useful extras (the basics being a tasting glass and a bottle of something) with which you can provide yourself. There is also the argument for the particular sensory pleasure of handling a book – wine is very much about the senses, and about taking a bit of time to think about what’s in front of you, books most definitely lend themselves to that approach.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader but spends her days selling wine. Jancis Robinson has a lot to answer for.
Jancis Robinson & Julia Harding, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 9780198705583, 904 pp., hardback.