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Care for a Changyu Red?

6 minute read
Bill Saporito

Hugh Johnson peers into a glass of a jasmine-yellow white wine from the Republic of Georgia and sees an intriguing history and a promising future. “The Georgians are convinced that they invented wine 7,000 or 8,000 years ago,” he says. “Their way of doing it has been considered out of the ordinary. Suddenly there are people all over the wine world who are really learning from Georgian methods.” As he and Jancis Robinson write in the seventh edition of The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley; 400 pages; $55 hardcover, $29.99 iBook), evidence of prebiblical vines has been uncovered in the region. The wine is something of a discovery too–tannic and biting, a real mouthful–made from a native grape called rkatsiteli and fermented in a qveri, a clay pot buried in the ground.

Georgia’s Kakheti region has little in common with the Napa or Loire valley, but that’s exactly the thrust of this edition. The global wine scene has changed more in the past five years than in the previous 20, which makes this version of the book Johnson first published solo in 1971 less a revision of a standard text and more a guided tour of wine’s developing world.

Johnson, the dean of English wine scholars, made news in May by initiating the first auction of his vast wine collection, which brought about $135,000. He’s been writing about the stuff for half a century since joining Vogue out of Cambridge. His Pocket Wine Book is a best-selling cheat sheet for demystifying wine lists. Robinson got into grapes while studying math and philosophy at Oxford–then a year in Provence from 1974 to ’75 sealed the deal. A columnist for the Financial Times, she is a bona fide celebrity in England and the first critic to earn Britain’s Master of Wine status. They are the Lewis and Clark of wine exploration.

And there’s much to explore. Climate change, for instance, is altering the viticultural atlas in startling ways. Southern England is now warm enough to grow the same grapes–pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier–as its neighbors across the Channel in Champagne. “Wine is very sensitive, the canary in the coal mine,” says Robinson. From Chile to Sweden, vines are creeping toward the poles as the temperature rises. Johnson takes great pleasure, as an English oenophile would, in the sparkling wine now being produced by Ridgeview in Ditchling, Sussex. Its chalky terroir replicates Champagne’s; now it has weather and a bubbly to match.

On the economic front, it’s no surprise that the big foot of a wealthier-by-the-day China is stomping on yet one more industry. The Chinese, much like nouveaux riches Japanese in the 1980s, are pouring their profits into French wine, driving prices of first growths through the roof and making Hong Kong the most important wine-auction market. “So effective has the Bordeaux sales machine been that a considerable proportion of the fortunes recently made in China have been spent on red Bordeaux,” Johnson and Robinson write.

Robinson, who has traveled extensively in the country, reports on the incredible pace of its domestic wineries; the Ningxia region is busily trying to fashion itself into China’s wine center. Its Changyu Moser red, says Johnson, could easily pass for a minor Bordeaux. The nation is a rising power, exporting its wine along with everything else.

The World Atlas of Wine has always had extraordinary scope, and the seventh edition is no different, walking readers through the beverage’s biography from prehistory to modern manufacturing methods. It explains terroir, weather, corks, grape varieties and how to drink and enjoy wine, before delving into geography. Johnson’s and Robinson’s style is informed and expert but not a lecture, always delivered with the right amount of cheek. The reputation of German wines, they write, “was seriously damaged in the late 20th century by [the export of] vast quantities of sugar water … This sort of bulk wine is now firmly in retreat. And not a minute too soon.”

As in the previous editions, the cartography is impressively, even excessively detailed in its explication of famous regions, such as Barolo in Italy and Burgundy in France. In the e-book version, there’s the added feature of interactivity, allowing you to zoom in and out of the intricate terroir of, say, Beaune in Burgundy. The pair have added 25 maps of new growing areas, and additions to earlier maps reflect the expansion of familiar territory. In Chile, for instance, the vineyards have been stretching farther north and south, so its map can no longer be contained on a page. It now spills sideways across two pages.

Even the Old World is new. Istria, a part of Croatia and once part of Italy, marks another trend coursing through the wine world: the re-emergence of native grapes. Robinson swirls a glass of Istrian malvasia that she says illustrates the shift: “Everyone is getting tired of the same old varieties–cabernet and chardonnay.” Malvasia produces a wine that is “much more local and fascinating than, say, pinot grigio,” she says.

It’s a lesson that South Africa is learning too, having planted chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for years while trying to match global trends. But with the world awash in chards, what’s the point? So the South Africans have rediscovered old chenin blanc vines in Swartland, north of the well-known Stellenbosch region. The old vines can’t pump out the volume that new vines do, but the wine they produce is far more distinctive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Johnson and Robinson have carved out two pages for Virginia, the newest chapter in the American wine story. Early versions of the atlas had virtually no reference to Washington and Oregon, which are now such remarkable producers of riesling and pinot noir, respectively, that each merits its own detailed section. Virginia’s history with the grape is Revolutionary: founding vintner Thomas Jefferson tried to cultivate imported European vines, but the climate and critters proved to be too much; he was forced to buy French. Boxwood Estate’s merlot-dominated blend, though, shows that Virginia wineries have solved those 18th century problems and can produce wines that Californians would have to respect.

Anyone who is serious about wine or wants to get deeper into the subject can use a resource like The World Atlas of Wine. It’s consumer-friendly too in that each section features labels from the area’s best vineyards, handy when you want to hunt for a Sicilian nero d’Avola or a Rias Baixas albariño to supplant your boring old cabernet or chardonnay. But even for those of us who are a little less intense about the subject, it’s a beautifully done book that is more than interesting enough to spend time with, perhaps along with a nice glass of Virginia red.

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