Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion (6th Edition, 2009)

The first edition of this book ignited this writer’s fledgling interest in all things vinous some twenty-five years ago. It was the first wine book I ever bought, almost by accident. I was initially attracted to it because of the superb illustrations by Paul Hogarth rather than by the words; they added to my treasured collection of Hogarth-illustrated Graham Greene paperbacks. These marvellous pen pictures are thankfully retained in this new edition and remain almost as indispensable as the writing itself because they convey the joy of wine better than almost any photograph. However, I soon became captivated by the writing style and sheer erudition on show. To this day I still refer to the 3rd edition, its bright blue cover prominent on my bookshelf.

Since then this encyclopaedia of wines, vineyards and winemakers has expanded enormously, reflecting, in Hugh’s own words, “the most eventful quarter-century in the history of wine.” The subject of wine has changed fundamentally in many ways during this time, as this book bears witness; from the rise of the New World to the development of the global wine village, from the dominance of international wines to the continuing adoption of biodynamics and from vintage variation to global warming. Back then, entries on China, India and Uruguay would have been merely eccentric footnotes, now these regions loom ever larger in our future.

In this new edition the content has been sensitively updated by Stephen Brook, with the heart of the book still arranged on a country-by-country basis, listing key producers in succinct detail. But there is much more besides, with chapters covering grapes, winemaking and wine styles and not least giving practical advice on enjoying wine – from buying through to serving and tasting.

Any test of an encyclopaedia should, in my view, be made my dipping into the contents, particularly to check out the reviews of favourite wineries and to discover unfamiliar entries to fuel future exploration. The book is a unique lens of preference and discovery, where entries are graded on a simple four-star system and web addresses are helpfully included. Given that the book covers the global wine scene and some well known producers are naturally self-selecting entries then three examples chosen almost at random must suffice to illustrate the quality and depth of coverage. I could of course have listed hundreds more.

Firstly, I was delighted to see Domaine Belluard listed in the Savoie section, whose biodynamic white wine, made from the ultra-rare Gringet grape, made such a favourable impression on me just a few weeks ago. Secondly, welcome recognition is given to Fox Run Vineyards, arguably the best wine producer in New York’s Fingerlakes region, which bought back fond memories. Finally, Quinta de Covelha from Portugal’s Minho rightly focuses on their exciting red and white blends.

This book does what says on the cover – a constant companion to my own wine journey. While I have amassed a collection of hundreds of books on the subject of wine it’s still a privilege to continue to learn from and enjoy Hugh’s subtle writing style. His most articulate and concise prose manages that rare three card trick of being authoritative, up-to-date and entertaining.

For anyone setting out to discover wine then this book, alongside The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion are the indispensable tomes. For those of us already immersed in wine lore this book is no less essential – it raises the bar to which we all strive another notch.

Hardback, published by Mitchell Beazley (ISBN-13: 978-1845334574) and available in the USA from the 15th of September 2009, RRP $60.00. Amazon has it listed at $37.80.


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