Drink: A Geography Lesson ; the World of Wine Has Changed So Much It's Hard for Anyone to Keep Up. but One Publisher Is Trying

Article excerpt

Sixteen years ago, I bought most of my wine at a local shop that also sold such inessential items as milk, newspapers and bread. The shop was family-owned, and run by an ambitious son who took pride in finding French wines of modest cost from out-of-the-way appellations. I liked the wines, but realised I knew zilch about them. That's why, when my wife asked what I would like for my birthday, I requested a copy of Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine. The book was then in its second edition. It was published by Mitchell Beazley, and it cost pounds 17.95.

At the time, my tasting experience was limited - to put it charitably. Mostly French by preference (which hasn't changed greatly) and overwhelmingly low-end by necessity (which hasn't changed much either). Johnson's Atlas explained why the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were so much more expensive than the ones I slurped.

Well, the wine world has changed a lot in the intervening years - both for me and the world at large. The changes are manifest in the fifth edition of the Atlas, just published at pounds 35. For one thing, Johnson has a fittingly majestic co-author for a book that has sold 3.5 million copies worldwide: Jancis Robinson. Mitchell Beazley brought her in because Johnson thought she "would be better equipped" to deal with the changes in the New World and in the wine world generally.

The changes in content are truly striking. In the second edition, Australia had six pages and South America two. In the new one, those figures are 14 and six respectively. Of course, this is nothing compared to the Old World. France had 68 pages in the second edition and now has 100. Portugal had four and now has 12. The quantitative differences may mask the striking qualitative differences. The new edition does factual issues more seriously, in keeping with the higher level of general knowledge among the public at large. In a calm, mild-mannered sort of way, it speaks harshly where harshness is due, pointing out, for instance, that much of Bordeaux's output is "not glorious" (the second edition didn't say a bad word about Bordeaux). …