One book deserves a place on every wine drinker’s shelf, and that is The World Atlas of Wine. Ever since it first came out in 1971, the Atlas has offered a beautiful and clear guide to the world of wine through maps and words. It is also a publishing phenomenon, with sales exceeding 4.7 million copies worldwide (who says wine books don’t sell?)
Of course, the Atlas has had to be updated many times to reflect wine’s changing landscape, with Hugh Johnson, the original author, “progressively passing the baton” (as he puts it in his suave foreword) to Jancis Robinson since the fifth edition.
The eighth edition, presided over by Robinson, with Johnson providing “input”, is published on Thursday (Octopus, £50). Unrivalled in its authority, it is a joy, a delightful voyage of piqued curiosity, to leaf through. It is also a work of extraordinary concision, with so many facts, ideas and judgments compressed into it that each sentence feels to be bench-pressing several times its own weight.
What makes it into – and what gets shrunk down in – each edition reveals much about the dynamics of the contemporary wine world.
In the new Atlas, it’s the additions to the introductory section that are the most revealing. No grape grower can afford to ignore climate change, and the subject is tackled here for the first time. A graph plotting the change over the past century in growing season average temperatures in Stellenbosch, Marlborough, Burgundy and so on, and another showing how harvest start dates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape have pulled forward since 1945, are both worth the proverbial 10,000 words. Another new section deals with the now inescapable “Bottom Line” – wine, money and fine wine indices.
In the geographical sections, Brazil and Uruguay each win a full-page entry for the first time, as do Lebanon and Israel. “Shameful that we squeezed them on to the same page for so long, but that was for space reasons,” says Robinson. Greece, whose wines are commanding increasing levels of interest, also gains extra space. California is rearranged so that the Central Coast gets more space, and the AVA of St Helena in Napa Valley wins a whole page entry, while Rutherford and Oakville have to shrink to accommodate it. Alto Piemonte in Italy gets more words and its own detail map, and special attention is paid to the revival of white wines in the Médoc in Bordeaux.
There is a beautiful new soil map of the Beaujolais crus, the addition of which makes the region punch arguably above its weight in terms of the space it is allotted here, “But I would argue in beaujolais’s defence that it is becoming of massive interest to those who can no longer afford burgundy. And, fortunately, as I’m sure you know, growers are rising to the challenge while keeping prices relatively moderate,” says Robinson.
But not everyone is a winner. The Dordogne (appellations include Pécharmant, Bergerac and Montravel) has been demoted and subsumed into the section on south-west France.
The task of writing, editing and arbitrating on which locations are worthy of a new map, or of more (or, imagine the ignominy, less) space, is so gigantic that Robinson dedicated two years to the task, drawing on the brainpower and hard work of Julia Harding MW, as well as the expertise of 68 specialists across the globe.
Did any region campaign hard for more space? “Our Mexican consultant lobbied particularly heavily for three pages rather than one page. I admire him for that,” says Robinson.
One of the challenges of a work like this is to be up to date on where the serious advances are happening without being drawn in by passing bandwagons. Robinson says she feels pleased that “regions that were new for the seventh edition (Swartland, Croatia, Georgia, Canterbury, Sta Rita Hills, Baja California and Ningxia, for instance) still feel relevant.
Candidates for more detailed coverage in the next edition might be England, eastern Georgia, India, Nagano and/or south-west Hokkaido, and possibly more detail on sectors of south-west France. But it’s a moving game. In the fourth edition, both North Africa and Cyprus had their own pages, for instance. Cyprus has been restored rather than being squeezed on to the Eastern Mediterranean spread but North Africa still does not feature.”
Did working on the Atlas provide any revelations about how she viewed aspects of wine? “Masses. All of the consultants’ input was hugely valuable. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Moravia was such a hotbed of vine breeding (I knew about Minnesota), or that natural and qvevri wine had caught on to such an extent in Slovakia.”
It is the accumulation of diligently sieved detail that makes this book such a peach. The extra sliver added to the map of Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux (a region that is really powering ahead) so that L’Hêtre – a property recently bought by the Thienpont family, Bordeaux royalty – can be included, and the note on the Maremma map to point you to La Pineta beach restaurant, so beloved by Bolgheri’s wine producers.
It says a lot that the only thing I can find to carp about is the new font, which isn’t easy to scan. No, the real problem is you don’t just need the new Atlas – you need all eight editions, to marvel not just at what is but also at how things change.
Wines of the week
Domaine de Cassagnau Rouge 2018 France
(13.5%, Booths, £8)
Under wine buyer Victoria Anderson, Booths has got really good at wine in the £7 to £10 bracket. This juicy, smooth, gutsy red, a blend of syrah, grenache and merlot from the Languedoc, is a case in point – warm sunshine in a bottle.
Adnams Picpoul de Pinet 2018 France
(12.5%, Adnams, £7.49)
I’d almost forgotten about picpoul, the unexpectedly refreshing white grape from the south of France. One minute it was everywhere – the next not. But here’s a good one at a decent price. Easy, clean, slightly salty.
Château de Cruzeau White Pessac-Léognan 2015 France
(13.5%, Waitrose, £14.99 down from £17.99 until Oct 8)
White bordeaux is delicious and hugely underrated. This one’s made entirely from sauvignon blanc, but it’s aged in oak, so you get a tinge of smokiness and cooked grapefruit, and a fuller texture, alongside flavours of ripe nectarines and lemon posset. Gorgeous.