Leading wine writer, author and broadcaster, Jancis Robinson MW, tends not to do things by halves. Her latest book, a comprehensive guide to almost 1,400 grape varieties, is ambitious by anyone's standards. Together with co-writers Julia Harding MW and botanist José Vouillamoz, it has taken Jancis four years to compile. Here she gives us some insights into that process and a taste of what to expect
I've been lucky, industrious and crazy enough to be responsible for more than 20 books about wine so far, but none is quite as beautiful as Wine Grapes, published on both sides of the Atlantic at the end of October – barring terrible accidents on the China Sea when shipping them from the printers.
Wine Grapes is a 1,200-page, 7lb monster that has blighted the lives particularly of my co-authors Julia Harding MW and Dr José Vouillamoz for the last four years, ever since we decided to write the definitive guide to every single grape variety responsible for making wine commercially.
The publishers Penguin, or rather their leading non fiction imprint Allen Lane, asked me for a steer on the design. I accordingly lent them various books whose design I admired - notably Inside Burgundy by Jasper Morris MW prepared for publishers Berry Bros by Carrie Segrave and her husband Chris Foulkes who, incidentally, published my first book on grape varieties Vines, Grapes & Wines back in 1986. But I also showed them various old ampelographies in my possession. Ampelography is the science of identification of vine varieties by studying what they, and particularly their leaves, look like. It was a particularly popular sport a century ago and so these dusty old ampelographies have a decidedly late Victorian look.
The result is that our book looks not unlike these beautiful old tomes with its collection of classic typefaces and curlicues – not least because, thanks to an enormous amount of effort and the kindness of two lucky owners of the first edition, Swiss winemaker Josef-Marie Chanton and British Master of Wine Neil Tully, we have been able faithfully to reproduce 80 stunning botanical paintings from the classic ampelography of all time, that produced by Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel in the first decade of the last century.
The funny thing is that this extremely classic look illustrates the very latest facts about the plants responsible for our favourite drink – many of them published for the first time. While Julia is the only person in the world with a top MW qualification and a professional background as a copy editor of the most persistent and pernickety sort, José is a botanist and grape geneticist. He is able to analyse the DNA of plants and see precisely how they are related. The science of analysing microsatellites (types of DNA markers) now substantively complements the eye with its study of leaves and shoot tips and hence we are able to spell out exactly what links, for instance, syrah and pinot, savagnin blanc and grüner veltliner, and merlot and malbec.
Our beautiful book is therefore home to 14 uniquely complex family trees painstakingly assembled by José and, as usual, minutely checked by Julia. Like those for Brianna and Prior, the pinot one is so big that it needs a pullout section running over two whole pages. Pinot's pedigree includes all manner of unexpected relatives among the 156 charted.
The result of our intense, demanding and at times apparently almost impossible task has been that I have learnt an enormous amount that was not known in the 1980s when I last tackled this subject in depth. Although this new book has been described by several commentators as an update of Vines, Grapes & Wines, it is in fact a completely original work, based on José's original research into the world of vines and DNA, Julia's original research into who has what planted (a daunting task when applied to the whole of the wine world – the latest Italian statistics date from 2000), and my vantage point as someone who has been fascinated by the revealing world of grapevine varieties for nearly 30 years.
We hope you will find the results intriguing and rewarding.
(More details at winegrapes.org)