Book review: Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th edition

If there’s one book I recommend all wine enthusiasts possess—no matter their level of knowledge or interest in wine—it’s the Oxford Companion to Wine (OCW).

Yes, it’s an encyclopedia: bloody heavy and astonishingly comprehensive. It’s also fun to read, despite what you might expect from such a weighty tome. The entries are frequently entertaining reads in their own right, their academic rigour matched by a flair for incisive wit and even humour. Much of this is no doubt due to the OCW’s editor, doyenne of wine writing and one of my personal heroes, Jancis Robinson.

The fourth edition was just published in September 2015, almost a decade after the previous edition came out in 2006. (The original edition was published in 1994.) This was a much-needed update: over 60 percent of the nearly 4000 entries were revised, and 300 entries are brand new—topics that either didn’t exist when the last edition was released or have since gained greater significance.

It retains the labyrinthine quality of the previous incarnations: I’ve never been able to pick it up, read through a single entry and put it down, because each entry comes peppered with provocative cross-references that lead you down a spiralling rabbit hole of vinous knowledge.

I couldn’t possibly analyze the scope of revisions or the new entries in this short column, but below are my thoughts on a few of the OCW’s new topics that piqued my interest in some way. And if it’s not obvious so far, I’ll state it plainly: if you have any more than a passing interest in wine, buy this book. Even (especially!) if you’ve got the last edition.

Additives

A few months ago I was bemused to discover that the previous edition of the OCW didn’t mention a word on wine additives. The new edition (briefly) covers this topic, and offers a list of legal additives like lactic acid bacteria, sugar and ascorbic acid. There isn’t anything specific on Mega Purple or other much more controversial additives. Obviously, much of this is simply due to length restrictions—but maybe they also just didn’t want to go there? A cross reference to an entry on adulteration and fraud was good for tangentially related historical context, and the new entries on ingredient labelling and natural wine help elucidate the issue a bit more.

British Columbia / Ontario / Nova Scotia / Quebec

It’s very encouraging to see the revision to Canada’s entry in the OCW, which includes separate entries on the four key wine-producing provinces. The pieces provide a good overview, albeit not much detail—and no maps, of course, but maybe that’ll come in the next edition.

Films about wine

This entry notes a few films in which wine features prominently, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) and ending with recent documentaries (including Somm and Red Obsession). Of course Sideways (2004) is included—there’s actually a separate entry for the film that launched 1000 shipments of Pinot Noir.

Minerality

Robinson herself points to this entry as indicative of how much the wine world has changed since the last OCW edition. I agree that this is an interesting read, especially to those of us who love wines that express minerality—and/or who love musing about the language of wine.

Smoke taint

This is a new wine fault to me, but something I’d already been wondering about after last summer’s big wildfires in the Okanagan Valley. It will be very interesting to see if the 2015 vintage displays any overt characteristics derived from the atmospheric smoke during the growing season—and if any previous wildfire-heavy years have already resulted in wines with this fault. I haven’t heard of any yet, but this could be considered part of the flavour profile if it’s not too predominant or off-putting.

 

(This story originally appeared in Vue Weekly on February 4, 2016.)

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