André Simon Awards: The World Atlas of Wine

In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as though everyone interested in wine – whether producer or consumer – was headed in the same direction.

For winemakers, for the first time considered celebrities in this era, the goals were clear. The great majority of them seemed hell-bent on making the same sort of wine: a copy of one of those that had established France as the world’s leading source of fine wine. So, no matter where they were, and how torrid their summers, producers from Seattle to Adelaide – including European countries such as Spain and Italy with perfectly good winemaking traditions of their own – sought to make barrel-aged Chardonnay in the image of white Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon in the image of a Bordeaux first growth.

As the 20th century closed, this unity of purpose was encouraged by the fact that consumers were taking advice from just a handful of gurus – chiefly American critics who seemed to reward power more than nuance. Far too many wine merchants renounced their previous calling of choosing wines for themselves, and simply parroted the scores of others, which had the effect of narrowing aims and apparent achievements.

Winemakers were encouraged by their employers to do their damnedest to garner high scores from the powerful critics, whether they liked the resulting wines themselves or not. Everyone in the growing international market for fine wine wanted the same trophy wines. With predictable effects on prices.

While the price gap between the top and bottom of the wine market yawned, the quality gap narrowed. Poorly made, technically imperfect wine became a thing of the past, as scientifically trained oenologists travelled to other hemispheres to spread their particular gospel of clean winemaking. The flying winemaker phenomenon owed much to improved communications and cheaper air fares.

But with the 21st century came change, largely healthy change. The staying power and charm of those heavy-hitting wines were increasingly called into question. Social media offered millions of channels of communication between wine enthusiasts who no longer had to rely on a score or two from a single magazine or newsletter. There was room for dialogue and myriad opinions about wine.

At the same time, either producers or consumers (I suspect the former), grew restless at the limited varietal diet they were offered. Movements such as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) flourished, as did the search for heritage tomatoes, legacy varieties of apples, and a general call for biodiversity. The ‘locavore’ movement stressed the importance of indigenous influences. Almost in a trice, local vine varieties were all the rage – many rescued from obscurity, some rescued from the blends into which they had previously been consigned, to star on the front labels of bottlings of previously esoteric varieties.

Growers in many newer wine regions, beset by rising temperatures and ever earlier harvests, are now seeking vine varieties more suited to warmer conditions. Meanwhile, in established wine regions, the search is on for recuperated ancient varieties, some of them without even a name. And global warming has set growers everywhere seeking out cooler sites for vineyards, thereby expanding the wine map not least towards the poles.

Another worldwide trend that came thundering into play was understandable concern over our planet’s sustainability. The long-term consequences of overreliance on agrochemicals were becoming all too apparent in the impoverishment of our soils and the loss of wildlife. Organic farming increasingly seemed the way to go. As early as the 1990s some seriously high-profile winegrowers had already started along the cosmic path of biodynamic viticulture (however difficult it is to explain how it works).

Hand in hand with this came an increasing distaste for what was seen as manipulation in the cellar. If heavy-handed oak and high-alcohol, deep-coloured, overripe wines were now out of fashion, then surely light, fresh, crisp, pale wines with zero chemical additions might be just the job, was the argument. Thus was born the new wave of wines that vary from all-out “natural” wines of varying degrees of stability and technical competence to wines from producers well capable of making great wine following the old conventions but who fancy trying their hand at something new. An orange, or amber, wine from long-macerated light-skinned grapes, for example. Or experimenting with fermenting and/or ageing wine in acacia, chestnut or local oak.

Amphorae perhaps, or clay jars, concrete eggs, or ceramic spheres. There is no longer only one way to grow and make wine, just as there are now multiple ways of judging it.

All this, together with the fact that wine is produced in far more countries and regions than ever before – thanks to a combination of climate change, increasingly sophisticated ways of growing wine close to the equator, and just how fashionable wine has become – has resulted in far greater choice for wine drinkers, and far more pages in this eighth edition. In the old days, everyone wanted to taste a first growth. Today’s wine lover is just as likely to want to tick off a wish list of wines from 100 grape varieties or 50 countries. Meanwhile, today’s wine producers are driven as never before to express precisely the character of their particular spot on the Earth, those spots becoming more precise by the year.

What better guide could there be than this Atlas?

 

The World Atlas of Wine 8th edition by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW won the Drink Award for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2019.

Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. www.andresimon.co.uk

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