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Wine Books: Hugh Johnson

Hugh Johnson is an insightful writer and broadcaster, a doyen of British wine writing, and has experienced more wine - great and small - than the rest of us put together. Almost everything he writes has an unending charm to it.

Hugh JohnsonWine: A Life Uncorked (2005)
Hugh Johnson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)
ISBN-13: 978-0297843788

Hugh Johnson is one of the greatest wine writers in existence, and is unquestionably a doyen of the British wine scene, although he has never gone down the road of churning out recommendation after recommendation in the way that Clive Coates did with his periodical The Vine, or the way Broadbent has done with his Vintage Wine. He has spent his years communicating eloquently with all level of wine enthusiasts, not just the hardened anoraks to whom Coates, Broadbent and similar have so much appeal. I have great admiration for Hugh Johnson, who has had no small degree of influence on my attitude to wine over the years, starting with his splendid introductory pocket booklet How to Enjoy Your Wine (1985), and of course his very reputable annual pocket guide, and the incomparable World Atlas of Wine, penned with Jancis Robinson. Naturally I was looking forward to getting to grips with Hugh's own account of the intertwining of his life and the vine.

At first glance this work seems autobiographical, and indeed this illusion is maintained through the first one or two chapters. He opens with Prospects, very much a blow-by-blow account of his early years; King's College Cambridge and his first writing jobs on Vogue and House & Garden, up to more recent events, such as the purchase of a property and the establishment of an associated vineyard in France, on the edge of the Tronçais forest of all places. There's plenty of interesting opinion too; it is not long before Parker gets a mention and Hugh seems quite despondent with Parker's influence on the world of wine. Hugh quite rightly makes a vital contribution to this very modern debate through the pages of A Life Uncorked; it would have been a glaring and disappointing omission if he had made no comment whatsoever. It is clear that Hugh feels Robert Parker has influenced wine making, which has in many regions moved towards a bigger, richer style, which is at odds with Hugh's own tastes.

As Hugh progresses through the book, using the contents of his cellar at Saling Hall as an anchor for much of what he writes, we experience a stream of consciousness, not strictly chronological, peppered by what count as tasting notes, although they are shorter and yet immensely more evocative than my own, belying a deep understanding of the liquid in the glass. And also the wines are much more interesting than many that I drink...for example, I am having great difficulty recalling the last vertical of Krug I attended. Important life events are woven into the tale, illustrated by snaps which can only be from Hugh's own family album thrown in at the side, but by this point the autobiographical nature of the opening chapters has long since disappeared. Indeed, this is my only significant grumble; I would like to have seen a lot more of Hugh on the pages, whereas at times he devotes huge sections to the wine regions he has visited, giving his personal interpretation of how they have evolved during his life. It is, nevertheless, fascinating, and as a result I think this book should appeal to a much wider audience than I originally thought. I have always regarded biographies of wine writers and critics as appealing only to the aforementioned hardened wine anoraks, but Hugh's style and the flow of material presented makes it a superb book for anyone trying to get to grips with why we all find wine so fascinating. Which I guess is Hugh's skill, appealing to all levels, as always. It is an excellent read, which is perhaps best summed up by Hugh himself, who writes in his closing paragraph;

"Its life, in the last analysis, is what sets wine apart. There is nothing else we buy to eat or drink that brings us the identity of a place and time in the same way, that memorises and recalls (if we listen) all the circumstances that made it what it is. You can, of course, like a college examiner, submit every sample to the same critical appraisal and accept or reject it. Or you can embrace the identity, enjoy the circumstances, be transported to other places and times. Embrace even the mythology: it adds to the colour of life."

Wise words.