Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia 5th Edition – book review

This is the first time I have owned any edition of Tom Stevenson’s encyclopedia.  Since early in my wine geekdom, I have been aware of its existence, and aware of how highly regarded it is, but I started off by buying other reference tomes: “The Oxford Companion”, “The World Atlas of Wine” and “Vines, Grapes and Wines”.  So by the time I was contemplating getting this encyclopedia, I decided that I probably already had more wine reference books than I needed.

I finally decided to sacrifice nearly another 2 inches of bookshelf space when I realised a lot had changed in the world of wines since my first reference book buying spree several years ago, and that maybe it would be fun to get more recent information by buying the new edition of a different book rather than upgrading my existing library.

Initially I was very pleased I did.  It offers a different slice through the world of wine, using geography as the main way to access information, and a quick flick through convinced me that it would indeed give me new information on up-and-coming wine regions and recent wine law in the more established regions.

I was also impressed by the layout of the pages, and use of diagrams.  I hate it when books use boxes and main text paragraphs that spread over multiple pages, so you have to keep flicking backwards and forwards and eventually lose your place.  That annoyance is carefully designed away here.  I was particularly pleased with the clear text and diagrams used to explain different pruning systems, the only little glitch being that a couple of systems seem to have horizontal spurs that are continuous from vine to vine!

What I was not so sure about is the rigid structure of short titled sections in each region, variously devoted to châteaux, appellations, sub-region or styles.  It might look good, and give apparent uniformity, but sometimes alternative presentations would be more useful, e.g. grouping Burgundy grand crus by village, and text explaining how sherry styles relate to each other.  You probably need to read the book, and try to get information out of it, to see what I mean.

The maps, whilst not as detailed as in the Atlas, are pretty much as good as I have seen anywhere.  That is… not particularly great, but I have high standards it seems.  I think wine region mapping is tricky, and there is always the tendency to push too much information onto the same map.  I defy anyone to look at the map of Northwest Italy and tell me with confidence where the Brachetto d’Aqui region boundaries lie.  The solution to these map design problems should in my opinion be to use more than one map – not an increasing confusion of colours, hatching, lines and numbers.  Yes it would take more space, but as Tom eloquently explains in his introduction, geographical information is key to understanding wine, so I think a few more pages dedicated to maps would not go amiss.  I don’t want the detail of the World Atlas of Wine – just more clarity.

Two other things struck me about the encyclopedia.  One is that it is not afraid to mention specific companies and brands.  That does not just apply to wines, but to glasses and barrels for example.  I feel reasonably comfortable with that.  Wine is essentially a commercial subject and perhaps too many books are shy of tackling that fact head on.  The only commercial bit that annoyed me was Serena Sutcliffe’s introduction, which I read as one big gloat for Sotheby’s and the silly prices they sell top wines for. How do they get to put this advertorial at the front of an encyclopedia? Do they actually sponsor it?

The other thing is that there is an awful lot of opinion in the text of the regional sections of the encyclopedia.  I am thinking here mainly about views expressed on wine regulations and how countries organise their wine trade, and not so much about opinions on the wines themselves.  Now I have a lot of respect for Tom, and am happy to read what he thinks whether I agree or disagree, but I do wonder whether a work of reference is the right place.  I can imagine the editor defending the personal angle by saying it makes the book more lively, but I rather dislike the mixing of authority and fact with what is clearly opinion.  I can almost hear a wine bore sitting at a table regurgitating the opinion, and cloaking it with an air of authority gained from this book.

Consolidated update 16/07/12

After more time, I have been noticing more and more dodgy bits of information in the book, and I would not recommend it as an authoritative source .  You might want to buy the book anyway and enjoy the broad sweep of the information provided.  But as far as I am concerned its only value for me is to remind me of facts I have earlier obtained from more credible sources, or to act as a starting point for exploration.

I list the specific errors or half-truths I have found below.  How many others there are I do not know.  I am not going to check every fact, but these are the errors so far that leapt out at me as I dipped into the book.

Factoid on Rosé Champagne:  “It is the only European Rosé that can be made by blending white wine with a little red”.  There was a lot of misinformation about this when the EU were considering changing the rules, but the long and short of it is that the EU ban on making rosé by blending only ever applied to still tables wines with no geographic designation.

Factoid on Valpolicella Ripasso: “After having undergone this [ripasso] process, the wines usually cannot carry the Valpolicella appellation […], although some Valpolicella wines are turbocharched by ripasso without any mention of it on the label.”  Actually there are any number of ripasso Valpolicella DOC wines you can buy, and they openly have the r-word on the label.  There was a trademark dispute about the term ripasso, but that is was resolved when Masi relinquished their claim.

Factoid on Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grain: The cépage is “Pinot Noir plus a maximum of one-third Gamay and a combined maximum of 15% Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris”.  No!  The proportion of Gamay can be (and usually is) way above 1/3, but it must be less than 70%

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

4 thoughts on “Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia 5th Edition – book review”

  1. Great review, Steve.

    I agree with you that any “encyclopedia”, which clearly has connotations of being a work of reference, should not contain opinion (and preferably not incorrect “factual” information).

    You ask:

    “The only commercial bit that annoyed me was Serena Sutcliffe’s introduction, which I read as one big gloat for Sotheby’s and the silly prices they sell top wines for. How do they get to put this advertorial at the front of an encyclopedia? Do they actually sponsor it?”

    Perhaps the clue is in the title, as they say these days.

  2. Indeed, Colin, it is a pretty big clue but I could not find any direct statement confirming the sponsorship deal. It is just possible that the publishers thought that the Sotherby’s name added gravitas to the title, and no money exchanged hands.

  3. Thank you for that very useful & informative review Steve. I have the 4th edition & was considering an upgrade but maybe I’ll go for something different. I would want something as comprehensive and as up to date as possible. You have mentioned 3 reference tomes that you have. Do you have a recommendation?

  4. Very much so! I have no hesitation in recommending the 4th edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. It is authoritative, and as up to date as possible – published only a couple of months ago.

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