The wine world keeps changing.

The wine world keeps changing.
This essential reference book shows how.

By Dave McIntyre

The Washington Post
The World Atlas of Wine, 8th Edition authors Johnson and Robinson.
(Mitchell Beazley)

“Wine is the one thing we buy to eat or drink where we can tell just from looking at the label exactly which spot on the globe produced it,” says British wine writer Jancis Robinson. “And if we look at the vintage — when; and at the name of the producer — who. It’s geography in a bottle.”

Geography needs an atlas. And because wine’s geography is changing dramatically, as the wine world’s reach expands with advances in viticulture and changes in climate, it’s time for “The World Atlas of Wine, 8th Edition” (Mitchell Beazley, October 2019, $65), written by Robinson and Hugh Johnson. This is an authoritative reference wine lovers will want to explore, even if they have invested in previous editions.

That description of wine’s mystique, a large part of its appeal to romantics and poets throughout the centuries, was uttered by Robinson in an interview with me last month at an event hosted by the Smithsonian Associates. Robinson has taken over primary authorship of the atlas since she joined its masthead with the fifth edition. In our conversation, she described how this is the most dramatic revision yet.

Wine lovers scrutinize each new version for regions receiving recognition. When the seventh edition was published in 2013, Virginia celebrated its entrance onto the world stage with its own section. (Disclosure: I consulted on the Virginia page in this edition.)

This year, British Columbia, Uruguay and Brazil receive their own sections, and Israel and Lebanon, lumped together in previous editions, have solo roles. There is also more specificity — the Napa Valley section has a new part on the St. Helena area, and “Burgundy keeps filling in,” Robinson said.

But the more remarkable changes reflect trends that started before the 2013 edition but really became notable since then. These include climate change and a shift in consumer perceptions of wine, as well as changes in the way information is presented and consumed in the new tech era.

“The effect of a changing climate was not something we could ignore,” Robinson said in a particularly British locution. The book’s front section, in previous editions given to basic information about wine appreciation, now includes a discussion of climate change, including a graph showing harvest start dates in Chateauneuf-du-Pape moving from late September and early October around 1950 to the beginning of September in 2000. “That could be anywhere, really,” Robinson said. Regions such as Bordeaux are experimenting with grape varieties better known for hotter climates, changes that could potentially alter the taste of some of the world’s classic wines.

The Cote d’Or geography, depicted in a page from the atlas. (Mitchell Beazley)

“The whole shape of the wine world has been expanding toward the poles,” she said. “Who’d have thought there would be a vineyard in Norway, or thriving wine industries in Belgium, [the Netherlands], Denmark, even southern Sweden?”

Another aspect of climate change is wildfires. Not just California, but Australia, Chile and Portugal have experienced dramatic fires in recent years that have threatened their vineyards. “Smoke taint is a major science now,” Robinson said.

Robinson calls wine “geography in a bottle.” (Mitchell Beazley)

Some regions have gained from climate change, but even those advantages may be fleeting. Southern England has become known for sparkling wine and attracted investment from some famous champagne houses, but summer 2018 was so hot that the region “made some really quite drinkable still wines,” Robinson said. Germany, which traditionally struggled to ripen grapes consistently, “was so hot this year that some grapes were actually sunburned.”

Our discussion at the Smithsonian focused on so much more, from changes in grape growing (organic, biodynamic) and winemaking (carbon neutral) to the popularity of “natural” wines, a trend about which she is, shall we say, skeptical.

“You’ll remember when everyone agreed on what was good in wine, back in the ’90s,” Robinson said. “Everyone was focusing on making copies of French classics. The more oak, the better; the more alcohol, the better. Nowadays, the paler, the tarter, the lower alcohol you’re red, the more it’s admired. In some ways, I think this has gone too far.” Ideology aside, she said, “the wine has to be good.”

The cover of the eighth edition says “completely revised,” and there are several new features. “Acknowledging peoples’ short attention spans, we’ve got short summaries at the start of each section,” Robinson concedes. Infographics give snippets of knowledge about grape varieties and other subjects. And new 3-D maps show the contours of some regions in a more effective way than traditional terrain markings on older-style maps. Soil maps reflect vintners’ current fascination with capturing the geology, as well as the geography, of their vineyards’ terroirs.

The new edition is not a mere update of a seminal reference work first published in 1971. It is a complete makeover, a revitalized almanac of wine in a dynamic era. More than a snapshot of wine as we know it today, it is a projection of how it may develop in the next few years — or even decades.