For years I've loved Jancis Robinson's pocket-sized Guide to Wine Grapes, turning to it whenever I encounter a new wine grape. Alas, it is long out of print, and a bit dated in terms of the relationships between grapes.
Now comes this new volume, which is anything but pocket-sized. Massive and slip-cased, it has the gravitas of an aged Premier Cru. For each of nearly 1400 varieties there is an entry that gives you its color (from among five choices), common synonyms (for some widely grown grapes there are many), other varieties it is often mistaken for, and what is known of its origins and heritage (relying on recent, extensive, DNA testing of wine grapes). Then there is a brief summary of how it grows (vigor, resistance, when it ripens, and the like) and where it grows. As warranted, there is a discussion of what it tastes like and the quality of the wine it produces. Many of these grapes are actually very marginal from a wine making viewpoint, and are of interest for historical or relationship reasons. (I do miss the little sliding bar from the earlier book that suggested at a glance the likelihood of the grape producing a decent wine.)
The relationship information is fascinating. Selected grapes have a family tree associated with their entry. Looking at Cabernet Sauvignon we learn that Chenin Blanc is a sister of Sauvignon Blanc and, hence, an aunt of Cabernet Sauvignon. Freisa turns out to be a cross of Nebbiolo with an unknown grape. The foldout genealogy of Pinot Noir is remarkable. Who would have guessed that Lagrein is a granddaughter of Pinot, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are both great granddaughters? On a down side, the figure is sewn so deeply into the binding that part of the tree can't be read.
I decided to check on a grape of local (but not wine drinking!) interest. In the earlier book there is an entry for the Mission grape, the first wine grape brought to California; there is was associated with the Monica grape. The current volume doesn't have an entry for Mission (it has entries pointing you to a main entry for some synonyms, but not for others). Checking the index it turns out that Mission is actually Listan Prieto. (Which I'd certainly never heard of before.)
There are also beautiful color plates, originally published in France over a century ago, of selected grapes. (Interestingly, one is labeled "Mission"!)
But there are, alas, some imperfections. I've mentioned how the Pinot family tree is bound so that it is not all readable. While the paper in a volume this size is necessarily thin, the see-through on some pages is annoying; more opaque paper would have been nice. The label on the front of the slip case is somewhat crooked, and the one on the edge quite so. Production quality could have been better.
Had this been a standard book at half or even two-thirds the price it would have been an easy five stars. But in a slip-cased book at this list price you expect a little better attention to detail than this book manages. So I reluctantly drop my rating to four stars. Still an excellent investment for or gift to a devoted oenophile, it is not quite the value it could have been with a little better physical execution.