BOUND TO PLEASE / Handy partner to help make sense of wide world of wine

The Japan News

By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterHugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2015

By Hugh Johnson

Mitchell Beazley, 336pp

What’s so special about wine? To some, it’s just another four-letter word — like beer, sake, milk. To a few others, it’s an investment, a commodity that sells for astronomical prices at auction.

To the vast majority of wine drinkers, it’s the beverage of choice to go with a meal, not something to be sipped like a cocktail or downed like a cola.

What is special about wine is that, though made almost the world over from many varieties of one fruit, the grape, it is affected by a host of conditions each year — the soil, altitude, climate, choices of the winemaker — so that there are countless distinct types of wine.

To help make sense of it all, Hugh Johnson created his “Pocket Wine Book,” published since 1977 and updated yearly. Johnson’s not some sort of “Master of Wine” or anyone with highfalutin degrees or cooked-up expert credentials who speaks from some pedestal on high. Born in London in 1939, this witty and insightful writer became a wine lover at an early age and has written other seminal books on the subject, such as “The World Atlas of Wine.”

“Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book” gets thicker every year with new information (“Remember when it would go in your pocket?” he quips), but remains handy and portable, easy to peruse while shopping for wine or ordering a bottle at a restaurant.

Packed inside are reports on the last two vintages, suggestions on new wines to try for those who like a particular style, a section on different grape varieties, food and cheese pairings, country by country overviews and listings — from France to Malta, Moldova, Bolivia, China, India and Japan. A bonus is the end-of-book feature this year on a fascinating subject: “Why doesn’t wine taste of grapes?”

Johnson presents a four-star scale based on a wine’s “current reputation as reflected in its prices” — because, really, how is one wine 91 points and another 89 or 100? — and gives recommendations for vintages to drink or keep.

Even so, Johnson writes: “Price, which for centuries was the accepted measure of quality, now only measures rarity and fame. If pleasure, rather than reputation and price, is the new measure, then the wine world will take on a completely new shape. Pleasure, quality and character are abundant, and wine-drinkers are tired of being told what they should prefer.”

Throughout the “Pocket Wine Book,” Johnson’s straightforward, honest voice shines through. On pairing wine with sashimi: “Remember sake.” On Beaujolais Nouveau: “More of an event than a drink.” And in one of the nuggets interspersed throughout, he shows his disdain at a wine trend: “New from Oregon: Pinot Noir in a can, to encourage ‘beerification’ of wine. Lovely.”

These aside, it is his deep knowledge that helps the reader navigate and seek out wines worth drinking. In the listings on a noted producer: “Sleek, oaked, polished-up wines, sadly more hands-off, mainstream lately.”

The reader can learn in a quick snapshot, get past the illusions of marketing and branding, and find the best growers and conscientious winemakers by trusting in Johnson’s experience and his willingness to understand the current state of affairs. It’s all in this one little book.

Best place to read

In a cafe in the afternoon, as you wonder what to drink with dinner.

Maruzen price: ¥2,640 plus tax (as of Nov. 14, 2014)Speech

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