The wine writer’s wine writer

Hugh Johnson (Photo: Via Berlingske website)

When people ask what is the most useful general-purpose wine book to buy, I immediately think of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. This is truly the wine drinker’s Bible. I picked up a copy of the 2017 edition recently and read on the cover that it’s the 40th year it’s been published.

This little book, which would fit your glovebox or jacket pocket, is crammed with information. Drawing on a team of ‘stringers’ in various countries, it covers the entire world of wine. There are even chapters on Mexico and Luxembourg. Vintage reports, grape variety profiles, tips on serving and cellaring, a very useful chapter on what food to eat with which wine, and so on. There are interesting snippets sprinkled throughout and this year, a section at the back on Wine Stories: 40 short, punchy pieces about wines from cities, wines from high places, wines from beaches, and wines that are all about terroir.

But my real subject in this item is the writer, Hugh Johnson, the wine writer’s wine writer. There has never been anyone who writes so beautifully about wine. He is supremely articulate and erudite but never boring – even when writing about palomino. He certainly never talks down to the reader. On the contrary, he loves to prick wine pomposity.

I recently pulled out of my bookshelf his Wine: A Life Uncorked, a weighty hardback tome published in 2005 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I bought a copy at least a decade ago and, shameful to admit, never read it – till now. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

It’s a memoir which draws on Hugh’s extensive life in wine since his beginning at the Wine & Food Society where he edited their magazine and came under the influence of Harry Yoxall, Elizabeth David and André Simon. There is an especially personal chapter on his cellar at his rather grand English country home, Saling Hall. And another on his exploits buying a farm, planting vines and making a bit of (non-commercial) wine in France’s Bourbonnais at Les Boutons. All good fun.

It’s a massive book (380 pages) and will keep me entertained for weeks, I’m sure. Like a rich Bordelais dinner accompanied by a first growth claret (Hugh’s favourite wine), it’s packed with detail and fascination and leaves you feeling thoroughly satisfied.

4 thoughts on “The wine writer’s wine writer”

  1. John Baker says:

    Oh yes Huon and Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine is surely the tome of the industry. The history of the world through wine

  2. Glen Emil says:

    Combine Hugh Johnson’s ‘Vintage’ (1988) video series with ‘Life Uncorked’ and I come away awed by his dedication to the grape and the surrounding industry. Add similar works by Jancis Robinson’s ‘Wine Course’ video and ‘Tasting Pleasure’ and the whole wine world becomes a real, unified place. It’s not about who makes the best wine and why, but why the love of wine is a human experience like no other. Also love the books by Gerald Asher, Mike Veseth, Oz Clarke and Matt Kramer.

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      …and he still has time to be a published authority on trees and gardens…

  3. albert haak says:

    Loved your article on Hugh Johnson….How about Jancis’ ability to hit the happy notes, thinking of her description of semillon in her “Wines, Grapes & Vines”!

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