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Wendler on Wine
9 September, 2008  
Hugh is huge

G.D. Wendler reviews Hugh Johnson’s autobiography. The guru of the grape is prone to overstatement and purple flourishes – but then Johnson is the grandee of wine commentary


imageWine: A Life Uncorked is the title of Hugh Johnson’s autobiography.

It’s a literary fermentation tank containing viticultural history, taste memories, technical information, commercial joint ventures, family history, wine chums, wines and wineries old world and new, multifarious meals modest and extravagant at venues ordinary and special.

His book is dedicated to his wife Judy and their children, one of whom is appropriately named “Red”.

Imprisoned by the mystique of wine for over 40 years, Johnson will happily go on and serve a life sentence for the cause. He is a jolly, hockey-stick chap, almost 70 years of age, with badger eyebrows and a cartoon cat smile.

His father was a barrister. Hugh attended Rugby, the famous English public school of Dr Thomas Arnold, Lewis Carroll, Salman Rushdie and fictitious Harry Flashman, the bully expelled for drunkenness in Tom Brown’s School Days.

A former Cantabrigian, Hugh’s college was Kings. He confesses to a “gentleman’s degree”, code for decorative academic achievement.

It was at Cambridge University in the 1950s that Hugh was introduced to wine appreciation.

There is nothing remarkable about an undergraduate discovering booze, however he describes his discovery as a “Damascus moment”.

imageSince then a sea of wine has gone in one end of Hugh and out the other.

His élevage to the pinnacle of writing about wine has been extraordinary.

Vogue was Hugh’s first vehicle. In time his articles were syndicated to magazines such as House and Garden, Gourmet and Wine and Food.

By 1973, 13-years after Cambridge, he became president of the Sunday Times Wine Club, four years later president of the Circle of Wine Writers and eventually head of the International Wine and Food Society.

The World Atlas of Wine, published in 1971, is his original magnum opus. Revised many times it remains one of the most accessible general reference books on wine.

Johnson sometimes collaborated with other colossi of wine commentary such as James Halliday.

imageHis 13-part television series The Story of Wine was critically acclaimed and his annual Pocket Wine Book continues to be popular.

He is a former director of the pearl of Pauillac, Chateau Latour and he has been honoured by numerous international wine and gastronomy organisations.

Astonishingly he has also written a book on trees. Describing himself as a “Chippendale man” he resides, among other places, at Saling Hall (seen here), an Elizabethan manor in Essex.

In the world of wine, and perhaps the arboreal world, Hugh is huge.

His autobiography contains many interesting and amusing personal photographs – in particular, Len Evans and Jim Halliday in a wine fuelled ocker embrace.

imageThere’s also Len on his 70th birthday dressed as Napoleon, his wife as Josephine (pic). Hugh refers to Len as the “little Welsh bull”.

The book is divided into five chapters: Prospects, Bubbly, White, Red, Sweet.

Under these fetching headings much territory is traversed.

Early on he confronts Robert Parker Jr’s 100 points wine assessment system. Parker, an American attorney and influential international wine critic, devised this system for wine evaluation.

Hugh doesn’t like it and describes it as an irrelevant “numbers game”.

I’m with Hugh on this one.

Who cares what score out of 100 Bob Parker has allocated to a wine. Regrettably, Jim Halliday has also succumbed to the palaver of the wine score business.

Wine appreciation is a subjective experience. What may be a wine worth 98 points to one person may be 75 to another.

Hugh’s main objection to Parkerization is that it is encourages wine snobbery and the deification of the wine critic.

imageWhat intellectual profit is there in Parker’s (pic) numerical score of the nuances of a holistic wine experience?

As to the cork versus stelvin capsule controversy Hugh bravely dismisses the whole thing in a single sentence:

“Corks allow wine to breathe; starve them of oxygen and how can you be sure they will age the same way?”

Johnson’s tome is not short on hyperbole and even deep purple passages. This one concerns a bottle of 1995 Chateau Figeac (warning – the reader may experience sensory overload):

“The colour: more garnet than ruby, but a jewel cut from the round, the dome of a cabochon rather than a thing of facets. The smell: blackberry crumble poured onto forest earth, but flinty, with a seashell tang I associate with the Medoc. It flows in your mouth, then turns with something like a snarl. The mailed fist shows, and the bitterness of a minor key. Now the beef welcomes it; the appetite needs a spur. Figeac is discreet. It is grave. It has grace rather than charm. Gamey; between Medoc and Nuits, iron and singed taffeta; caramelized beef.”

Some of Hugh’s metaphors also are overwrought. For example, describing red wine from the Graves area of Bordeaux, he records: “tastes of sun warmed bricks” or “honeyed gravel”.

At the risk of being irritating I’ll point out two slight factual errors.

Hugh asserts that “academic discipline arrived in the world of wine in 1960”. He refers to Roseworthy College in South Australia as one of a number institutions where such “academic discipline arrived”.

In fact, a degree in oenology was introduced at Roseworthy in 1936, supervised by the formidable wine chemist A.K. Hickenbotham.

imageThe other slip concerns an assertion that his birth year, 1939, was a terrible vintage throughout Europe.

This is mostly accurate except for Sauternes AC which, curiously, made moderately good sweet wine.

His chum, former Christies’ wine auctioneer and tasting note hoarder, Michael Broadbent (pic), describes the ‘39 vintage in Bordeaux as “light and fragrant”, like Hugh’s personality.

Hugh wants to be embraced by the world of wine as egalitarian and generous. He tells of a sojourn in the Dordogne where he dispensed largesse to a group of truckers in the form of five bottles of Chateau Montrose:

“The next weekend I was staying alone up the Dordogne and ate my evening meal at a routiers cafe. I drank one of the bottles of Montrose with my dinner. I loved it so much that I went to my car, fetched the other five bottles and asked the patron to pour them for the lorry drivers. They must have thought I was mad. They would not have known what a Second Growth was, but they raised their glasses politely, and were about to empty them when they stopped in mid-swallow. Broad smiles broke out; a rapt look came over their faces. The sweet autumnal vapours of the wine, and its clean sweet power in their throats needed no explanation.”

Not surprisingly the wine question most frequently asked of Hugh Johnson is: “What is the oldest wine you have drunk?”

It turns out to be a Bavarian drop from King Ludwig’s cellar, vintaged in 1540.

imageHis account of winemaking experiences in Tokay were specially interesting. I have twice visited this remote, dreary, village in eastern Hungary adjacent to the Ukrainian boarder.

The most idiosyncratic wines in the world are made there especially the precious Eszencia, a wine capable of living forever.

If there is such a thing as a holy grail of wine it is possibly the Tokay Esszenzia from the legendary “Comet” vintage of 1811.

Hugh Johnson is without doubt the most successful grandee of international wine commentary.

His autobiography is informative and entertaining. I recommend it to all wine lovers.

Doubtless Hugh would agree with Tennyson:

You’ll have no scandal while you dine, but honest talk and wholesome wine.

GDW