New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia – Book Review
The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is now out in a brand new 6th Edition. It’s a privilege to review this mighty tome, as I recall using the 3rd Edition of 2001 for WSET Diploma exams. Twenty years on, that book, though still in use, has inevitably become out of date. Revisions mean this new edition is entirely contemporary and so most welcome.
While previous editions were solely by Tom Stevenson, the world of wine has grown too big, complex and fast-moving for anyone to master. Hence this new edition contains expert contributions marshalled under the editorship of Orsi Szentkiralyi. The result is a superb book for novices and connoisseurs alike. It’s also the go-to text for the Master Sommelier (MS) examinations and covers all aspects of wine with unerring veracity.
This review comes after a fortnight’s enjoyable reading, during which I put this book to daily use. There was also an opportunity to compare my old book with the new one. It’s a reminder of the immense changes in the wine world during the last 20 years.
Let’s get the statistics out the way first. The new New Sotheby’s is now 800 pages, measures 32 x 24 x 5 cm and weighs 3.5 Kg. The old 3rd edition is 600 pages, smaller in dimensions and weighed a mere 2.5 Kg.
All that extra bulk isn’t flab; it reflects how times change; new regions, techniques, fashions, and generations of winegrowers all demand more space. Its sheer size means that it isn’t a book to read in bed, and maybe it should carry a health warning to that effect!
For the first time, National Geographic are the publishers, always a byword for outstanding quality. It’s a real improvement because every page has clarity, with full colour and luxury heavyweight paper. Then there are 400 colour plates, 120 meaningful maps, and 14,000 wines from 108 regions of the world.
In other words, it’s all killer, no filler.
Layout and navigation
The book’s ethos is to be an encyclopedia of the wine, so don’t expect in-depth definitive studies. Use it to get a concise and accurate overview of every wine topic and region. It’s then a jumping-off point for more specific research.
If there’s one thing you need with a reference book, it’s the ability to find items intuitively and quickly, with minimal guidance or distractions. The book’s layout is logical and essentially unchanged. Navigation is, therefore, straightforward, and there’s an excellent index too.
The book divides into three parts. First, there are factors influencing taste and quality, for example, geography, viticulture and vinification. It includes a section on wine-tasting techniques, with an excellent guide to flavour and aroma, including faults. Then part two offers a summary chronology of wine events down the ages. Part three contains the meaty heart, covering all the wine countries of the world, grouped by region.
One advantage of using contributors for the regional entries is that they are specific subject matter experts on the ground, providing the latest information and trends. This approach is one that Tom Stevenson has previously adopted when writing the annual Wine Report books some years ago. I imagine that the risk with this is that these different voices could vary in content, quantity and quality. Here’s where Orsi Szentkiralyi has done a superb editing job. She has raised the bar rather than accommodating the lowest common denominator.
Hence the book has a consistent tone, manner and brevity, which unites the contributions into a balanced and seamless whole. That is no mean feat.
The regional entries
The most significant proportion of the regional entries come from France, Italy and Spain, as you might expect. These countries are the touchstones for wine styles and grape varieties that have spread worldwide. As they remain the most significant volume producers, encounters with their wines are more likely too. A Sommelier will recommend classics such as Burgundy, Chianti and Rioja far more often than Japanese Koshu or Georgian orange wine, though these get coverage. However, there are expansive sections on the other regions such as the Americas and Asia.
Consequently, most places have coverage in proportion to their commercial importance. Perhaps the exception is England and Wales, as the entry has nine pages. However, as emergent world-class fizz makers, this is understandable.
Given that the author is Tom Stevenson, you would expect the sections on Champagne and Alsace to be excellent, and so they are. However, special shout-outs also go to Germany and to Sherry, topics which students sometimes find challenging.
No book is ever perfect, but I prefer to avoid pedantry. However, one minor criticism reflects my interest in climate change and sustainability. In this book, as in life, it’s the elephant in the room. The book acknowledges it, and this topic probably doesn’t appear in wine courses yet. But as this work is “a new edition for a new decade”, I’d welcome a summary section on the various responses now starting to combat climate change.
One of the delights of dipping into a good reference book is discovering amazing facts you didn’t previously know. Here are just five to enjoy; there are many more:
- Since 2000, there’s been a winery in Cambodia.
- Chardonnay grows on old mining slag-heaps at Haillicourt, near Béthune, in the Pas-de-Calais. There’s another visit added to my ever-lengthening list.
- The world’s most northerly vineyard is in Latvia, warmed by a nearby nuclear reactor’s buried coolant pipes.
- A single yeast cell can split 10,000 sugar molecules into ethanol and carbon dioxide every second during fermentation.
- In 1087, the Domesday Book recorded 47 vineyards in England.
This latest edition of The New Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is a mandatory recommendation whether you are a wine novice, connoisseur or student. I would use this book in preference for WSET or other wine courses. Indeed, as it comprehensively trumps its main rivals, it’s my new Companion!
The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is widely available at £40.00 RRP. Given that the old 3rd edition was £35.00 in 2001, this is a bargain! Try Hive – it gives a 30% discount off that RRP and supports local and independent bookshops.
The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (6th Edition)
Author Tom Stevenson
Editor Orsi Szentkiralyi
Published in 2020 by National Geographic