For more than half a century, Hugh Johnson has seen, and chronicled, wave after wave of wine trends. The emergence of California in the 1970s, followed by other New World wine regions. The emphasis on new oak and ultra-ripe, powerful wines in the 1980s and 1990s, and the more recent backlash in favor of lower-alcohol wines that taste more of fruit than of wood. He has seen quirky stuff as well: the “orange” and “natural” wines that reject modern winemaking techniques. Proud Brit that he is, he has relished the recent rise of English wines, especially high-quality bubblies.
Throughout it all, Johnson, 77, has remained a traditionalist.
“I’ve never taken to certain fashions,” he told me during a recent interview in New York, where he was promoting the 40th annual edition of “Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book,” now in stores. “I’ve never liked deep, thick, extracted alcoholic wines, whoever made them. I’ve always liked lightness, refreshment, acidity. So I’ve stuck to my guns on that sort of thing, and in a way the wheel is coming full circle.”
If there was a hint of self-satisfaction in that last comment, Johnson deserves it. His writings have shaped how a generation views wine, not just through his annual pocket guides but also through more massive tomes such as “The World Atlas of Wine,” published in its seventh edition in 2013. (Jancis Robinson, Britain’s other great contribution to modern wine writing, became co-author with the fifth edition.) “His Vintage: The Story of Wine,” published in 1989, and its companion television series served as my basic wine education and became my inspiration to write about the grape.
Johnson, whose copious writings include several volumes about gardening, evokes an old-fashioned era when Britain was the arbiter of style and taste, as well as wine’s primary market. We met in a private club near Central Park, where he stays when visiting New York. (The club, which prefers not to be identified in newspapers, shares a reciprocity agreement with Johnson’s club in London.) He ordered us tea, which came with cookies. This being the New World, the cookies included alfajores.
His first wine article was published in December 1960 (he was 21) in the British edition of Vogue and was about pairing wines with turkey. His first book, “Wine,” was published in 1966 – a full 50 years ago. The “Pocket Wine Book” debuted in 1977 at a slim 144 pages. It included Johnson’s brief write-ups on various wineries with international reputations. The 2017 version is 337 pages long and difficult to fit into just about any pocket. The expanded size reflects the impressive growth in the world of wine over the past four decades.
“It’s proliferation, really,” Johnson says when I ask him to name the most profound change in wine since the first edition. “In the wine world, everything has changed. I do compare it with other disciplines, though, of course, change in wine is much slower than in science or the arts, and especially in I.T., for sure. But now you have grape varieties no one had ever heard of in 1977, and an expansion of flavors no one had ever thought of or experienced.”
As he took a sip of tea, I asked what he looks for in a wine.
“You hope the wine expresses something more than just the fruit that went into it,” he said. “Climate, geography, soil, the philosophy of the winemaker. It may be a style related to local foods.
“And a blend of grapes, of course. People discount the idea that you might get a better wine with two grapes instead of just one. It’s geography, in that the way in which French wines, to take it to a really general level, differ from the Italian or Spanish is not just cultural or philosophical, it is also related to the fact that France is farther north. It’s as simple as that.”
Johnson expressed disdain for modern wine fads such as “natural” or “orange” wines and the idea that age-old winemaking techniques are superior to modern methods.
“Orange wines are a sideshow and a waste of time,” he said. “What’s the point of experimenting? We know how to make really good wine. Why do we want to throw away the formula and do something different? Making good wine is hardly modern technology, it’s just experience and common sense. And hygiene!”
In New York, Johnson also put in an early plug for an anthology of his writings to be published in spring 2017. His son, Red Johnson, was introducing a portfolio of English sparkling wines to the U.S. market. (More about those in a future column.)
He has never been a fan of the 100-point system, but I asked whether the elder Johnson had ever encountered a “perfect” wine.
“Oh, yes, lots,” he said. “Not that there’s one kind of perfection, certainly. There’s a perfect Beaujolais, there’s a perfect expression of nearly everything in the wine world. I taste a wine and ask myself, ‘Is there something I could suggest?’ But no – bingo, you’ve got it.”