FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter dips into this year's wine books

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The Independent Culture
BUYING an annual wine guide was once a choice between the pocket-sized Hugh Johnson and Which? This autumn's releases include three competitors that may suit your needs rather better.

The very readable and affably critical Grapevine (pounds 5.99 Headline, paperback) by Tim Atkin and Anthony Rose limits itself to wines from 22 supermarkets and high street chains. Store by store, the guide assesses the range, and then specific wines within price categories - under pounds 3, pounds 3-pounds 5 and more than pounds 5 - giving each an unfussy tasting note and a mark out of 20. 'Over 2,000 wines' include the authors' three dozen wines of the year.

If you want a more thorough grounding in what's new, Oz Clarke's Wine Guide 1994 (Mitchell Beazley pounds 9.99) is the one for you. You will find specific wine recommendations in this book - 100 brilliantly chosen, unannotated best buys - plus 'ideal cellars' chosen by experts, and Oz Clarke's 30 top wines from the South of France. What grabs my attention first are the opinionated updates on each region - much more detailed than in other guides. The vintage advice and maturity charts are excellent. Selected wines from more than 100 British merchants are listed in price bands, with stockists in ascending order of price.

The guide that perhaps best manages to cover everything is the 1994 Good Wine Guide by Robert Joseph (Pan Books pounds 7.99). This fat pocket book is fun to read, if you can cope with the minuscule print. The 500 wines recommended (arranged by style) are chosen from 6,300 tasted in the 1993 International Wine Challenge - Robert Joseph is publishing editor of Wine magazine. There's a 1,000-entry A-Z of grape varieties, wine terms, regions and styles - including vintage advice - then country by country verbal snapshots of current goings-on in the wine-making world.

Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 1994 (Mitchell Beazley pounds 7.99) is good, but provides little more than Robert Joseph's A-Z. It, too, is snappily written and fairly critical where necessary, though without the irreverent wit of the Joseph version. This book makes no attempt to recommend specific wines to buy. I'd buy this every few years, rather than annually.

I certainly wouldn't rush out to buy this year's pricey and rather pedestrian Which? Wine Guide (Consumers' Association, Hodder pounds 13.99) if I'd bought it last year. The handful of 'features' at the beginning has changed, but is uninspired; there are a few additions and minor changes to the assessments of merchants, chains and supermarkets. What I'd like to see is a bit more criticism.