Alcohol sold by the volume

Anthony Rose compares the merits - and demerits - of two massive new wi ne reference books from Larousse and the OUP
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The Independent Online
Do not expect the Oxford Companion to Wine to mention that nice pounds 1.99 supermarket Romanian cabernet sauvignon you have just discovered. This new heavyweight wine title does, however, analyse Romanian history, geography, climate, viticulture, grape varieties, winemaking, wine laws and wine regions.

Like the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine, it is not so much a meal as an ongoing feast for the mind. Both are reference works to be dipped into, not buyers' guides. However, price apart, the two are vastly different in style, tone and content.

The 1,088-page Oxford Companion, edited by Jancis Robinson who is a leading authority on wine, boasts an international cast of 82 contributors - winemakers, merchants, writers and academics - who are given free rein to express themselves. In its broad sweep, the book encompasses history, botany, commerce, geology and literature.

The Larousse Encyclopedia is edited by Chris Foulkes, the former mastermind behind the Mitchell Beazley publishing company's success with wine books, draws its 46 contributors from, in the main, British wine writers. The style is more anonymous than the Oxford Companion's, but the handsome page format and print are easier on the eye. (The Companion packs about 1,000 words a page into two narrow columns.)

The Larousse is not so much an encyclopedia as an around-the-world-in-608-pages gazetteer. Each wine-producing country has an up-to-date regional guide with maps, a useful ``quality factors'' section, a breakdown in the bigger regions by appellation, and a guide to producers.

A practical section contains handy tips on choosing, buying, storing, serving, decanting and tasting, and includes some suggested food and wine pairings. A brief reference section at the end pays lip service to the train-spotter tendency.

The Encyclopedia is more colourful than the Oxford Companion, with plenty of excellent colour photographs, maps and illustrations. But you are more likely to find an obscure point or general topic of interest among the Oxford Companion's 3,000 alphabetical entries, which run from Abbocato to Zweigelt.

Topics that do not fit easily into a guided tour of the world of wine include pests, auctions, the influence of the British and Australians on the world of wine, fashion, fraud and global overproduction, as well as wine in literature and art.

Specific wines, producers and wine regions occupy about one-third of the book, with large chunks on winemaking and grape-growing and grape varieties.

The authoritative tone is stengthened by the use of mostly black-and-white photographs, and line-drawn maps and illustrations. Oddly, the colour plates bear no relation to the surrounding text.

If you want specific producers, the Larousse profiles the best of each region, but it will not get you to the property (no addresses or telephone numbers), nor does it provide advice on which wine to buy in which vintage.

The Oxford's meticulously researched, PhD-standard essays throw new light on some of the more obscure and emerging wine regions and countries such as Argentina (seven pages to the Larousse's one), Chile (five to three), Romania (five to one), Austria (seven to four), Japan (four to a half). And where Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia are lumped together on one page in Larousse, each merits an entry of its own in the Oxford.

In its comprehensiveness and detail, the Oxford is one of the few wine books in recent years to add considerably to the sum of knowledge on the subject. It is also more incisive on controversial topics such as appellation controlee and the problem of faulty corks.

The Companion is illuminating on the contribution to wine from legendary figures such as Arnaud de Villeneuve and Dom Perignon, and influences such as Maynard Amerine, Helmut Becker, Andre Tchelistcheff, Baron Philippe de Rothschild and James Busby, but you have to be rather famous to merit your own entry.

If there is a drawback in the Oxford's attempt to be all things to all people, it is that acres of space are sometimes devoted to items of marginal interest. Not everyone, I suspect, will pore over the entries, however scholarly, on the vineyards of Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Yet for dinner party guests who have outstayed their welcome, the latest on bottle stink, bunch rot, bungs and smudge pots could be the ace up your sleeve.

Tempting as it is to weigh the two in the scales and declare the bigger, denser and heavier volume the winner, the alcohol-by-volume approach does not provide all the answers. Oxford's panoply of experts out-gun Larousse for authority, insight and detail, but for the less inquisitive and for newcomers to wine, the latter work is more tempting.

The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford University Press, pounds 30); Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine (Larousse, pounds 30).