Just because you're not intending to scale K2, drive a Maserati Quattroporte or conduct the LSO any time soon doesn't mean you're not interested in mountaineering, fast cars or classical music. By the same token, argues Neil Beckett, the editor of 1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die (Cassell, £20), knowing more about the loftier peaks of wine doesn't mean it's compulsory to drink legendary vintages of Yquem, Lafite or Cristal and bankrupt yourself in the process. In developing his "life's-too-short-to-drink-bad-wine" thesis, Beckett's mouthwatering bucket list brings the sometimes intimidating subject of fine wine to life, making it instantly more digestible.
1001 Wines makes no claim to be a list of all the world's greatest wines. Although two or more wines from the same producer occasionally feature (Niepoort manages six, Krug and Valdespino four apiece), this weighty 960-page tome aims at getting across just how much the fine wine world has expanded in recent years. France is the leading ambassador, in particularly bordeaux, burgundy and champagne. The Italian section is voluminous in barolo and chianti classico, Spain in rioja, ribera and sherry, but the New World of Australia, California, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa gets a good look in.
In some cases, 1001 Wines goes for the legendary: Château Haut-Brion 1989, Viña Tondonia 1964 or the 1978 Hermitage La Chapelle. It doesn't necessarily plump for the obvious. A premier cru may be selected in favour of a grand cru, a regular bottling instead of a special one, or a lesser vintage because it highlights underlying quality. The selected wine may be controversial (2003 Pavie), historic (1961 Palmer), cult (Tony Brady's 2000 Wendouree Shiraz) or influential (1999 Mondavi Fumé Blanc). In with the Latours, Romanée-Contis and Krugs, you'll find Blue Nun, Jacob's Creek and Mateus Rosé. And hands up if you've heard of the following wineries: Abbazia di Novacella, Channing Daughters, Guitián, Itsasmendi, Kogl, Llano Estacado, Domaine Chidaine, Jacques Puffeney, Clos Uroulet or Mme Aly Duhr? There is a handful of surprising omissions: no Aldo Conterno, Château Beychevelle or Marqués de Vargas.
With one or two thumbnail sketches to each page, the distinctive character of each wine is described along with a tasting note and a when-to-drink guide in case you're lucky enough to have any of these wines in your cellar or are encouraged to go out and buy them. And there are a number of comparatively affordable wines. While the 2002 Domaine Leroy Romanée-St Vivant may be out of your reach, you might want to go out and buy its neighbour on the page, the affordable 2001 L'Enclos de Château Lezongars.
Wines are categorised by sparkling, white, red and fortified, and the alphabetical listing makes it easy to look up a name. Descriptions are largely user-friendly although occasional technicalities like "phenolic maturity" and "vinified in purezza", can irritate. A shame, too, that the index doesn't always work; or is it just wishful thinking that has the publishers listing Sassicaia, Château Latour-à-Pomerol and Leroy's Romanée-St Vivant at the same under-£10 price level as Jacob's Creek Chardonnay? Thanks to a line-up of some of the world's top critics (Hugh Johnson, Andrew Jefford, Nicolas Belfrage, Michael Schuster, Stephen Brook and Huon Hooke to mention a few), even as short a burst as a half page allows the better authors to capture the elusive quintessence of what makes that wine special. 1001 Wines is not dry, nor, if it works for you, need you be.