- Oz Clarke Pocket Wine Book 2014 (Anova Books)
- Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2014 (Octopus Books)
There are two leading pocket wine guides on the market, so I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2014 editions side by side.
The first is the original: Hugh Johnson’s, which is now in its 37th year and has sold a gazillion copies. The second is Oz Clarke’s, the young pretender to the phone (who is now a youthful 63), whose guide turns 22 this year.
Both Hugh and Oz are true legends, and I admire them both greatly. But neither guide fully acknowledges that they are actually written by a team of expert contributors. Yes, there’s a very small paragraph at the end of each book thanking them, but it would be much better if the extent of their role was made clear.
Both books are similar in size and weight (306 versus 309 grams), and consist of pithy entries covering grape varieties, regions and producers. But they are organized quite differently. The Oz guide is strictly alphabetical, while Hugh’s is arranged by country. I think Hugh’s approach makes more sense.
Both try to justify the annual purchase of the guide with a little filler material from Oz and Hugh. This jars a little with the rest of the content. For example, Hugh’s book finishes with an essay on Pinot Noir in full colour on a glossy insert which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the material. Oz gives us a breezy report card on the world of wine.
Hugh uses a four star rating for each producer, with a range allowed. Oz uses a three star rating, but it is slightly more complex: within each regional entry, producers are given a score; within each producer entry, individual wines are scored.
How reliable are these books? If you look down the list of contributors, then you’ll see that both are calling on experienced wine writers with good reputations. So, on the whole, they are going to be pretty reliable. To get a better idea of this, I took a closer look at three regions I have particular in depth knowledge of: New Zealand, Portugal and South Africa.
Overall, Hugh does Portugal a bit better than Oz. I found myself in pretty much full agreement with Hugh’s Portuguese content. The Oz coverage seemed a bit off the pace, with an unusual list of ratings for the Douro producers, for example.
New Zealand coverage in Hugh was a bit mean on the ratings. Just four producers got the full four stars (or a range going up to 4 stars): Stonyridge, Te Mata, Millton and Neudorf. In contrast, for South Africa, Hugh gives 23 four-star ratings to producers. There’s no mention of Kusuda, Rippon gets 2-3 stars, Pyramid Valley gets 2 stars, and both Bell Hill, Ata Rangi and Felton Road get 3 stars. This is an odd set of ratings.
Oz doesn’t like Pyramid Valley either: they get just one star, as does Seresin. The only Kiwi wineries to get 3 stars (remember, this is maximum rating for Oz) are Ata Rangi, Dry River, Neudorf and Felton Road: no complaints there, but there are other wineries that should also have received 3 stars. No one in Marlbrough gets top ratings, for example.
Hugh’s coverage of South Africa felt a bit behind the times. There’s a long list of four star wineries – 23 of them – which looks a bit like a list of top wineries 10 years ago. However, these top ratings are somewhat diluted by the wide ranges given in many cases. Lots of them are 1-4 or 2-4 star ratings, which isn’t all that much use to the reader. It would be far better simply to have a single rating for each winery.
Oz’ South African coverage is similarly unsatisfying, just because the ratings are consistently mean. I couldn’t find a single 3 star producer rating. The likes of Crystallum and La Vierge get just 1 star, as do The Foundry and Reyneke. That’s mean. Waterkloof doesn’t even get a star; nor does Catherine Marshall.
Of course, there will always be differences of opinion, even among skilled professionals. My chief gripe with these two guides is that (1) the contributors aren’t properly acknowledged; and (2) there’s a lack of consistency from country to country.
Would I recommend buying both or either of these guides? Yes: they are both packed with a lot of information, and you get a lot of expertise for your money. I am not overly convinced that the ratings are fully reliable (at least to my palate, for the countries we have discussed). Take your pick between Oz and Hugh, because there’s little to separate the two. In the end, I’d opt for Hugh’s because I find the country by country breakdown of the entries more logical.