There's No Way to Con Connoisseur Hugh Johnson; He Wrote the Book on Wine

updated 04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/19/1982 01:00AM

As a child, his favorite beverages were lemonade, orangeade and what he calls "fizzy pop"—nothing too sophisticated. But when his roommate at Cambridge University exposed him to the subtleties of the fruit of the vine, Hugh Johnson adopted the faith as zealously as any religious convert. Beginning as a wine writer for British Vogue in 1962, Johnson has become one of the world's most comprehensive and readable wine authorities. James Beard called Johnson's 1966 Wine (Simon and Schuster) "required reading for any amateur student of fine wine." Johnson's World Atlas of Wine ($29.95), first published in 1971, and his 1981 Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine ($4.95) have been updated and reissued recently by Simon and Schuster. Johnson, 43, lives on 12 acres in Essex, England with wife Judy and their three children. Over a lunch which featured a 1975 German Forster Freundstück Spätlese ("a thoughtful conversation piece") and a 1977 Chateau Haut-Bailly ("perfect to wash down a meal without being too assertive"), Johnson gabbed about the grape with Fred Hauptfuhrer of PEOPLE.

What's so special about wine?

Wine comes into being at the point where a natural product of the soil gets tied up with artistry at a high level, so that the two become one, absolutely. I don't think it occurs in anything else except, in a way, cooking. But with wine you are not even cooking anything. You are just controlling something that happens naturally—the fermentation of the grape. People who dedicate their lives to doing that well are benefactors to us all.

What are your favorite wines for regular drinking?

To me, claret—a red Bordeaux—is an ideal drink. It's so refreshing and at the same time has nuances and depths that go on for a long time. I get the same sort of satisfaction from German whites. Judy and I can drink a bottle of German wine and go straight back to what we were doing. The extra couple of degrees of alcohol you get in white Burgundy, for example, clobbers you for the rest of the evening and you feel you are not fit for anything but watching television. It's the taste I want, after all, not the kick.

How long does it take you to form an opinion on a new wine?

Usually, Judy and I will open a new bottle over dinner and see what we both think of it. I'll write notes about it and always leave some in the bottle stored either in my wine cellar or refrigerator for the next day. I don't feel that I really know a wine all that well on the first impression. I like to revisit it under different circumstances. Most evenings we have two bottles open: one fresh and one left over from the previous evening.

Do you imbibe at lunch, too?

If I worked at an office, yes, you bet I would. But the loneliness of writing means it doesn't work. My mind wanders, and it makes me sleepy. So I don't.

What do you think of American wines?

I am immensely excited by the prospects for the new wine areas of America. Some of the New York wines are very, very good. The most exciting I have tasted come from Oregon and Washington, which have cool climates that suit Burgundian grapes such as the Pinot noir. But California Pinot noirs are improving.

In what way are U.S. wines changing?

There is an evolution toward more matured wines with a complexity of flavor. The best examples of that in California are the Chardonnays, which are aged in oak barrels to add the flavor of oak. But you must also add the dimension of time. There are all sorts of madmen who go rushing around the world saying, "I have heard that Chateau Margaux 1978 is the best wine they have made in years. I am going to open a bottle tonight." You cannot be impatient, because what you paid for does not exist yet. You will have to wait 10 or 20 years.

Several European nations have enacted strict laws governing the quality of wine production. Should the U.S. do the same?

No. Wine law is tremendously limiting and it doesn't actually relate to quality. In Italy, quite a lot of the best wine is made disregarding the regulations. The laws defend tradition: The wine exists, therefore it has to go on existing. This discourages innovation. California's huge advantage is having no such laws. Anyone can make any darned kind of wine he wants, and if people will buy it, good.

Is wine a good investment?

It is always a good investment, but in pleasure rather than money terms. In money terms, it's very risky. There was a crash in 1974 when people who had invested heavily in Bordeaux lost millions in the wake of a wine glut and a scandal involving fraudulent labeling. Fearing even greater losses, they panicked and sold.

What are today's best wine values?

Fine Spanish sherries such as Tio Pepe and La Ina. People just don't know that some of the best wine in the world is being sold at almost table wine prices. They haven't acquired the taste, perhaps, but those wines are exciting and very varied. The white wines by good makers in Germany that don't enter the rare sweet categories are absolutely as fine as some French wines that go for twice the price. Australian wines are underrated, and the Rhone Valley in France in general is very underrated. A Rhone like Hermitage at its best is worth as much as any great red wine.

How much bad wine is on the market these days?

There is less bad wine than there used to be, because technology is now widespread. After World War II a lot of small European growers who really had known nothing but what their fathers had told them—and who used to produce stuff that was little better than vinegar—banded together in cooperatives, bought new machinery and hired experts to do the job. Suddenly there was a huge supply of moderately well-made wine which was at least healthy and fit to drink. The way wine is bad now is that it is made to be safe rather than to have character and express the land it comes from. It's just an internationally tradable commodity. It's not technically bad. It's just boring. There's an awful lot of that about.

Who makes these "boring" wines?

The world's biggest producer probably would be Russia, but the Soviets don't export much, thank heavens. On the international trading scene, the Italians, who are capable of making the most magical wine, are dominated by these boring wines. Soave used to be one of the greatest white wines in Italy. And there are producers of soave who make super wine. But the world is awash with stuff that will give a bad name to wine, let alone soave.

Which wines do you most dislike?

Cheap, sweet wines. They tend to have been made with a good deal of sulfur. The sulfur is used to sterilize the wine so it doesn't ferment. California white jug wines that use the Colombard grape in their blend seem to me to have an overaromatic taste. There is a sort of unpleasant smell about it.

What was your most memorable experience as a wine devotee?

In 1975 a friend and I chartered an old square-rigged brigantine to bring back a whole load of claret—600 cases—from Bordeaux. We were trying to reproduce the medieval wine voyages, when a fleet used to sail from England just after the vintage every year and pick up the crop. We got into a fantastic storm—a force-10 gale—and the noise, the wet, the cold, the danger and everything else was absolutely astonishing. We were drinking claret out of our stock, and it was some of the best wine I have ever tasted. We lost count of the empty bottles that went over the side.

What was the most wonderful glass of wine you ever drank?

I'm sure it was a glass of champagne, because champagne is always exhilarating. I have always spent more than I could afford on champagne. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, my father was furious with me because I used to borrow money to buy it and he thought it was a sin. But I have never regretted that extravagance for a moment.

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