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March 7, 2010

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One-of-us lunch with the critics

ACCLAIMED as one of the world's most respected and independent wine writers, Jancis Robinson also advises the Queen of England and British Airways on what wines to serve.

She has written many best-selling books and presented her own BBC television series. Her Website features 40,000 wine reviews, her "Oxford Companion to Wine" is widely used in education courses and her knowledge of the grape and its products is almost unparalleled.

Her writing has won numerous awards and she was honored by Queen Elizabeth for contributions to wine appreciation with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003.

Yet despite the accolades and all the power she wields by writing a tasting note or a newspaper article, she was Jancis the journalist, albeit a celebrated one, as she sat down for a salad and salmon lunch with a score of local wine scribes in Shanghai last weekend.

There were two reasons for her fleeting visit to China. The first was to be guest speaker in Hong Kong at a fund-raising dinner which netted US$2 million for the Room To Read program which provides books and scholarships to libraries and schools in the third world.

The second was to promote in Shanghai and Beijing the sixth edition of her "World Atlas of Wine" which is breaking new ground this year by being published in Chinese for the first time.

Sitting at the middle of a long table at The Wine Residence on Jiangyin Road, Robinson fielded questions for nearly two hours from enthusiastic newspaper and magazine columnists and authors who felt professional empathy with her.

They were keen to know her thoughts on a range of topics, from the different wine regions in China ("I'm flattered you asked but my knowledge is very limited"), the principles she adopts in rating a wine ("I see tasting scores as a necessary evil") to how she goes about it ("I love the chance to taste wines blind") and she didn't disappoint.

But the two core subjects she focused on were the new book and the climate change portents it reflects for the future of world wine.

Robinson co-authors the "World Atlas of Wine" with the eminent Hugh Johnson who started it in 1971 and she is excited that the "world's best-selling big book on wine" is being launched in Chinese.

"For those of us in Europe, China looks like the future and the Promised Land and everybody wants to be involved here so I'm thrilled that finally this book, a major part of my life, can be shared with many Chinese wine lovers," she said.

The atlas covers the huge variety of places around the world that are now producing wine, a commodity, she said, that is "geography in a bottle."

"There is no other product we buy that signals so clearly the exact spot on the globe that produced it and, more excitingly, whose tastes reflect its geographic origins."

"Most wines signal very explicitly their origin with the name of their appellation or address on the label, which isn't true of that many products we buy."

She said two major trends had to be reflected in the new atlas. "Climate change everywhere is having an impact with positive and negative effects and meant that every section had to be rewritten.

"The other major change was the rise of Asia, so it was important to give more space to the region, and of course the seventh edition is bound to have more coverage of China," she said.

On the positive side of the climate change ledger, the most obvious was that grapes in Germany now routinely ripen properly, she said.

"German wine makers no longer have to disguise an excess of acidity with such sweetness. Also thanks to warmer summers, Canada can now make proper red wine, in fact sometimes their reds now are too alcoholic.

"And chilly England can make some pretty decent answers to Champagne," she added.

But in the negative, Australia was suffering on the front line of water shortage and growers in irrigated areas had to give up in some cases because they can't get water rights.

"Also with global warming, the vine is getting closer to the poles and as people understand tropical viticulture techniques, they can now make wine as little as 8 degrees from the equator, like in northern Brazil."

Still a weekly columnist in the UK's Financial Times, Robinson advised her media peers that being honest and humble were good traits to aim for as they went about their wine writing craft.

"Don't copy what someone else has said about a wine," she said. "I would expect Chinese wine writers to evolve their own vocabulary. You will find your own words to describe the fruits in Europe you don't have here.

"The other thing is to be humble and never be afraid of asking questions. Don't pretend and always keep realizing how little you know. I do every day."

She was inquiring and collegiate, scribbling snippets of information in a ready notebook about new vineyard development in China as she generously shared knowledge and thoughts.

It was a rare and unexpected opportunity for wine writers to rap with the revered Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine, a doyen of the craft but one who is grounded enough to still travel with a corkscrew that she has worked out how to get through airport security screens.


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