Michael Cooper's latest Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines arrived in the mail a few days ago.
It's a veritable door stop. The very first edition of Cooper's annual guide, published in 1992, ran to 280 pages and listed more than 800 wines. The latest edition has 670 pages and reviews 3260 wines.
Whereas you could have stuffed the 1992 edition into your back pocket, at a pinch, while scanning the shelves at your local wine shop, you'd risk a hernia doing the same with the latest version.
Quite apart from being a useful reference book for risk-averse wine lovers, the Buyer's Guide doubles as a chronicle of the New Zealand wine industry. If you want to see how winemaking in New Zealand has evolved and grown, you need only compare the various editions over the years.
Whereas the 1992 edition reviewed only three syrahs, the 2013 edition has 30 pages of them. But the reverse is true too: the inaugural guide reviewed 34 muller-thurgaus (remember them?), but the latest book has only two. Many of the wine varieties listed in the new book - such as albarino, arneis, gruner-veltliner, tempranillo and nebbiolo - were unheard of, other than by wine nerds, when the first edition was published.
The book has evolved too. Cooper reviews the 2012 vintage conditions in the various wine regions (although whether casual wine buyers would be interested in such esoteric detail is a moot point), lists his two best buys of the latest releases (one white, one red - buy the book if you want to know what they are) and continues his practice of nominating "super classic", "classic" and "potential classic" New Zealand wines.
Unsurprisingly, he no longer feels it necessary to include, as he did in 1992, a section discussing the relative merits of cask (aka bag-in-box) and bottled wines. That's another measure of how the wine industry has matured.
Cooper has been writing about wine since the mid-1980s (the first edition of his Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand came out in 1984) and has earned a full-time living from it since 1991, most recently as wine columnist in The Listener. In that time his annual guide has seen off at least two competitors.
His approach has changed little. He's meticulous and conscientious to a fault. For many wine writers, part of the attraction of the job is being schmoozed by wine companies - treated to free trips and lavish lunches, bombarded with free wine and generally made to feel very important (all of which wine companies do very well). But from my observations, Cooper is utterly immune to such blandishments. He has a job to do and he takes it very seriously.
In fact if I have a criticism of him, it's that he takes it a little too earnestly. Wine is about enjoyment, after all, and I sometimes feel that Michael could afford to lighten up a bit. But if that's the most damning thing that can be said about him (and I believe it is), his reputation as "New Zealand's most acclaimed wine writer" (to quote the publisher's blurb) is safe.
[Michael Cooper's Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines 2013 is published by Hodder Moa and has a recommended retail price of $39.99.]