Advertising and lack of independence, in obvious and disguised modes, are real problems with South African wine books. The Platter guide, to its credit, refuses to take advertising from the wineries that are its subject, even though it has other advertisements, and advertorials about restaurants and accommodation – it’s an extremely expensive book to produce, and would probably be impossible without these sources of income.
Sometimes subtle pressures are at work. There is no doubt that some producers feel they would get better coverage from Wine magazine if they advertised in it. And one of the authors of a recently published book even wrote personally to a producer who had declined to advertise in it, expressing regret at this, “especially” in the light of authorial admiration for the producer’s wines. Mere friendly chat, or something more?
The problem is a little different in the two winelands guides I’ve been looking at recently: The Wine Tourism Handbook, published by Monika Elias, and The Essential Guide to South African Wines: Terroir and Travel, by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit. Both of these books have introductions to different wine areas and then go into some detail about some of the wineries there – and in both cases, the only wineries that are discussed (and praised of course) are those that have paid handsomely for the privilege: the more they’ve paid, the more coverage they get. This would be less of a problem if the principle was made explicit, and the reader wasn’t left to wonder if wineries were included because they were regarded as the superior ones.
But it is not made explicit – though it is much clearer in the Wine Tourism Handbook, as the very clear and useful maps do list all the wineries in the relevant area, and the opposite page does give telephone numbers and opening times for all of them for all. The Essential Guide‘s rather less good maps lists only the wineries which also have little features written on them – that is, those which have paid.
The Handbook is bright, cheerful and rather trivial, aimed at those who presumably don’t want to know a great deal – which is fine. It’s quite nicely written and easy, with a busy style of layout that is reminiscent of magazines, perhaps – especially given the full-page advertisements. The introductions to each area throw in a historical fact or two and a bit of atmospheric characterisation. The notes on the wines are not very profound. I take at random one of the short ones: Cabrière: “Experience Pierre Jourdan and Haute Cabrière wines in the unique tasting room, within the maturation cellar. A welcome respite from the summer sun, the tasting room is also situated next to the restaurant serving superb meals.” That’s that, apart from address, tasting costs, and contact details.
There are also similar advertorial-style notes on “wining and dining” for each area, and, in its own section, on “winelands activities”. And there’s an Easy Wine Guide, with a selection of wines and brief tasting notes, divided by region and then into three price categories. The wines were chosen by a panel, we are told – but whether or not from just the paying wineries, I didn’t investigate. There’s some other light introductory material, and all in all this is a quite useful guide for tourists to the winelands who don’t want to know very much.
The book by Swart and Smit is altogether more serious, and deserving of attention not only from tourists, but from anyone who wants to learn something about climate, topography and soil and their role in Cape wine. This is the second edition of the book – the first came out three years ago, and I remember reviewing it harshly, partly for its amateurish presentation, its bad writing, multiple small errors, etc. Most of these have been adequately addressed, I’m delighted to say, and (with one important doubt) I’m happy to recommend it, at least for the knowledgeable introductions to 36 “winemaking units”, or “pockets”, which describe the terroir as well as some of the resultant choices about viticultural practices. This, together with specific winery notes, makes for the bulk of the book, and is more substantial and extensive than appeared in the first edition.
The primary expertise in The Essential Guide comes from soil scientist Dawid Saayman, with Eben Archer the consultant on viticultural matters, and a number of other contributors.
The doubt comes with what seems to be the inherent dishonesty of the presentation of included and excluded wineries. The “How to use” introduction merely says that “selected top producers and their flagship wines” are looked at in each of the areas – but doesn’t point out that only producers that have paid to be there have been “selected”. This is misleading, and the book would have been better if the authors had been upfront about it – at least then there’d be some explanation of how, for example, visitors are guided (by map and written directions) around the delights of Franschhoek, with no mention of the area’s best producers (Boekenhoutskloof, Chamonix and Solms-Delta), or of many others of course.
The notes on each of the producers (mostly four to a page unless they paid a lot more) are good – not just the vapid fragments of puffery found in the Handbook, but useful and intelligent specific looks at terroir and winemaking matters.
The intended audience is a lot less clear with this book than with the Wine Tourism Handbook. Sadly, I suspect there are few except the most serious appreciators of wine who would want to be armed with this as they make a foray into the winelands. And the fact that so many important wineries are ignored and omitted entirely makes it pretty useless as a general guide. Nonetheless, there are short sections directly aimed at the (foreign) tourist and at the wine beginner, so that the tone is not uniformly high-minded – two pages on wine and chocolate pairing seems a bit odd and arbitrary in a book which is mostly about terroir, I’d have thought. The many photographs, by Jaap Scholten, are unfortunately mostly too small to serve any other function than colourfully breaking up the text – in this case less might have been more.
What a splendid book this could have been if it had been less driven by a desire to make lots of money quickly, and more driven by the urge to produce something really valuable! If all the important producers were included and characterised, rather than just those who paid, it would be indispensible to every serious drinker of South African wine. Perhaps no publisher could be found here to take on such a project, and that is the problem. It does seem that less and less is possible in the world unless it is based on advertising revenue in some way or another. Nonetheless I am glad to have this book, and congratulate the authors on having made such a qualitative leap in presentation since the first edition.
The Wine Tourism Handbook, 2010 edition, published by Monika Elias, R113
The Essential Guide to South African Wines: Terroir and Travel, by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit, Cheviot, Second edition 2009, 256 pages, R199