The Oxford Companion and the Swartland Revolution

I’ve bought every edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine (edited by the indubitably great, extraordinarily productive, rather formidable Jancis Robinson; with the ever-increasing assistance of the approaching-those-qualities Julia Harding now acknowledged in modest prominence) since the first in 1994. And I’m more than a little proud to say that my assistance has been graciously acknowledged in the past two, though the main credit for the South African entries must go to John Platter, who was responsible for the contributions in the first one, and to Michael Fridjhon who has been primarily responsible for updating the entries (and sometimes correcting them, and sometimes altering emphasis, including to the early dismissive notes on pinotage, for example).

OCWJust the other day I received my copy of the recently published fourth edition. It’s been quite a wait – the third appeared in 2006. What’s to say? Despite Google and the resources of the internet, it’s wonderfully welcome, though I know that I have changed even more than the world of wine since 1994: I’m no longer as likely to take the book into my bath and read it (now wearing glasses!), virtually from cover to cover, as I did back then – and that’s, sadly, not because I know so much more these days that I don’t need to (I’ve probably forgotten more about wine than I remember), but because, I suppose, of a somewhat reduced appetite for information and knowledge, if not for understanding.

Nonetheless, I did find the irresistible temptation to surf quickening, once I’d decided to start at one of the more inviting new entries (“minerality”). Quite apart from all the revisions and recastings of entries, sometimes very significantly updated, there are, in fact, 300 new ones, which are handily listed at the front. Looking now at that list again, it does seem unlikely that I’ll rush to discover all there is worth knowing (or at least enough) about “Cabernet Gernischt” or “Wine Group, the”. Though probably I should. And I doubt if I will long resist the invitation to go to “horses” (huh?) and “sensitivity”, and “qvevri” is where I’m heading as soon as I’ve posted this, having recently had my first wine made in one.

Apparently this fourth edition is “less than 4% longer that the third edition in terms of the total number of words”. Is the paper a bit flimsier, with more show-though, or is that just my jaundiced imagination? The tome admittedly looks pretty similar as an object. Certainly one aspect of the printing is more problematic, unless I just have a bad copy, in that the pinkness of the prefaratory and appendix pages doesn’t reach the edges, which I find very annoying! There are still a number of full-page colour photos serving, I suppose, a decorative purpose, though I’m still not sure why authors and publisher can’t bring themselves to decide that this is a reference work, not a picture book.

But seriously, folks (if I may call you that), if you’re interested in wine, you simply can’t do without the Oxford Companion to the subject – though if you have the previous edition, and are too poor to find the necessary R794 it costs on to buy the fourth, I dare say you could survive for a while without being laughed at for your ignorance and out-or-dateness. But you won’t easily find such a neat discussion of minerality, and will be at a distinct disadvantage at the chattier wine events without having consulted what I’m quietly confident will be the definitive last word on horses and wine.

Incidentally, to finish on a parochial note, a perfectly respectable number of those 300 new entries refer to South African wine regions not previously included. I notice Elim, Franschhoek, Swartland, Wellington and Western Cape.

Sadly, very sadly, however, the nice note on Swartland (“Fashionable wine-producing district…”) is already out of date in one minor respect (print can’t compete with the internet here!). It concludes by noting that there is “an annual wine festival known as the Swartland Revolution”. Change that to “was”. Just last night, at a meeting of the organisers, it was decided to quit while still far ahead, to abandon the Revolution and focus all their considerable energies and flair on building and advancing the cause of the Swartland Independent Producers. I’m certain that SIP will be mentioned in the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion.

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