Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-01-2020

In these times of pandemic and uncertainty, I’ve found some respite in reading travel books. Being stuck at home for months on end, I have spent a lot of time letting my mind wander as I plan and lust for travel in for post-pandemic times.

As a lover of South Africa and its wines, I was excited to read through Jim Clarke’s new book “The Wines of South Africa.” It has now been six years since my first and only trip to South Africa, where I spent three weeks checking out my three favorite things: waves, wine and wildlife. While reading Jim’s helpful book, I found myself revisiting so many amazing memories, and wishing to make more during future South Africa trips.

Jim Clarke is a writer, educator and all-around South African wine guru. He first traveled to South Africa in 2006, one what would be one of many trips as he delved into the people and places in this dynamic wine scene. Since 2013, he has worked as U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa, the trade group that organizes and supports exports of South African wine. I’ve met Jim at trade events over the years — he always in his dapper fedora hat, me always in my less dapper newsie cap — and he is such a knowledgeable, personable, genuine guy, a great person to write this important book.

In the introduction, Clarke reflects on being impressed with the diversity and potential of the South African wine scene during his first trip: “this was not simply an emerging wine industry, but an industry reborn.”

“Since around 2008, more and more producers have been allowing the country’s terroir to represent itself unmasked and without affectation,” Clarke writes. “The peaks of South African wine are higher, and the clumsy wines of the past are bygones, or at least as rare as they are in other modernized wine-producing countries.”

The first chunk of the book is a fascinating history of winemaking in South Africa. It is such a complex and complicated history, that I won’t attempt to summarize portions of it here. Suffice it to say, from 1659 onward, Clarke offers a lot to learn, and he does a great job weaving this history into the complex issues facing contemporary South Africa.

In a section devoted to “transformation and other contemporary issues,” Clarke is frank and sensitive in his discussion of the lasting effects of racism and apartheid on the wine industry. He writes of South African winemaking being “deeply tied together with the country’s broader history, which embodies both a pioneering spirit and deeply colonial, racist attitudes and policies,” and highlights the importance of an honest discussion of the country’s history of structural racism in order to make change and progress.

The section on the “structures, regulations and institutions of South African wine” is a helpful analysis of the complexities and unique elements of the country’s wine industry. Far more than a dry recitation of rules, Clarke provides a lot of details that should be interesting to consumers and helpful for folks in the trade.

I really geeked out on the geography and climate portion of the book, which is detailed and great for reference. The vast differences in regional topography, soil and climates in South Africa has long fascinated me, and it makes for interesting reading.

After a summary of the leading grape varieties and wine styles, Clarke moves into profiles of different winegrowing regions. Unlike a lot of straight-up reference books or tourist guides, this isn’t an exhaustive list of producers or places to visit. For each region, he summarizes what makes the region unique, how its history relates to the current wine scene, and highlights some of the major players. It was a lot of fun revisiting all of my favorite producers, but I also learned a lot and heard many producers for the first time. If you’re looking to dig further into South African wines and, like me, prefer having something tangible to refer to – this paperback is a solid buy.

South African wine has been on a long, upward hike toward more global recognition, and this book chronicles how we got to this point in the life of South African wine. It’s definitely worth a read for any fans, anyone planning travel, or anyone in the wine trade who wants to hone their knowledge on South Africa’s dynamic wine scene.

“The Wines of South Africa” by Jim Clarke
U.S. paperback price: $39.95.
Publisher: Infinite Ideas
Available at Amazon Books and Barnes & Noble
Released July 2020

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