If only Tim James had written this book about South African wine two years ago, before we spent many hours researching the producers, appellations, and wine history for our report on The Wines of South Africa. Having done that research, we have a profound appreciation for James’ contribution in this detailed, comprehensive account of South African wine. Anyone planning a trip to South Africa or simply wanting to know a lot more about its wine industry is strongly encouraged to read this book.
The content of this book is similar to others that the University of California press has published on diverse wine regions of the world. It provides a survey of the terroir, the grapes, and the principal wineries of South Africa. It does an especially effective job of analyzing how over-regulated grape and wine markets adversely affected quality in the decades preceding liberalization towards the end of the 20th century.
For its relatively small size, South Africa’s wine country has surprisingly varied terroirs ranging from cool, windswept seaside to the sunny, hot interior and high altitude sites in the mountains. Growers have learned to plant varieties suited to these different terroirs and microclimates, and the quality of their grapes and the resulting wines have continued to improve over time, especially since the end of apartheid in 1994. James discusses in detail the diverse terroirs, the different varieties being planted, and the history of wine development since Jan van Riebeeck first produced wine at the Cape in 1659.
While the origins of South African wine have been written about quite extensively, its more recent history is less well known, especially the heavily regulated market that existed under apartheid. James explains this market, the extremely important role of the KWV cooperative, and how they adversely affected incentives for producers to make quality wine. When apartheid ended and South Africa was once again able to freely export its wines, it found itself behind the curve, both technically and market-wise. Australia, Argentina, and Chile were already exporting vast quantities of wine from the New World, making it difficult for South Africa to gain a foothold.
The book goes on to present the key wineries in each of South Africa’s appellations, giving their history and principal wines. However, James doesn’t go into detail in terms of viticulture and winemaking and provides only brief descriptions of the wines themselves. The reader needs to refer to our report, or to South Africa’s wine Bible, the John Platter Guide, for more detailed, current wine evaluations.
Wines of the New South Africa makes an important contribution to our knowledge about South African wine. However, I found one important topic missing—a Tim James detailed look to the future. Where are the new vineyards located? Are new clones and rootstocks being planted? Who are the exciting, new winemakers? What are they doing to improve quality? In short, what is the future for premium South African wine? As we noted in our own report, there are many reasons to look at South African wine with considerable optimism. It would be interesting to know more about what someone with Tim James’ depth of knowledge thinks.