Book Review – Good in Appearance, Consistent Complexity and Undeveloped Structure
My WineRoute South Africa – Mike Froud (Map Studio, 2013) – R63
DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE – read more here. In considering how to review My WineRoute South Africa, I started to think how the ideal wine route guide would look to me. I am certainly thinking of a book that is light in character and rich in body. The style for me should be map-forwards rather than vineyard-forwards as I prefer to look to a wine region and then decide which estates to visit, rather than vice versa.
I’d be hoping for a vivid, approachable appearance that is bright in clarity, with depth and liveliness. The book needs to show interest in colour and layout, with good photographs. Tempting aromas of detail for each page would draw me closer. There’d be an obvious intensity of information about each wine producing area and the vineyards to explore. A second sniff and I would be teasing out each wine farm: its location (address, map reference and GPS coordinates); opening days and times; reputation for specific wines or other offerings; wine and pairing tastings; a brief history or owner story; and contact options and website. The complexity should not be overwhelming as I savour each page, with distinct consistency and balance in content. The volume should be faultless in accuracy, full in body of detail, elegantly structured, and quaffable to use and read. The index at the finish needs be sound and uncomplicated, generous and clean.
These descriptors are on my scoring sheet as I open the guide. My WineRoute starts well. A map of the Western Cape and beyond shows the wine regions, districts and wards. These are then listed, which rather repeats the same information in text form. The Top wine tasting panels that follow didn’t add much for me. Much more interesting, though the 2013 vintage doesn’t age well, were the Top 20 wines for each cultivar in wine-producer order. As ever, there’s no right or wrong here. These kind of listings ultimately are a matter of opinion. I was surprised not to see De Wetshof or Springfield mentioned under Chardonnay, Paul Cluver for Riesling, Delaire Graff for Cabernet Sauvignon or La Motte for Shiraz. I’d like also to have seen more than a single entry for Gewürztraminer, Grenache and Malbec. What about Cinsault or Pinot Gris/Grigio or even Sangiovese (Barbera is included)? There’s an interesting section after called ‘Bargain Buys’ that lists white wines under R80 and reds under R100.
The main body of the book is an A-Z listing of the Top 100 vineyards or ‘wine farms with the best track records’, from Allée Bleue Estate to Windmeul Kelder. Each fills a page that mostly scores well on my analysis sheet. There’s a consistent, colourful layout and approach. It includes inter alia: owner, history and background information, estate size and volume in text boxes; wines produced; opening times and contact details; restaurant and other attractions; a child-friendly rating; and colour photograph. All the content needed to pay a tasting visit is available in easy-to-access fashion. The choice of Top 100 vineyards intrigues and, as with the Top 20 wines, there are some puzzling additions and omissions. Jean Daneel, Sterhuis and Vilafonté wine farms don’t naturally come to mind. I looked for Babylonstoren, Backsberg and De Morgenzon, for example, but did not find. I couldn’t find any vineyards from Wolseley, Rawsonville or Worcester. The challenge for the author must forever be which wineries to leave out rather than which to put in. I’ll save further criticism as perhaps I shall one day be faced with the same dilemma for which there is no easy answer.
The final 40 pages of My WineRoute include a Directory of South African wine producers grouped according to: region; activity; where to sleep, eat and what to do; and regional maps. The maps unusually list vineyards by cultivar. It’s a different approach and one I am unsure of. This is because I am unlikely to think that I want to taste, say a Pinotage in the Stellenbosch District, and then choose 2 or 3 estates from the 18 listed. I am much more prone to decide I am going to spend the day in the Tulbagh/Worcester or Walker Bay area and then choose which wine farms to visit. I appreciate that space on the page is limited but, having found that DeWaal in Stellenbosch is good for Pinotage, it’s a mission finding it on the map. Some cross-referencing here would be a real time saver and much more user-friendly. ‘Good Day Trip’ (scenic drive with good winery options) and ‘When in a Hurry’ (if only time for 1 or 2 cellars) suggestions are indicated by colour-coded lines on each map though not linked to any other content.
As I savour the finish, I start to mull over my thoughts and analysis. My WineRoute scores largely well on appearance. The book is manageable in size and easy to take when travelling. The information is concise, consistent and clear in the A-Z listings but less so when it comes to the maps themselves. As I said at the start, I would prefer a map-forwards style. It would better have been structured by map by wine area, with the vineyard pages grouped by same location.
Whilst I nosed into the body, there were question marks in my mind. The Top SA Wine Rankings are time sensitive and so, whilst they were useful and relevant in 2013, they become less so as new vintages appear, winemakers change between estates, and new wines/cultivars gain (or lose) popularity and rating. There were some notable omissions and some unusual inclusions. Whilst I would not want every wine guide book – ‘Exploring The Cape Winelands’, ‘Wineries of the Cape’ and ‘Winelands of the Cape’, for example – to contain the same top 100 or so vineyards, they should highlight the top ones. I wondered on reflection if the listings were down to those wine farms that paid for inclusion.
My WineRoute fell short on the palate. The pages at the finish were not as crisp or developed as I would have liked. The content was somewhat disjointed and not as integrated or rounded as it could have been. Greater clarity and a smoother, less angular, approach would be better. My greatest misgiving is that for a guide entitled ‘My WineRoute’ it is not structured around a number of wine routes. The only routes shown were the ‘Good Day Trip’ and ‘When in a Hurry’ options that didn’t fit either the map or connect anywhere else.
The book would have been so much more user friendly if the approach had met its title. The busy Stellenbosch District could, for example, have been broken down into 9 or 10 recommended wine routes, each one linking half a dozen or so estates with their information. This limits the utility and very purpose of My WineRoute. The guide must be a tool for use rather than rest by a wineglass on the coffee table. That said, there is a mine of valuable information contained in it. It is excellent value at R63 which is little more than the price of a decent map. Buy it if you enjoy lists and researching your wine trips. You’ll need the time to do so to find some gems to visit to taste their wines.