Book reviews 2015 – Africa, China and an ebook


7 January 2016  Tam's 20 entertaining and informative book reviews have been so enthusiastically received by members that we wanted to share a collection of them as part of our Throwback Thursday series. It was extremely difficult to choose which one but here are her views on three very different but equally heartfelt recent publications on our favourite topic. 

5 January 2016 For links to all of Tam's reviews of wine books published in 2015, see this guide

My Kind of Wine 
People, places, food and stories 

John Platter
PawPaw Publishing

He had me with the second sentence of the Author's Notes: 'I have attempted to moderate the levels of gush...' I love you, John Platter. Not because you moderate the gush, although I applaud that (as someone who battles with the same problem), but because you want to gush.

There is a trend, these days, for much criticism to be levelled at wine writers who write with immoderate enthusiasm. Raving about a wine is très déclassé. You are very cool indeed if you critique with an insouciant shrug, and when the highest praise from your pen is 'interesting'. I'm not promoting abject adoration for every bottle of wine, but reserve can run very close to indifference, and there are times when I find subjective enthusiasm as refreshing as a vin de soif. Sod sophistication. (Perhaps I can say that because I'm African, très très déclassé, and biased.)

He had me, again, when he confessed that 'this is not a systematic – much less comprehensive – tour of the wine lands. It's a ramble.' So, kick off your shoes and lay down your notepad, pour a glass of wine, put one hand against the wall to brace yourself for the emotion, and open this book.

The third best thing about this book (apart from gushing and rambling) is that this is not a book on the best wines in South Africa. John and Erica Platter were the original palates and journalistic brains behind the eponymous Platter's Guide (now 35 years old, owned by Diners' Club International and edited by Philip van Zyl), which was John Platter and his formidable team doing everything this book doesn't: rating, systematically and comprehensively, all the wines of South Africa. My Kind of Wine is radically different. This is the behind-the-scenes Platter, the heart behind the head.

Platter has taken an unexpected route with this ramble. The first 27 chapters are 'wine stories'. About grapes varieties. Not people, or regions, or wineries. Grapes. Of course, the story of each grape variety is woven with the threads of the people, the soil, the history, the wines, the crazy philosophies, everything that has contributed to give that particular grape (or, in the case of one or two chapters, wine style) a home and character in South Africa.

Cabernet Franc, a grape variety you wouldn't immediately link with South Africa, gets a rollicking tale that incorporates Norma, baboons, ponies, picking eyes, zen zones and murmuring tannins. And if you're reading that sentence wondering what I've been smoking, you honestly need to read the book.

The chapter on Chenin Blanc includes the subtitles of 'Oh hell yes!' and 'Oh hell no!'. With brutal honesty Platter tackles the journey from dop-en-dam (brandy and water) to Steen to boiled-sweets young wines, to over-oaked wines, to the gorgeously complex savoury-sweet Chenins that the best winemakers are nurturing today. The greats get a mention (Ken Forrester, Meinert, Alheit, David Sadie, Jordan, DMZ) and then, chucked in the middle of everything, is Jacques de Klerk, his Reverie Chenin. Never heard of it. Sounds wonderful. Koen Roose-Vandenbroucke (could you make that name up?) treats his Riesling vines 'with unwavering neglect' and his visitors with deep suspicion. Reyneke was a 'fully paid-up Rasta' at one point, whose tasting room is now imbued with the 'whiff of lactating Nguni cattle'. Donovan Rall, whose white wine I fell in love with in 2011, is found striding – 2 metres tall – up the street in Riebeek Kasteel. Giorgio Dalla Cia, an Italian lost in Stellenbosch, tramps the forests of Stellenbosch with Platter, searching for mushrooms, 'resignedly proud of his portliness'.

The wine stories focus on a handful of producers making magic with that particular variety, but at the end of each chapter is an AND list: all the other guys and gals making a wonderful wine with that particular grape, each one getting a beautifully uncool, refreshingly unrated review. No scores, no stars, no stripes. The book is simply a love letter; John Platter's love affair with South African wine. It includes, at random, the greats, the rising stars, the quiet humble ones, the people you never heard of, the icons complete with their straight-accented sound-bites (example Eben Sadie: 'In a steel tank it's buggered, life snuffed out, wine in a coffin'). It's an egalitarian sweep of the Cape, forsaking hierarchy and celebrating everything good.

But it's not all gush and gusto. It's Platter, after all. With his keen eye for detail and with his finger on the pulse of South African wine for nearly 40 years, he was hardly likely to publish a simple joyride through the vineyards. There's a chapter on New Wave (slightly old hat, I might add, for our readers), and a chapter on Advocates – pitting Rosa Kruger against Robert Parker is a bold if slightly mad idea that only someone who'd spent a long time in Africa would even contemplate. I won't tell you who comes off better.

'My take on' is a chapter that starts with 'If I were president for a day ...' and it crossed my mind that I'd quite like my boss to write her version of that chapter. Platter at this point (and I can just imagine him at this point on a wide stoep, a dusty sun settling down burning orange on the horizon, the sound of crickets) pulls up a couple of soap boxes and beats a few drums: alcohol, blind tastings, old vines, glasses, barrels, biodynamics, tasting notes ... I'm slightly disappointed that it's here Platter feels he needs to join in the self-righteous side-show that an increasing number of wine writers subscribe to: that of mocking other people's tasting notes. We could do with less of that from everyone, but perhaps it comes across as particularly discordant in a book that's been written with such a palpable lack of snobbery and superiority on every other page.

The last 40 pages or so are taken up with gloriously photographed recipes (to be fair, the entire book is a visual feast – the food photography, in addition to all that, feels like sheer gluttony), of which I've earmarked more than a few. Erica Platter, who hatched the whole idea of this book and then edited it with the precision of a surgeon, has added the little vintner's tale behind each recipe. Abrie Bruwer's warning about using inferior oil is characteristically blunt. I won't repeat it here. The book finishes with 'a snifter' – Upland Organic Estate Potstill Brandy, to be exact. Distilled by an in-vitro-fertilisation-dye-inventing Ondersterpoort vet and his engineer wife in a 'cocoon of charmingly unkempt organic self-sufficiency', where they are currently mourning the death of Guinevere, their duck-hunting raptor. You simply couldn't concoct this if you tried.

A Decent Bottle of Wine in China
Chris Ruffle
Earnshaw Books
£10.31$15.35 (both Kindle prices)

Chris Ruffle, portrayed variously as eccentric millionaire, Shanghai-based financier, pioneer, scandal-rocked fund manager, and Yorkshireman with a faux-Scottish castle in China, decided on what reads very much like a whim to spend US$1 million creating a wine estate from scratch in Shandong, eastern China. (In reality, it turned out to be rather more than that.)

Describing himself, in that pivotal May of 2004, as 'a wine novice. I enjoyed drinking wine ... but knew nothing beyond this', Ruffle and his Taiwanese wife, Tiffany (Chang Ti-fang), were in Shanxi on a business trip and visited Grace Vineyards. Over a wine-tasting lunch, St-Émilion-born winemaker Gérard Colin mentioned a beautiful valley where he would love to plant a vineyard and reckoned it could be done for just US$1 million. A year later, Treaty Port Vineyards (Chinese name Denglong Hongjiu, very roughly translated as 'rising dragon red wine') had 14 ha (35 acres) of bulldozed terraces, fertilised and ploughed vineyard land, promises of roads and utilities from the government, a bank account, an office in a run-down village hall, and construction on a castle had begun. Ruffle is not a man to hang around.

It is without doubt one of the most bizarre wine stories I have read.  Tangled Vines seems straightforward by comparison, if a little bloodier. Having grown up in Africa and with family still there, he found endemic corruption, wildly capricious bureaucracy and daily transactions greased with bribes not remotely unfamiliar, but Ruffle's almost careless descriptions of the lengths they had to go to and the hoops they had to jump through had my eyes on stalks. Designer handbags (complete with invoice to prove they were not fake), mini-vanloads of presents, subsidised trips to Australia, and endless rounds of banquets accompanied by what sounded like wincingly large volumes of alcohol were routinely employed every step of the way, from getting permission for a vineyard in the first place, to renting land, to importing vines, to negotiating taxes. The challenges of the first ten years read like a litany of disasters: rain and floods of biblical proportions; essential equipment getting lost in transit (for months); mildew; rotten grapes; re-burying coffins; staff dying, feuding, absconding with funds, and getting fired; frozen bank accounts; unusable stainless-steel tanks, highways through vineyards, disease, and delays caused by the Olympic Games, of all things. You have to be a fairly resilient sort when your first vintage, down to 5 tons from a predicted 25, can only be described as 'frankly unpleasant red wine'. You have to be even more resilient when, five years after planting the first vines, just as you're starting to look at commercial bottling, your entire harvest is wiped out. Not one grape harvested.

Having studied Chinese at Oxford in the late seventies (long before it was considered useful) and then lived and worked more or less continuously in Asia for 20-odd years, Ruffle is obviously better equipped than most to deal with the labyrinthine cultural complexities and the language barriers that would have defeated most Englishmen embarking on a project of this nature. It obviously helps to be very bright, super-confident, stubborn, and a fund manager: the budget for bribery on that scale, let alone for building castles, cutting terraces into virgin land, and zero cash flow for six years, needs to be generous. His wife calls the Treaty Port project his 'rural charity'.

The book is a fascinating insight into the culture of China and the precipitous mountain of bureaucratic red tape. It's a personal journey of bright-eyed naivety (and ignorance) to somewhat weary stoicism. The one thing it isn't is a love affair with wine. At times it is surprisingly honest, almost confessional, about the mistakes, even his 'stupidity' (Ruffle's word, not mine) along the way. He writes about the overwhelming number of things that have gone wrong year after year, the spiralling costs, the struggle to produce any wine at all, without a shred of self-pity. But when it comes to the shortcomings of others, Ruffle is equally merciless. His first winemaker, aforementioned Gérard Colin, was fired 'in a disagreement over expenses, conflicts of interest and time-keeping ... he wasn't terribly reliable'. The second one was suspected of skewing a report on the Treaty Port vineyards. The third one was described as 'histrionic' and his winemaking skills encapsulated thus: 'I will never be able to forget his Sauvignon with Ginseng root. Unfortunately.' The boyfriend of a university friend, the first paying guests, is described as unpleasant and ill-humoured. He claims an old family friend blackmailed him – completely unrelated to either the vineyard or the castle – and he had to fork out $400,000 to settle out of court. There are so many stories of the misdeeds of others that you start to wonder whether every single person who'd ever done him wrong is named and shamed in this book as a kind of revenge.

There is also no mistaking the boast. Not only for having built what some might consider a vulgar Scottish-style castle in China (he says one of his most satisfying moments is watching visitors' jaws drop as they see the castle for the first time), and for planting vineyards against all odds, but in having, he surely over-claims, pioneered wine in Shandong. Despite the fact that so many other wineries operate in that corner of China, Ruffle writes, 'I have been an effective pioneer in terms of attracting other investors. Lafite went ahead and planted its neighbouring plot ...' He makes much of the fact that Lafite's Chinese winery is his neighbour, and that in fact Lafite's first-ever Chinese vintage was made in his cellar in 2013 – all 1.7 tons. Although when Eric Kohler, Lafite's technical director, stayed at the castle on one visit, his attitude was 'politely disdainful'. I suspect his disdain was somewhat diminished the day he learned that his vineyards, too, were going to be carved up by the new highway...

Despite repetitions in several places and a muddle of tenses  - both due, I suspect, to having written the book over several years (and not had Julia Harding as editor) –  it's a well-written book. Several stories made me laugh out loud, others had me shaking my head in disbelief. Some anecdotes seem irrelevant, and I really lost heart a bit during the pages and pages devoted to the minutiae of the restoration of his real Scottish castle (yes, he has two, but only one in China), and yes, there is more than an element of vanity, but it is still a story like no other.

The Wines and Winemakers of Languedoc-Roussillon

Gorley's guide 2 – vineyards, people and places of the
wilder south of France
Peter Gorley
Hamilton John Publishing
£12.99, €18.99, $15.99 as an ibook, and as a pdf

Just one ebook this year – quite surprising, in this digital era of ours. Richard has many interesting observations to make on ebooks and wine books in general that he will be sharing soon, but there is a smidgeon of irony in the fact that the only ebook that landed on my desk was written by one of the older authors in this crop (no offence, Mr Gorley!). What didn't surprise me, however, was to read the following in the opening lines: 'When I was writing the first edition of my Guide, the UK’s celebrated wine writer Jancis Robinson MW (and now OBE) suggested I put it up on the Internet. That was in the year 2000. It's taken me 15 years to follow her good advice!'

This is, as suggested above, the second edition of Gorley's guide to the Languedoc-Roussillon. The first one was a ring-bound paperback published in 2002 with 150 wineries and 12 routes. This one features a whopping 500 wineries over 15 possible routes.

The 15 routes determine the structure of the book, starting with a colour-coded map to give the reader an overview of where each route is set. Gorley has neatly split the routes by area, starting with the north-east corner of the Gard, moving roughly south west through the Hérault and Aude, and finishing in the furthest corner of the Pyrénées-Orientales. Each chapter begins with a map of the area, each winery clearly labelled using a numbered key. I had originally assumed the numbers were consecutive along a driving route – I am less sure now, having examined each map in detail. There must be some kind of logic to the order but it isn't completely clear to me and the author is not spelling it out. However, as the routes include anything from 16 to 48 wineries, this is not '15 day trips in the Languedoc-Roussillon' – indeed, you'd struggle to get through even the shortest route in a week unless you tasted with militant single-mindedness and at breakneck speed. And if that was the case, you'd have missed the point entirely.

Gorley has a way of making you feel as though he's whizzing you down the A9 to take you to some places that he loves. It's written in such a chatty style, casual, unapologetically personal. He describes St-Chinian, 'a bright blue New Holland tractor easing its way out; kids hurling themselves around a hillside doing cyclo-cross; a cycling club in bright kit whizzing by ...' and it's as if you're sitting in the front passenger seat of his car, listening to him rattle on about Cyril Bourgne, whose grandfather was a coffee grower in Africa, while he waves at Patricia Bettoni passing by in her elegant sunglasses at the wheel of a tractor. He also writes with quiet humour, so subtle you could easily miss it: 'Alternatively, go east to Beaucaire (ignoring the cement works, though in the evening they glow rose-red ...)'.

Without following too much of a strict format, the winery write-ups start with contact details (address, website and email address if they exist, and phone numbers). There is then a little story about the estate, which ranges from very detailed to little more than perfunctory – but what I find most interesting is how this book seems to be marked with kindness. Obviously he hasn't picked wine estates that he thinks are awful, but he's found something encouraging to say about even the slightly more ordinary estates. There are useful comments on wines tasted and others made but not tasted. Where he hasn't been able to taste any wines, he's included feedback from others. The tasting notes are not for a particular vintage, although he'll usually give an indication of when they were tasted – they are obviously meant to be a more general guide as to the character and quality of each cuvée rather than a review. Gorley has wisely, I think, left any form of scoring out although it's very obvious to see from his notes which wines he thinks are special.

The whole guide is punctuated with the photographs, some of them breathtakingly beautiful – most of them taken by Peter Gorley himself. But what I particularly loved were the stunning abstract paintings of vines and wines and landscapes done by his artist wife, Elizabeth Hannaford. How to turn a travel guide into something a little extraordinary ...

If the guide lacks anything, I feel, it's that there could be more detail on places to eat, wine bars, places to stay and places to buy wine. For the wine traveller, personal recommendations that are good, local, and off the obvious tourist track are priceless. Gorley does list a handful of places for each route, but they are not mapped and only very few get a comment beyond that listing. A rough indication of prices for the wines would also be useful (even just as simple as cheap/mid/expensive). There were also a few places where the editing looked a little shaky.

But I'm nitpicking. Gorley's unrepentant love of the region shines through every page: 'I love this wild, heretical part of France, so I can’t really be accused of objectivity'. His introduction finishes thus: 'Note: Please use Gorley’s Guide 2 responsibly and in moderation.' I'd counsel otherwise. Use it to excess.