Cape Vineyards: An intriguing social history of the grape

2011-07-06 00:00

THE authors of this intriguing book have set out to record the “social history of the grape” in South Africa, much of it previously obscure. Viticulture produces wine, table grapes and raisins, but is more generally regarded as part of the allure of the Western Cape and its tourism industry. However, this book argues that overall, it has had a destructive historical influence.

For centuries, Cape wine and brandy were barely fit to drink, but vines were partial to the climate and the poor soil.

The grape’s early history was intimately connected with slavery, in more ways than one. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book is the extent to which the region’s ancestry is so thoroughly mixed as to make racial distinctions pointless.

Historically, the wine industry was characterised by poor labour practice, and the socially disastrous dop system (described in a chapter appropriately headed “Shadow of the vine”), both of which survive to this day, in various guises. A long-term effect is foetal alcohol syndrome. Vines like water, but not rain, and in recent years viticulture for table grapes and raisins has expanded on irrigated farms along the Gariep River, achieved with a significant degree of land reform and job creation.

This account is enlivened by interviews with workers and farmers, but the authors note an absence of the voices and pictures of labourers in the past. The general conclusion is that wine farming is, and has always been, marginal.

Climate change and fair trade protocols are complicating the picture further. The industry has created great wealth for some, poverty for many more, but it is essentially a matter of image and prestige.

An agronomist quoted in this book suggests that with food-security issues and modern farming methods, the land under vines could be put to better use. On the evidence of this history, he certainly has a point.

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