Helping to fill the new Platter

© Cape Times Friday 16th November 2012

This year was the first time I’ve tasted for the Platter Wine Guide. This institution in the wine world (and not just the South African wine world either) celebrates its 33rd year this year – a far cry from something started on the dining room table of John and Erica Platter back in 1980. They took on the then Herculean-task of tasting 1,250 wines (as opposed to the more than 7,000 currently shared amongst 18 tasters) rating them, reviewing the farm and providing a fascinating snapshot of South Africa’s wine history. The oldest edition I have been able to find is 1985 and I love flicking through it, to see which winemaker started their career where, which farms are still going and which have changed hands and overall, to see the change in focus from a country still very much in awe of the Old World of European wines, to a more confident and assured wine industry today.

Some of the facts and stats are hilarious – in 1985 for example, there were only 5 Chardonnays made in South Africa – one of those was made by Chardonnay-gurus Hamilton Russell, but was labelled only as Grand Vin Blanc! On the other hand, 39 cellars made a Rhine Riesling (including Pinotage and red wine specialists Kanonkop) whilst a further 55 made a Cape Riesling. Interestingly enough, Cinsaut was made by more than 30 cellars, something which has sadly dwindled down to 6 in the current guide, and the number of Steens (aka Chenin Blanc) of all styles covers a full two pages of the listings, far too numerous to count.

As Platter has expanded over the years, so has the need for additional tasters and a mammoth web of people and technology in order to produce the guide on time. All tasters are asked to declare any interests in wineries allocated to them for tasting – I couldn’t taste for wineries who had sent students on my WSET wine courses, as well as ones who employ my husband as a consultant – and there are strict controls about getting second opinions if the rating you feel a wine deserves differs too widely from previous scores. Every time I sat down to taste, I had to ‘re-calibrate my palate’ using the little control sample bottles we were supplied with – a highly useful exercise to remind yourself where you are on the scale on any particular day – and all my notes and opinions had to be recorded in a huge amount of detail on an intranet database, something which was always going to be a struggle for Luddites like me.

Did I do a good job? It’s hard to tell because the Platter is a guide and not an absolute dictat as to taste and quality, so it is impossible to say if my ratings are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I certainly had a good strike rate of 5 star nominations with 5 out of my 8 suggestions getting the nod when blind-tasted by the rest of the tasters, but I am equally sure that there are plenty who will argue for and against lots of the other wines on my list. But here are a few of the things I’ve learnt from my first year tasting for Platter. Firstly, that you fixate on the Five Stars and ignore the value category at your peril – there are some stonkingly-good wines out there with smiley faces indicating ‘Exceptionally drinkable and well-priced.’ Secondly, that the team behind the scenes deserve huge respect for painstakingly recording every single skipped vintage, every screwcapped wine, every sustainable certification to help make the guide the comprehensive document that it is. And lastly that however comprehensive and painstaking it may be, it’s still just a guide. Read it, enjoy it, use it for phone numbers, wedge the back door open with it, smack a mozzie against the wall with it – whatever. Just remember that every time you slavishly treat it as a Bible and don’t trust your own taste in wine-drinking and wine-buying, you do yourself, and the Platter team, a huge disservice. Trust your tastebuds – they’re the best guide you’re ever going to get!