Arts and Culture

SA's best wines on a Platter

Tim James

The latest guide to South African wines might have some flaws, but it sets an international standard.

Raking in accolades: Chamonix was voted winery of the year and the Mullineux Family Syrah 2010 was chosen as the red wine of the year.

The Platter’s South African Wines 2013 guide was launched this week. For many local wine lovers it is the indispensable hand-holder when choosing judiciously, or having adventures among the bewildering complexity on offer.

For a few, Platter’s is marred by a rating process carried out by judges fully aware of the wine’s identity, unlike in competitions in which wines are assessed “blind”. This argument will rage on and the disadvantage of possible prejudice will be weighed against the advantage of knowing the pedigree and intention. But no competition pretends to Platter’s comprehensiveness.

Of course, prejudice is not that much help when dealing with a new wine and does not account for changes in reputation or ranking.

Twelve wineries in this edition received the guide’s highest accolade — a five-star rating — for one of their wines for the first time. Alheit Vineyards got five stars for Cartology 2011, mostly from old chenin blanc vineyards. It is a first for a winery with no established reputation and one few people have heard of.

A similar thing happened 10 years ago, in the 2003 edition, with the maiden outing of Sadie Family Columella. Now it is a famous wine and again got five stars this year.

In 2003, just 20 wines got the highest ranking, compared with a record 62 now. It is not, arguably, an unreasonable jump, given the undoubted general improvement in quality, although maybe the standard could be ratcheted up a little more for wines categorised as “superlative — a South African ­classic”.

Wines with no stars are tactfully called “somewhat less than ordinary”, but there are gratifyingly few of those.

Of 2003’s 20 five-star wines, two joined Columella in repeating the performance with their latest vintage: Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2011 and Nico van der Merwe’s Mas Nicolas 2007. Most of the others are still around at the top end, however.

Comparing the two editions also reveals how Platter’s does far more than simply reflect current conventional wisdom. Often, it gives the first public signal of a winery’s improvement or degeneration. Take the 2013 winery of the year, Chamonix, with the splendid tally of four five-star winners. Ten years ago, Chamonix’s best was three four-star wines; Gott­fried Mocke had only recently been appointed winemaker and viticulturist. Since then, the results of his fine work in the vineyards and cellar have been reflected in ever-higher ratings.

The guide is not only about top ratings, of course, but it is winners that attract attention. At their head are the wines of the year — the red and white wines performing best in a culminatory tasting at which the 16 judges who assessed the wines during the previous few months get to taste again, blind, the wines they have nominated for five stars.

The white wine of the year is Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest 2011. The equivalent red is Mullineux Family Syrah 2010 and, although Chris and Andrea Mullineux will be pleased, they could even be a little rueful about having been serious contenders for winery of the year once again. Three five-star wines both last year and this year and a total of seven in four years in Platter’s is a great and deserved achievement.

Platter’s also highlights, with little smiley faces, wines offering particular value at the more modest end, one of which becomes superquaffer of the year. Usually, somehow, it is a white, but in this edition it is a red from Muratie: Melck’s Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2011.

As a finger on the pulse of South African wine and as a meticulously and scrupulously edited (by veteran Philip van Zyl) assessment of just about all the country’s current releases, Platter’s is virtually indispensable for those interested in the wines grown at the foot of Africa and is generally admired, both locally and internationally.

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, as a Platter’s taster for many years  and an associate editor? Perhaps, but I have a few problems too, apart from disagreeing with some of my colleagues’ ratings, as they no doubt do with some of mine.

First, I think that the ratings have suffered inflation over the years and too many wines get ranked four stars and above. More importantly, I think the guide aims to do too much — too little space is given to considering the wines that are its focus and too much to information about things such as the wineries, industry and restaurants. The wall of tiny text is intimidating and the growing list of icons bewildering.

There are other quibbles but the fact remains, happily for us, that few national wine industries have the benefit of anything nearly as comprehensive and helpful as good old Platter’s.

Platter’s South African Wines 2013 will be available at a recommended retail price of R170 and as an app for Apple and Android devices. See wineonaplatter.com

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