The stars, and price, will tell you what wine to like

The dawn of the silly months means wine awards are handed out, proclamations made and, important for those on the marketing side of that industry, silver- and gold-coloured stickers allocated. This, they hope, will make their bottles just a tad more enticing to the passer-by wine buyer.

At the launch of the 36th edition of the Platter’s 2016 South African Wine Guide at the poncey Mount Nelson on a hot afternoon in the last week of October, thegathered hype and crowdmirrored expectations of a life-changing announcement.

In play: wines to be glorified with five stars in the legendary annual booklet.

In the end, the stardom announced would fill up nearly seven old-fashion wine cases of 12 in a bumper year – an indication, some say, that South Africa’s wineries do have better and lesser vintages (2014 was a good year).

The crowd cheered on and on, the industry patted itself on the back, the younger winemakers wondered whether they could add a few more rands to their selling prices, and the off-shore millionaires who had “invested” in local wine farms smiled.

The process to anoint the five-star wines took a different twist this year. All wines marked for 4.5 stars by individual tasters were submitted to a blind taste-off by teams. A sign of the times, but also, for some, an amusing contrivance in a field where taste – and, granted, expertise – pretends to be science. It had become a numbers game.

A week or so before the Platter party, the country’s oldest established medals and stickers, those signalling prestigious Veritas awards, were revealed at a black-tie bash. A smoothly run system of bureaucratic panel judging, category for category, had produced 45 “double golds”, the competition’s top accolades.

If gold and silver and, until a few years ago, dull bronze, were the desired accoutrements for wine bottles in pursuit of sales, a new sticker game came into play in the past year: the numbers game. Heaven forbid that you should get less than 90.

Fashion in wine is as mobile as any other, and for wine judges it is now the ability to suss the difference between a wine worthy of 91 (out of 100) and one of 92. The fad started in the faraway United States with a chap called Parker, and it has now invaded, if not the egos of wine arbitrators, the self-confident system in which they operate.

Christian Eedes, conceivably the country’s most accomplished wine judge, uses the numbers code in his annual reports on wine categories.

Shortly before the Platter announcements the other day, his three-man panel’s Prescient Chardonnay Report 2015 was delivered. In this, eight wines were valued to be worthy of 94, and two just missed it at 93. Altogether 29 scored 90 and above. Jolly good show, as they say. Number stickers well deserved.

Although cynics may giggle at this kind of cat-and-mouse number’s game, it paradoxically confirms the individuality of taste. Step back a moment and consider the concept of choice. We do it all the time. Why would one wine not be marginally preferable to, or slightly better than, another? It’s up to the taster and judge, whose evaluation we can accept, argue or reject. That’s the fun of wine.

Wine of the weekend
Paul Cluver Seven Flags
Chardonnay 2014

A top scorer in the Christian Eedes report: “Particularly elegant.” Five stars in the new Platter guide. A wine of great distinction. Pricey (R400) but among the finest you’ll ever drink.

Melvyn Minnaar
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