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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES #203 (article first published : 2008-08-25)

Like many other people who are interested in wine, I have been amused by a dispute between a prominent Cape wine producer and Platter’s South African Wines, the standard guide to wines in this part of the world.

The book, an annual publication, was started by John Platter in 1981 and the 2008 edition is the twenty-eighth. It has grown from 119 pages at the outset to 606 pages now. The current edition covers nearly 6,000 South African wines and it is a massive compendium. Information about each wine producer includes address, a brief history, details of wines produced and total output, and details of facilities offered (visits, tastings, sales, restaurants, etc).

And it includes an assessment of each wine, with ratings ranging from five stars (superlative) to one star (very ordinary). These assessments are made by a panel of 15 tasters, many of whom have passed examinations to qualify as Cape Wine Masters.

John Platter sold the guide some years ago to a business company. The book is a best-seller, with about 30,000 copies sold every year, and it is presumably highly profitable.

The other party, as the lawyers say, is Peter de Wet, owner of the Excelsior estate at Robertson. The De Wets have owned this farm since 1870; Peter is fifth generation. More than a century ago they bred ostriches. Ostrich feathers went out of fashion and Excelsior (the name means superior, elevated) became a cattle and horse-breeding farm and eventually a wine estate. Today it is a big operation, producing seven different wines with a total annual output of 175,000 cases, two-thirds of it red and some of it exported.

The current edition of Platter is lukewarm about Excelsior. It awarded the estate’s 2006 vintage cabernet sauvignon only one and a half stars and described it, in typical winespeak, as “hot country ripeness and contrasting racy freshness, gawky tannins and hot alcohol finish”.

Understandably, this angered Peter de Wet. “Not even the spitting bowl gets one and a half stars”, he told the Johannesburg newspaper The Times. “I invited Platter’s to come to my farm for another tasting. This time they were blindfolded. I had my cabernet and two others that were rated three stars. Mine got three and a half stars and the other two got two and a half each”.

The Times reports that some other dissatisfied winemakers, including Nederburg’s Razvan Macici, are considering withholding their wines from review in Platter, and it quotes the publisher of the book as saying in reply that “the Platter guide is exactly that: a guide, not a competition”.

In the interests of scientific research I bought a bottle of Excelsior cabernet sauvignon, 2006 vintage, which my wife and I shared over dinner. Here are our comments: Dark, rich colour. Initially quite sharp on the palate, but filling out in the glass to a nice mellow taste. Strong and very attractive blackcurrant flavour. Good aftertaste. Alcohol content 14,4 percent. I would have given the wine three and a half stars, and at R37 a bottle in Durban it is a good buy, in my opinion.

I have sympathy for the Platter tasters --- you can’t please all the people all the time --- and their extravagant language is a constant source of entertainment. Here are some examples: “tingling white pepper and piercing pimento notes”; “baked apple and some complicating brown spice”; “all curves and succulent berries”; “pineapple and guava tones, undemanding whistle-wetter”; “explosion of orange marmalade and clove”.

One can only marvel at the fortitude of the 15 tasters who get through nearly six thousand wines from different cellars. And there does seem to be a slight lack of enthusiasm about the big and famous names such as Nederburg (1,3 million cases a year), Fleur du Cap (200,000 cases a year) and Simonsvlei (500,000 cases a year).

Popularity is not necessarily a recommendation for these refined palates. South Africa’s biggest selling cork-closed wine gets two and a half stars. It is Graca. – Michael Green




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