Toque takes on Anorak – part II

As advertized, the second part of the story that appeared as Head on a Platter in the February edition of Wine Tourism News. Meanwhile, another criticism of the tasting methodology (mis)used by the guide appears on winenews.

m3 Toque takes on Anorak   part II

This awarding of Platter’s 2008 stars “by the mad to the glad” are the most controversial yet. While anoraks will debate till the grapes fall off the vine whether the Woolworth’s Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from Cape Point is a five star stunner or a one star fault as a WINE tasting panel declared (answer: both right, it’s a matter of preference), it’s in the middle of the batting order where the wheels seem to have seriously fallen off, to mix metaphors. Two examples make the point.

The Cabernet Sauvignon from Roberston producer Excelsior is the biggest selling single varietal SA wine in the US. Platter’s rating of this “always pleasing” drop halves in the 2008 edition – from 3 to 1.5 stars (translation: casual quaffing) – as the vintage advances from 2005 to 2006. This is the verdict of a single palate, offered by one of the most recent additions to the tasting team of Platter’s pundits. Surely such a radical reassessment (halving the rating) should trigger an automatic review by at least one other taster.

The downward revision occurs in spite of 2006 being declared “excellent and largely problem free” as opposed to the “particularly challenging” 2005 by the guide – an assessment producer Peter de Wet agrees with as both he and US importer André Shearer regard their 2006 Cabernet as the best since 2001 – an assessment I certainly agree with.

Shearer pulls no punches with his comments: “it is what I happen to think is going RIGHT with superb value, stylish SA Cabernet. I generally taste SA Cab that is FAR too austere and has that ‘hint’ of green on the finish. You won’t make the cut in the highly lucrative Wine-By-The-Glass market in the US with anything less than phenolically ripe Cab. With NO disrespect intended, I have not read Platter’s in years & years. A 1.5 star rating does not even surprise me. If the vast majority of SA consumers think our slightly green Cabs are great, then why would that not apply to the majority of the panelists/reviewers? I think our wine industry still needs a HUGE shake down, which I have been waiting for since I entered the industry more than 16 years ago. Sadly, I still don’t see the shakedown looming. We are so blessed by nature, but sadly I find that the saying, ‘there are none so blind as those who will not see’ still applies widely to SA wine.”

At the other end of the production spectrum, the 1000 bottle Lismore Chardonnay 2006, confirms the problem. It was rated “good, everyday drinking” by Platter’s palate Michael Fridjhon who doubles as a director of Backsberg. His pedestrian 2½ star rating of Lismore is thus one producer assessing another, sighted, as Backsberg’s best rated wine is also a Chardonnay – in fact the Backsberg Chardonnay 03 won trophy for best white wine at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show last year – a competition owned by Fridjhon.

The rating raised a few eyebrows in the Overberg where the wine has achieved cult status among winemakers and wine lovers. Especially when you note it is made from Constantia grapes that rate much better on their own side of the mountain. The eponymous proprietor of Lisa’s Little Wine Shop in Kalk Bay (and others, including at least one other Platter’s pundit) disagree quite strongly with the assessment. As her e-mail newsletter puts it:

“If I criticize a critic, does that make me a critic too? I guess so, but I’m going to do it anyway. I think it’s worth the risk. The new Platter Guide 08 has recently been released. I always enjoy getting my new Platter, it’s got loads of good information, the maps are excellent and the info on the farms is great. It’s the star ratings I really have a problem with. A few months back we had a really beautiful Chardonnay tasted on the balcony.”

“Everyone who tasted it really enjoyed it and we sold out on the day. A few weeks later it went into a tasting with a bunch of winemakers with the same reaction. That same wine got 2½ stars in the 08 Platter Guide. That’s insulting to all the people who think it’s a brilliant wine. Thankfully my clients are not enslaved to ratings and have a clear idea of their own palate preferences. We understand that just because some wine judge didn’t like it, doesn’t mean much. In fact, since the judge in question and I seem to have opposite tastes, perhaps I should hunt down all the wines he didn’t like and check them out for the shop.”

This tale of two wines: Excelsior and Lismore, reinforces the perception of a bias against wines made on the wrong side of the mountain, even if the grapes are grown in hallowed ground. Sighted tastings are the most likely reason some producers do consistently well while others (supermarket brands and those unfashionably located) languish. With retailers and producers up in arms, who knows, the first decline in page count experienced by Platter’s 2008 might become a trend as the tide of taste turns to favour down-to-earth guides like Michael Olivier’s Crush! and ratings honestly or at least transparently, made. Consumers and most producers will certainly hope so.