Tosh and Burnt Brutes

Wine writers pray in a broad church. Last Saturday “Calamity” Jane MacQuitty had this to say about the recent tasting of Platter’s 5 star wines and runners-up in London: “widely regarded as the Cape’s crème de la crème, [they] proved to be a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment. Where there should have been oodles of the less-is-more elegance to which most top-drawer New World wine producers aspire, there was a plethora of ugly, burnt, murdererous 14.5 and 15 per cent brutes that were well nigh impossible to taste, let alone drink. Do not believe the pro-Cape tosh in other wine columns. Of the 63 wines I tasted, only 13 came through as winners.” I covered some of the tosh in the Financial Mail this week.

jancis Tosh and Burnt Brutes

John Platter’s wine guide, now in its third decade, is a national treasure.

Though Platter sold the guide 10 years ago to concentrate on reducing his golf handicap, rating wine is something of a family tradition: one Thomas Platter was already reporting in early 17th-century London on “endless inns… beer and wine shops for every imaginable growth, alicant, canary, muscatels, clarets, Spanish, Renish”, according to Peter Ackroyd’s London (Chatto & Windus, 2001).

One of Thomas’s successors as London wine commentator, Jancis Robinson (shown above), wrote from her weekly berth in the Financial Times at the end of March that she could think of ” no other country that has a single annual, comprehensive and definitive guide to the wines produced there” than SA, with its Platter guide.

In fact, for J R, “the pinnacle of vinous fame in SA is to be awarded five stars in Platter”.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the wines nominated for five-star glory are selected sighted, by a panel of 15 tasters (many with commercial interests), making sins of omission, like the Lismore Chardonnay 2006 and Eben Sadie’s Columella 2005, a real possibility.

Then there’s the chance of “cellar palate”: that warm feeling of self-delusion that comes from spending too much time drinking your own wines.

So J R was a welcome external examiner when she reported her tasting reactions (notes and scores out of 20) to 55 four-and-a-half- and five-star wines at the end of March.

Her five top were: Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen’s Oak Valley Chardonnay 2006 from Elgin; André van Rensburg’s Vergelegen White 2006 from Somerset West; Anthony Hamilton Russell’s Pinot Noir 2006; Gyles Webb’s The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2005; and Lars Maack’s Buitenverwachting Christine 2003. Three reds and two whites, which somewhat knocked her argument, also often advanced by WINE magazine, that SA “red wines are today (unfairly in my view) seen as the country’s calling card but Cape reds have long lagged behind whites”.

One thing is clear, for J R, SA whites offer more bang for the buck. She rated 24 whites an average score of 16,6/20 at an average price of £12,60/bottle, while the 35 reds had an average score of 16,2/20 at an average price of £16,45. Of course reds are usually more expensive to make – often with extended maturation in expensive new barrels – whereas whites are often younger and many get by with no wood character at all.

That said, care should be taken in reading too much into this tasting, as it turns out that some very big guns in the shape of Kanonkop, De Trafford, Meerlust, Boekenhoutskloof, Cape Point, Steenberg, Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards and Eben Sadie’s wines were AWOL.

J R’s top five also illustrate the folly of chasing five-star stunners at the expense of lower-scoring wines. Among her top five, only the Vergelegen was rated a high five – admittedly it was her top-scoring wine at 18/20, with the other four each rated 17,5.

And, as J R admits: “I am habitually stingy with points.”