My kind of wine
03 May 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . When you say the surname Platter, you immediately think of the Platter Wine Guide and of course it was former foreign correspondent and wine farmer, John Platter who came up with the idea of one of South Africa’s most successful books ever, the John Platter Wine Guide, but he and his wife Erica sold the wine guide years ago.
Toward the end of last year John Platter, to my delight brought out a new book and I grabbed it with such pleasure. It’s a peripatetic journey through the winelands and I found it not only a great relaxing read, but also hugely informative and here’s what he had to say about his newest publication and its many journeys. I’m sitting here with John Platter who is an incredibly well-known name in South African wine and in fact, many of you get the Platter’s Wine Guide which John no longer belongs to you because you sold it for a few million, didn’t you?
John Platter: Not really but we sold it.
JCW: You sold it. Okay, so there are very, very few people who don’t know or get the John Platter Wine Guide. At the end of the year, it kind of is the Christmas stocking thing to get and it’s a wonderful legacy for you to have, although it no longer belongs to you. Do you have any regrets at all?
JP: A few now and again, yes. I think the idea though is not to take it too seriously. You know the whole notion of wine grading and wine evaluation is just really imply, it’s the beginning of a dialogue, it’s my opinion and my rating, but you’re entitled to yours.
JP: Absolutely, it’s not, you know it’s a very subjective thing and the idea of a didactic kind of, mine is the last way, is not the idea. It never was the idea in the book.
JCW: Well look I mean I know that when I first got it when I was living in Durban and it was about a couple of millimetres thick and I used to wander around going to wine stores with it in my pocket.
JP: You could still put in a pocket, yes.
JCW: Yes and because that’s what I wanted to do, it’s too big now. Let’s talk about the book that is yours as opposed to the book that was yours and this is your book, “My Kind of Wine” and I was at the launch of it earlier on. It was late last year wasn’t it?
JCW: There was an interesting audience but this book really is a book filled with memories of wine filled with people that you used to know and maybe because you’re not living in the Cape anymore, don’t see all that often. For me it’s like wandering through the winelands, stopping at this place and actually having conversations with some of the great winemakers of South Africa and also some of the idiosyncratic winemakers of South Africa. What was the purpose of this book in the first place?
JP: Well the idea was to try and catch up just for our own sake and then launch into a little bit of memory stuff but as we were doing that we discovered so many new things on the go and there is a very quiet and beautiful revolution on many levels going on by many ages. I mean the young have come to the party in a very big way.
Even those who can’t afford to get their own estates going are making wine in small quantities, very adventurous wine and they’ve broadened the whole scene, it’s incredibly broadened and I think initially perhaps some of the old established estates were not that happy with this new and exciting and freeform adventure and wines that were sometimes a little whacky but the old established estates have come to the party and the whole thing is in a beautiful ferment now.
JCW: Yes, it’s an energy isn’t it?
JP: Absolutely and the world has taken notice so there’s a glow that’s spreading around on the Cape and a lot of attention in many ways and it’s really, we’ve tried to portray that in the book but the essentials of the book have always been what Erica and I as journalists tried to do and that is to get sort of an idea of the personalities and what they’re doing because in the end what sells and interests people are the stories behind what you’re buying and tasting.
JCW: Yes and I mean because you’re such an experienced journalist none of these stories are too long, so you read one page, you know what I mean. There’s a great redemption I think, in brevity, so I think that that has worked really well.
JP: We love eccentrics and out of the way people and places and that’s what we’ve tried to catch here too.
JCW: Well I think it has and nowhere more so than right at the very beginning of the book where you’re talking about Cabernet Franc and this is a grape that actually isn’t terribly well-known in South Africa even today and it’s usually swallowed up by other wines and yet here it is and you’ve given it quite a lot of space, no more so. I was really interested in Baboons, Birds, and Ponies. Now tell us a little bit about this estate and you were just saying “You’ve got to know about this estate because they are doing some absolutely ravishing things with Claret Blanc” and it’s Claremont.
JP: Yes, it’s just outside Stellenbosch in a little valley hidden away, tucked away and they’re ravaged by baboons and they take a lot of the crop and the birds take a bit, but they’re trying to be very close to nature and doing things like a lot of people now, not quite natural wise in their case but organically managed and that’s very fashionable and authentic and they have had, I think, are going to score great success with Cabernet Franc.
They’re already doing very well with other things, Chenin and so on but Cabernet Franc is interesting. It’s actually genetically one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon and it’s been quite difficult to ripen here in some vintages as it actually is in Bordeaux, but when it comes ripe it’s so much gentler and grownup and aubaine and less shouty and aggressive, which is always nice sometimes in a Cabernet Sauvignon but in Cabernet Franc, when you get it right it’s the real, real charmer.
JCW: I was interested in that I was very interested in the way that you approached the different varietals, the better-known ones but for me one of the great revolutions in South African wine and it has happened over the last ten years, is that wonderful man, Ken Forrester, who was for so long in South Africa in Johannesburg. You could not come to Johannesburg and not go to one of his restaurants, whether it was in
The Drill Hall, whether it was in Sandton. I really missed him when he moved down to the Cape but he has revolutionised Chenin Blanc. Now surely that is one of the great successes of the South African wine industry.
JP: Completely, I mean it used to be I think about a third of our total vineyard and we made tons and tons of it in many styles and went into brandy, it can make quite nice sherry, it can make quite nice young dry wine, sweet wine. So it had many, many uses and it was not hard to manage in the vineyard but we never made a really concentrated Chenin that could match a really stylish table wine that would attract international palettes.
That with Ken and a bunch of others they’ve now got it to a stage where it is actually, it’s almost the signature grape of the Cape and it’s well, well-known but it’s also at the heart of… another thing that’s become quite famous internationally and that is the Cape dry white blend and Chenin is sometimes, actually very often the sort of cornerstone of that blend. So it is a real, real find.
You know actually, somebody like Jancis Robinson is very perceptive in his write-up, wrote a piece in 2008 saying she couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t taking more interest in South Africa. She said it’s one of the great mysteries and hidden gems and Chenin was a lot of her favourites and she still loves our Chenin.
JCW: She still… talking about Chenin, well I want to come back to Chenin, Jancis Robinson is one of the millions of people, it seems to me who have just fallen in love with the Swartland wines and when you’re talking about a revolution in wines in South Africa that’s where it’s coming from and then it’s kind of spreading to almost like garagiste wines, which I personally think is wonderful fun and it allows people to express themselves, sell very small quantities but sell them if it’s a good wine, for quite a lot of money but what’s happening in the Swartland is very, very exciting.
JP: Yes. The Swartland has a lot of old vineyards. Statistically actually Stellenbosch has more old vineyards of 35 years and older than the Swartland but they haven’t made quite the sort of noise and had quite the energy and the concentration that the Swartlanders have got. These youngsters are really exciting because first of all they’re very well-grounded scientifically. They’re hot and they’re really well-travelled.
You cannot come back and just make a wine after university here. You have got to have done your travelling and a lot of them have. A lot of them don’t have enough money to start any big operation but they’re saying why should the width of my wallet be the worth of my winemaking, so a lot of them have got just a bakkie and a surfboard. They’re all surfers by the way.
JCW: Well, you see I think that’s lovely. I love that.
JP: Yes, so they make three barrels, costs them nothing, come out sensationally, charge quite a nice price and on they go and some of them are going to be stars in the future.
JCW: I went into Norman Goodfellows not all that long ago with my list of Old Mutual Trophy wines and I wanted one of the dessert wines, the winner of the dessert wine and I was headed off at the pass and she said, “No, no, no of course we’ll put it over there by the till and you can have it but have you tried this one” and it was by, I think it was AA Badenhorst and it was in a little bottle that is meant to look old and it was Donkiesbaai. She said it was just something sticky, it’s something sweet and you’re going to love it. So I took Donkiesbaai, I talked about it on 702 and they ran out of it and he hasn’t made any since, so I never really got any.
JP: Well, look that’s the charm of what’s going on down there. You know you have to be quick and get what you can sometimes. AA Badenhorst is actually one of the original stalwarts and drivers of the Swartland Revolution. They talk… when we went to see him, he said, “Have you been to see Baby Jesus yet?” Now Baby Jesus is –
JCW: Did you say Baby Jesus?
JP: Baby Jesus is his neighbour Eben Sadie, who is the kind of prophet of this you know.
JCW: Yes, the guru.
JP: The guru, there are five of them and he and Badenhorst are the two sort of most vocal ones but they’re a brilliant, sort of chemistry of those five people. It actually includes the Mullineux, who are American you know. She’s American and actually it reminds me that two of our greatest winemakers are both American women in the Cape.
JCW: Are you talking about Lismore?
JP: Lismore’s another one. Actually that’s a third.
JCW: That is so sexy.
JP: That’s right, they’re sensational, but I’m talking about Zelma Long at Vilafonte as well. So it’s very nice to have new, fresh blood from abroad.
JCW: Yes and who see things in a different way and are producing amazing wines.
JCW: So shall we go back to the grey-haired ones and I’m thinking, in fact, I think he’s got white hair and I’m talking about Ken Forrester but he still is effervescent as ever with his curly grey hair and he struck up this wonderful wine relationship with Martin Maynard. Now that is a very exciting thing that’s happening there isn’t it?
JP: Yes, they are almost inseparable. You know one is the cool, sort of philosophical, quiet, very, very smart. I mean chemically, beautifully up there, lots of good ideas. Ken is unbelievably energetic. I mean I can sit with him for five minutes and you’re exhausted, but he has done really good work in championing the thing, Chenin especially but lots of wines.
He’s also ahead in a lot of other things. He’s one of the champions of this new sensational sort of wine. It’s not a new wine but Grenache, which is an old vine but we’re making it in a different way these days. It’s soft, beautiful, absolutely brilliant, but anyway you know Ken actually thumps the pavements of New York and other great cities of America selling and promoting obviously his wines but at the same time South African Cape wines.
JCW: So as you were going along and having your long lunches, boozy lunches, probably had to be folded into a vehicle afterwards and meeting all of your old mates, who are some of the new ones that you met, that you just felt rocked?
JP: Well, look there are about 20 of them and you know, they’re young, there’s the young Australians around, there’s all sorts of them. Who comes to mind? [RD?] is not that old by the way, so he’s one of the young ones but I’m trying to think now. I can’t, let’s page through.
JCW: Okay well I mean it just basically is because you were boozing all over the place, but this was not done in one journey, this was done in a series of journeys, I hear.
JP: It was about five or six journeys over a couple of weeks to the Cape.
JCW: When did you know that you had a lovely idiosyncratic book? At what stage did you think this is working?
JP: Oh very quickly, oh yes.
JP: Because the theme has opened up enormously, they were all these, you know you’ve got the young guns, you’ve got the Swartland Revolution, you’ve got the old classicists, you’ve got the traditionalists, this whole churning sort of phenomena of people doing different things, that having to, and importing lots of new varieties that they’re still experimenting. We’ve got Albariňo coming along, which is a Portuguese wine variety that’s going to broaden the spectrum of our whites and many others, so I knew pretty well quickly and then there’s some of the old cards like Jan [Burnham?] Coetzee who was always with them, you know.
JCW: Yes and of course Meerlust. I mean you go to Meerlust but –
JP: Yes but that’s a mixture of old and new. You know you’ve got the seventh generation and Myburgh is still in charge and then you’ve got Jan Williams who’s young and smart and making really modern wines so it’s a really, really fine combination.
JCW: When we go back to the Swartland Revolution we should be talking about this extraordinary woman who I have never heard of before but who’s had such an extraordinary influence with the old vines, which I think people were uprooting and not paying any attention to at all and you call her the vine advocate. Why has she been so influential?
JP: Well first of all she’s Rosa Kruger we’re talking about and she has had several careers. She was a journalist by the way, up here in Die Beeld, then she went into law and then finally decided that she would like to get into vineyards and vines specifically and so she became a really top class, self-trained, she got degrees in everything else, but self-trained viticulturist and her mission with Johan Rupert initially was to try to map the old vines and vineyards of the Cape because there are some really fantastic gems all over the place. There’s a place called Pikanheas Kloof right out on the West Coast that has got vineyards that are 70 years old, some up to 100 years old.
JCW: No phylloxera?
JP: Some of them are on there without root stocks because those, you know if you’ve got sandy soil and you’ve got geographical separation the phylloxera doesn’t get in there that easily and she found, and then she works very closely with some of the Swartlanders in finding vineyards, old vineyards that might suit them and they have loads of them. I mean I think there are over 3000 hectares.
She’s compiled a real book, dossier of them. Anything that’s over 35 years old, she’s recorded them in great detail and by the way she’s a great-great-granddaughter of the President Kruger, yes so she’s got lots of feeling for the old Cape and she’s just very energetic, very brilliant, very determined and she’s a real advocate in many senses.
JCW: Well, it shows you that you can get some good results out of some of these old vines.
JCW: Maybe you’ve got to look after them a bit more and I don’t think that they –
JP: No, I think that there’s the sort of feeling that let them struggle as well because the more you look after a vine or the more you give it food and water, it has an easy life and gives a fruit that is not quite as concentrated and so a little bit of struggle is fantastic in her way but how you prune them, how big you let the crop grow for the second season or for the forthcoming season, is all very important, hugely important. She’s into all that.
JCW: Well listen, I think we’re on the cusp and I think your book reflects it of something very exciting with the new people coming into the wine industry. I listened to a fantastic interview on 702 the other day. I think Nikiwe Bikitsha did it with a young black woman who actually had had no wine history at all, was told to go and do something for a job, hated doing it and then within a year was tasting the wine and discovered that she loved it and she’s now making the wine and so you’ve got that extra energy coming in from Africa as well, which I really, really enjoy and I really like.
The mixologist, now there’s something interesting that is happening with our labels and I’m sure you noticed this as you were going around. They’re either very spare or they are almost 18th Century French. They are so beautiful and I’m talking about Wendy Appelbaum and Hilton playing music to his vines, but making some of the most sumptuous wines. I mean if I see one of their wines I’m almost crawling towards it, I’m so desperate to get it because it tastes so wonderful.
JP: No, absolutely you’re tasting the Bach in the wine perhaps. He plays Bach medley from loud speakers.
JCW: I know that it’s Mozart more than Bach but –
JP: No what? Oh he told me Bach, that’s all. I tried to get him into some choral from West Africa but okay so you may be tasting a bit of that but really those are really, really smart wines, DeMorgenzon, very good team.
JCW: What makes it stand out do you think?
JP: I think very careful winemaking, very careful vineyard management, apart from the music. You know, vineyard management is very, very scientific and I was being quite serious just now when regulating your crop, if it’s too heavy you must take a bit off before you start harvesting, well before you start harvesting. So all of those things, these little things, there are a hundred little things that add up to a really big difference and DeMorgenzon is. I mean on all the levels. By the way they’ve got really good old Chenin as well.
JCW: Well whatever it is they’re doing on that estate, whether it’s the music, whether it’s the money, whatever it is they are making for me, some of the most luscious wines in South Africa.
JP: Oh, that’s great no.
JCW: I love the word ‘luscious’ and when I tasted the Viognier, because at the end of the book you’re talking about Viognier and that’s a grape that I didn’t know too much about except that it tasted of peaches under certain circumstances and then along came this Lismore Wines and this young American woman making wines that you just can’t resist.
JP: I wish we had had time and you the deadlines and things to include her. We did, I mean she’s really making fantastic wine, imaginative. Viognier is an interesting grape. It comes from the South of France. On its own it’s a very soft wine with some peachiness obviously but it is very soft so it is usually a very good blending thing. On its own it’s a little bit too… it lacks, you know it’s how important acidity is in a wine that goes at table. It’s a good blending wine. It needs some backbone surrounding it with other varieties.
JCW: As we come to the end of this discussion I mean I’m just, wine words, your tasting notes, your journey, dropping off here and there to have a meal, talking about some of the memories that you’ve had with the places when you were in the wine industry, I find this book, there’s a word that you don’t use often today and it’s ‘charming’.
JP: Oh, thank you.
JCW: I mean it’s obviously got a backbone but I find this charming because it wanders here, it wanders there.
JP: Has it got enough acidity?
JCW: It’s got very good acidity, it has to have, doesn’t it though?
Let me give you the details of John’s book. It’s called “John Platter: My Kind of Wine” and it’s published by Pawpaw, yes Pawpaw as in the fruit. It deserves to be widely read and you’ll be desperate to try some of the wines he’s been drinking. Thank you for listening to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show on iTunes. Just search Old Mutual.