Why you will want Platters Wine Guide under the tree
30 November 2016
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Thanks for joining me for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition; I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . It started in 1980 and we’re talking about Platters and of course it is sponsored by Diners Club. It is South Africa’s first and still leading wine annual with total hard cover.
I’m emphasising that, hard cover sales of well over 1.4 million copies. But that’s not taking into account digital. Joining me on the line is the publisher of Platters Wine Guide and that is JP Rossouw. JP, 1.4 million copies, it’s huge.
JP Rossouw: Absolutely, it’s a phenomenon in publishing, it’s also the longevity, as you point out. It’s something that’s quite unique anywhere in the world, never mind in South Africa.
JCW: That may well be the case, in which case you should take over Australia and goodness knows what else. But in South Africa it really is reflecting the growth in quality wine production surely?
JPR: South Africa’s wine industry is on the up and up. It’s not only the explosion post-democracy, it’s also the improvement continually in the quality and the depth, the interest of our wines, our wineries. The production now, it’s on par globally. We’re only, I think, beginning to explore the pockets and the variety that South Africa is capable of.
JCW: I’m just looking at more of the numbers. 950 South African wine producers, merchants and brands, 28 new wine producers, merchants and brands along with over 8 000 locally produced wines. It’s not possible, actually, to feature every single wine made in SA because then you’d have a dictionary wouldn’t you, a huge dictionary?
JPR: Yes, the challenge every year is how to contain the information and we’ve, over the course of time, had to shrink the font, the type face. But we’ve also had to sometimes be very telegraphic about the wines, especially the lower scoring wines. Coming back to your primary point, it’s such a unique enterprise to try to rate and to give a view on every single wine. It’s not becoming easier because our industry is burgeoning.
How do you decide on what features?
JCW: Yes, I was looking for an estate, I wanted to see how the Viognier was rated. But the estate, it’s mentioned, but it’s not tasted. How do you make those decisions?
JPR: Some wineries are in a kind of a transition with a few of their wines, so we are aware of wines. But they’re not always submitted. Sometimes they’re sold-out. We await the next vintage, at other times there are situations, unfortunately, where we don’t even get to taste the wine. Because the winery has done such a good job and the wine is actually sold-out. We note it as a wine that was in the portfolio, but we don’t always taste them.
JCW: I suppose if you are looking after your budgets and things like that. You are making, I suppose as much wine as you think the market is able to cope with and not necessarily to supply Platters.
JPR: Yes, winemaking is an incredibly interesting way to live, the business of wine is a very challenging one. It’s one thing being technically capable and having all of your knowledge in the vineyards and in the cellar. Then in terms of your distribution, in terms of your marketing, in terms of the sales. But then you’re dealing with nature and some years’ nature throws you a curve ball.
Suddenly your volume is literally cut in half and therefore those wines are available in small quantities. If they’re a popular wine, they’re gone. Other years people sit with surplus and they have to make a new plan. I have great respect for the wine industry; it’s not a factory job.
JCW: No, of course it isn’t and also sometimes people just say: I know this is going to work and they just make it work, it’s that sort of divine inspiration, I think. Let’s talk about some of these winning wines, they really are interesting.
White wines steal the show
If I just look at the list of winning wines, I’m looking at the five star wines obviously and there are three times as many white wines as there are red wines. This is all being put down to the vintage of 2015, am I correct with that?
JPR: Yes, it’s definitely the influence of 2015 which by all accounts and by the results we see, not only in Platters but across the other franchises. Is a vintage that has just produced incredibly good wines and many of them are now on shelf. The reds will follow.
Of course we do see a few of the early red varieties like Pinot Noir, already hitting the five stars in Platters 2017. But Jenny, a little trepidation, I look forward to the next year’s tasting because we’re going to have many 2015 reds in the mix. I definitely expect the reds will shine.
The other reason for the rise of the white wine, I really think SA is incredibly strong with our white wines and in that category and across the board in that category. Chenin Blanc is our flagship white and we do the best Chenin in the world.
Our white blends are incredible, there are great Sauvignon Blanc sites and the other big store is how immensely our Chardonnays have improved. From being quite rich and full-bodied styled wines, now more and more refined and elegant.
Really showing site specificity and they’re fantastic wines. I think South Africa’s white wines, we have a warm climate by and large. If one takes a summary view and white varieties just get off the vine earlier and they show amazing elegance.
JCW: It’s really interesting because I was going to bring up Chardonnay, you’ve got 17 five star Chardonnay’s. You’ve got 15 five star Chenin Blanc’s and for me, when I go through Chenin Blanc, I’m picking up, rightly or wrongly. I’m sure that you’ll be able to correct me, but I’m just picking up the Swartberg, the Sadie family’s Skurfberg 2015, Badenhost, Dasieskop, Steen, I love the names. David and Nadia, what those two aren’t doing is just astonishing, it really is astonishing isn’t it?
JPR: Absolutely. The other story behind what you summarised there is the fantastic evidence of old vine wine, wines that are made from older vine. Chenin is the one variety where much of that material rests because as many of us know Chenin has always been the workhorse of the industry.
Before it was made into these incredibly beautiful, modern-styled Chenin Blanc’s, many of those grapes were thrown into mixed batches. Often distilled into brandy. We all love brandy but the point is that it’s through a variety of interesting factors that these old blocks are still in the ground and producing vines. Well producing grapes from vines that now have had time to really show incredible individual character.
JCW: Yes, indeed and I think that’s part of the excitement of what is actually happening. Also all of the new estates. Had anybody heard of El Heit let alone Radio Lazarus 2015, five years ago? I don’t think so.
JPR: No, that’s a shooting star, it came out of nowhere and it’s cleaning up. The El Heit with many of their wines, they really have been so precise in their approach. They know where to look for, the wines they want to make and they do an incredibly good job.
But you’re dead right, they’re very new on the scene. I love this year’s results, we do have 94 five-star wines and one new five-star brandy. But what I love about that 94 is the range, from your very established wineries and wine brands through to these fantastic newbies.
Are our white preferences changing?
JCW: Yes, indeed and also another trend, we all know you go into a restaurant, it’s a blazingly hot day and you skim the wine list. Most people’s eyes go, naturally, although I think it’s changing, they go to Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc, only nine on this list as opposed to 15 for Chenin Blanc and 17 for Chardonnay, are things changing do you think?
JPR: Jenny, probably not as much as the snapshot would suggest. I think Sauvignon Blanc is still a very important category for South Africa. I also noticed a stylistic shift in the Sauvignon which is a happy one for me, away from the very intense grassy, hyper-acidic wines to a more balanced, fruity and complex Sauvignon.
The thing about the Platters, as the listeners may be aware, we run a dual system, we taste the wine sighted in the initial road by 16 wine tasters. Then we assess them in a blind round which is where we take the highest rated 4.5 star and more wines and we taste those blind over two days.
This year we tasted 742 out of the pool of 5 000 plus in that blind round. The thing is, in a blind situation, there is this element of, not random, the results show that the great wines shine. But there are so many fantastic wines that were just under the cut.
I encourage listeners when they have the Platters to look at the wines we call ‘highly recommended’ because those wines are the ones that were 94 points, for example, and just under the 95 points that went through to five stars. I’m just looking at the ‘highly recommended’ as we speak and coming back to Sauvignon, in fact that adds another six Sauvignon. But it also adds another six Chenin and it adds, interestingly, a raft of Chardonnay’s.
JCW: Listen, the whole thing is terribly exciting and I remember last year going through Platters and thinking, okay, I’m now going to go and buy the red wine of the year and when I got there, it wasn’t there anymore, it had literally overnight sold out.
The Red and White Wines of the Year
So, let’s quickly talk about it while it’s still around. Red Wine of the Year, went to the Winery of Good Hope for the Radford Dale Black Rock 2014. White Wine of the Year, Stellenrust for the 51 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2015, really interesting choices as well.
JPR: They both touch on these topics we’ve already covered a little bit. The Red of the Year is origin Swartland wine. The Winery of Good Hope were very early in their exploration of the Swartland as a source of high quality, grape material. They obviously make it in Stellenbosch, in the Stellenbosch cellar, but the grapes are all from granitic Swartland bush vine soils and it’s a fantastic wine. The white wine, the Stellenrust is a great story because with the 51 in the name, refers not to 51 barrels, but to 51 being the age of the vineyard.
JPR: That’s the story of an older vine in Stellenbosch, made in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Hills. It’s just one of those wineries that have been there quietly doing its thing literally for decades and here we go with this fantastic result. Then the Dessert Wine, is no stranger to Platters five star results. Their straw wine, again, is just incredibly complex, delicious, can age forever. It’s got such pedigree. I think it’s never really missed five stars in Platters.
JCW: Let’s end off this conversation because I think people will take about a year to get through this year’s Platters because it’s so absorbing. I really do think it’s absorbing. Let’s just talk about Nederburg. Because it’s take the major accolade in terms of Platters, it is the Wine Producer of the Year. What is happening there, or has anything changed?
Nederburg as the Wine Producer of the Year
JPR: It’s possibly the most exciting result, I think it shows absolutely that everything is everything. Nederburg has always stood for quality. I think what has changed is that they are aware that they’re a strong brand locally and internationally. That they have wines in all tiers.
But what I think is incredible about this result is that they have tightened, ever-tightened and become more focused and more precise with their higher end wines. I mean for a winery of this size to be able to produce great wines across all wine price points as well as come out with these award-winning wines, it’s such a testament to an incredibly well-run wine business.
South Africa desperately needs very well-run wine businesses that push out a lot of wine because if we’re going to be taken, we are taken very seriously at the high end. I would argue, often in small volume environments, I mean Sadie Wine is a great example. No one disputes their position in the world of fine wine, but there is so little of that juice to go around.
When a company like Nederburg, a winery like Nederburg can present wine of this quality, it is at high volumes and therefore the Proudly South Africa message just goes so much further. This year in Platters a couple of wineries got to three five stars and Nederburg just trumped with four five star wines that came through the blind round. I think it’s such a great story for where we are in our wine evolution.
JCW: Yes, I’ve just been, as we’ve been speaking, I’ve just been going through the 27 Nederburg wines and it fills up just over two full pages. Not all of the wines that they make have been tasted. I can see that some of them, they just obviously haven’t had enough or they’ve sold-out or something like that. Grenache Private Bin, Merlot Private Bin, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot Private Bin, etc. Those just weren’t tasted because presumably they were sold out.
JPR: Correct and I think that it must be remembered that Nederburg four stars in this Platters isn’t because they had that many more wines in the mix. The blind round, as I mentioned, were already the top of the pops and there were many wineries that had quite a few seeded wines in that final two-day blind tasting round. Nederburg didn’t have hundreds more wines.
It’s not a valid point that they succeeded because they just had more to bring to the table. They succeeded because what they brought to the table for that final tasting were just wines that resonated with those three tasters on those category tastings. They really did, in their peer groups, shine, so it’s a really remarkable and commendable result.
A wine education book for all wine lovers
JCW: We’ve been speaking about Platters 2017 South African Wine Guide and it’s the go-to Christmas present, the go-to Christmas stocking present. But there is another book that you guys have done. I’m looking at another Platters guide: Everything you wanted to know about wine but were too afraid to ask.
So, is wine for snobs only, am I meant to have a favourite type of wine, are there wines men or women shouldn’t be drinking? To what level should you fill a wine glass, is that why red wines need to be left to breathe etc? Tell me, this has got to be aimed at newcomers to the wine industry or people who drink a lot but need to brush up?
JPR: Jenny, this is such an exciting project and it’s been a while coming and it’s for all of those people. I think surprisingly people who already know quite about wine pick it up and find some titbit or some interesting view on wine as a subject. I really loved bringing this book to light.
I worked with great guys, and we took quite a few kind of inroads. Then we realised that the best way to tackle this book. The result that you have in front of you, is actually to ask the typical questions that wine newbies ask and to answer them.
The brief was essentially, let’s not use any of the usual clichés, the usual jargon, the usual off-putting wine-language. Let’s be friendly, relaxed, let’s talk about wine as if it’s something that you need not ever be intimidated by. But make it clear that wine has complexity and it’s a fun journey to begin to explore the complexity.
It shouldn’t be off-putting, you just need to get in there, taste some wine, the key is to just taste wine and if you find something you like, explore it a bit further and you’re bound to move onto the next something you like. Wine is full of stories and we just wanted to bring the stories out and make it super-entertaining.
JCW: And also very accessible. For instance, I’ve just gone to Chapter 15, Does the glass I drink from matter? Here you’ve illustrated them, I like the illustrations by the way, throughout the book. They’re very nice, presumably you did them while you were in the bath or something?
JPR: You still have to ask? Jonathan, the designer, he said to me: I’m not really an illustrator but I’ll take a shot. I thought, the naïve style actually really works.
JCW: I think it’s lovely, it really is lovely. Here you’ve got: Does the glass I drink from matter and the answer is: Yes. You explain why and then I come down to champagne flute. I am in withdrawal with champagne flutes at the moment because I’ve got my collection. I’ve just been told that they are now the wrong shape.
JPR: Oh dear. I think one could always have a conversation around right and wrong. But it’s funny because I think champagne is a wine ultimately and if you want to assess the ultimate quality of champagne or sparkling wine, you should drink it out of a good wine glass. But that’s now how we appreciate and live with bubbly. Bubbly is something that’s part of the ceremony of those tall glasses.
I think the key to wines and wine glasses, which is one of the typical kind of main questions, or the most frequently asked questions is: Never fill your glass to the brim. Always leave a bit of space so that the wine, which is a living product, can express itself.
Most of what wine is about is the aromatic component which helps us taste. Because we know that the nose is where taste is actually generated. Give it some space to breathe, give it some space to be alive in the glass and use any glass. But follow that rule and you’re off to a better start.
JCW: Listen, I think it’s massively accessible and again, it’s a lovely Christmas pressie. It’s also massively informative and very accessible, you can just look up stuff as easily as I have been illustrating. Well done with this, I think it’s going to sell very well indeed.
JPR: Thank you Jenny.
JCW: JP Rossouw, thank you very much indeed and good drinking over Christmas.
JPR: Yes, and for you too, all the best.
JCW: Thank you very much indeed. Join us again for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition, subscribe to the show on iTunes, just search Old Mutual.