The starry state of South African wine

by | Mar 2, 2016 | Business and Marketing

Platter’s SA Wine Guide is a good yardstick for assessing the quality of South African wines. Associate editor Cathy van Zyl MW explains why the increase in five-star wines means the bar has been raised.

Few wine guides, local or international, can complete with Platter’s when it comes to track record and inclusivity. Its impact reaches every corner of the globe, with buyers, tourists and local wine drinkers alike using it as their standard reference for South African wines.

AN INDUSTRY INDICATOR

Most South African wines are rated in Platter’s, making it a useful indicator of the state of the industry, including quality trends. Take Chardonnay for example: Many critics, competition judges and winemakers have been lauding the surge in quality Chardonnays, so it comes as no surprise that a record 11 of these wines have been awarded five stars in the Platter’s 2016 SA Wine Guide, compared with four in both 2014 and 2015. The guide also named Warwick’s the White Lady Chardonnay as White Wine of the Year.

The overall number of five-star wines has however also increased this year. A total of 87 wines and wine-based spirits got the five-star nod, compared with 50 in 2015, 43 in 2010, 17 in 2005 and 18 in 2000. While some argue the Platter’s five-star award is losing its value, the guide’s associate editor and taster, Cathy van Zyl, says it simply wouldn’t be fair to “punish producers for making top wines”.

Cathy van Zyl, WM

“In the early 2000s about 0.5% of wines received five stars, but this figure now stands at 1%,” she says. “That doesn’t mean it’s a less significant achievement to get five stars – it means the industry has raised the bar and this should be celebrated.”

NEW FIVE-STAR SELECTION PROCESS

Publisher Jean-Pierre Rossouw changed the selection process for five-star wines for the 2016 edition. While only nominated wines used to be in contention for the five-star accolade, all the 4.5-star wines were considered for the 2016 edition. The wines were judged by threemember panels, consisting of mostly Platter’s judges.

Cathy regards this as a fair system. The process was expected to yield some surprising finds and also meant more wines were tasted blind. Sighted tastings – as done for individual producer tastings – have over the years come under criticism, but with a larger pool of blindtasted five-star candidates judges’ potential prejudices were largely eliminated.

This year for instance Ken Forrester’s Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014 (R90) and Windmeul’s Pinotage Reserve 2014 (R100) were awarded five stars, confirming that performance is not determined by price or bottle weight.

A NUMBERS GAME

With the number of individual wines listed in Platter’s almost doubling since 2000, producing a complete guide has become even more challenging.

“Trust me, we have considered many options,” Cathy says. “In an ideal world every wine would be tasted blind by a panel, but this would lead to enormous logistical challenges and it would probably require more judges than are available. It’s It’s a matter of making do with a realistic, viable process which we’re constantly working to improve.”

Fewer than 10 wineries are not featured in Platter’s 2016, with reasons varying from producers not timeously submitting information about their wines to specific requests not to be included. Cathy says producers who opt out, ought to reconsider. “By opting out of Platter’s, they are not part of the only continuous chronicle of South Africa’s wine evolution,” says Cathy.

GETTING THE BIG BREAK

Many smaller, unknown producers have benefited from the exposure they received after getting the allimportant five-star nod. The now well-established Donovan Rall and Chris and Andrea Mullineux wines come to mind, while Matthew van Heerden’s MVH Signature Wines may be the latest wines to benefit from a five-star rating.

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines confirmed they’re in a class of their own by clinching the titles Winery of the Year and Red and Dessert Wine of the Year. These awards are a sign of great things to come from their collaboration with Indian entrepreneur Analjit Singh.

“There are so many exciting things happening in the South African wine industry at the moment with phenomenal wines coming to the fore,” Cathy says. “This should be reflected in the results and it has been.”

AN INDUSTRY ASSET

The role Platter’s has played in the broader South African wine industry should not be underestimated. Cathy says at one stage Platter’s was only second to the Gideon’s Bible in terms of number of copies printed. How’s that for wine going mainstream?

As the most influential wine guide in South Africa, Platter’s can be found in the cubbyholes and on the bookshelves of many wine drinkers and even aspiring wine drinkers who wouldn’t necessarily invest in any other wine book. It’s a means of getting wine into the homes and conversations of everyday consumers and as such it plays a crucially important role at a time when there’s a renewed drive to grow the domestic wine market.

The South African market remains key to Platter’s. Plans to translate the guide to broaden its reader base have not yet come to fruition, but the launch of the Platter’s App offers an alternative means of getting South African wines onto more screens and into glasses globally. The app includes Platter’s wine ratings from its 2008 edition right up to the latest edition, which can be accessed through digital label recognition.

The surge in premium wines worthy of the five-star honour underlines Cathy’s view that good wines should be lauded. Platter’s will however always be a key point of industry discussion – whether it’s about the judging process or number of five stars awarded. And this is how it should be. As custodians of an industry asset the Platter’s team has the responsibility of not only giving many a young winemaker a crucial break in their career, but also giving aspiring wine drinkers and influential global wine buyers alike an overview of the state of the industry.

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