Platter 11 December 2019

The latest edition of the Platter Guide has just been published, together with its ever-growing list of Five Star laureates. While the book is certainly no longer the Spoken Word it used to be many years ago, it continues to be a valuable source of rankings and ratings. It is also as much a perpetrator of score devaluation (or point inflation) as most of the industry’s tasting panels. With 125 five star awards this year compared with fewer than 40 ten years ago, it’s impossible to ignore the bracket creep. In 2015, 63 wines met the (admittedly vague) criteria for five stars. Wines scoring 4 stars and above totalled 1945 out of 7300 wines reviewed. For this edition the four star and above categories have seen a 67% increase on that number, while the Five Star awards have ‘merely’ doubled. Sadly, the 2020 Platter ratings are edging closer and closer to Veritas, which this year yielded 1411 medals from an entry of 1491. Even a matric certificate is worth more.

There are many wine drinkers who think the Platter Five Star awards represent an absolute standard, that they are not arbitrary, and not subject to the pendulum of fashion. They are mistaken, for several reasons. Cape wine quality improves every year. This presents judges with the problem of whether to raise the bar (unfair to those targeting past standards) or to keep it where it was (unfair to consumers whose expectations have advanced in line with the improvement in Cape wines.)

Then – and this is very important – aesthetic criteria are subjective, so the stylistic choices made by judges or judging panels reflect their preferences. A quick look through the list of wines the Guide has now given its top accolade to shows a strong bias towards small batch artisanal selections. While they may indeed be wonderfully crafted, and very exciting, they are not necessarily better than the wines which come from the Cape’s historic properties. To argue otherwise would be to suggest that fine Burgundy, which comes from tiny sites and is mainly produced in artisanal cellars, is necessarily better than Classed Growth Bordeaux which is grown, made and bottled on great estates.

While the Platter Five Star judges don’t know anything about the production volumes of the wines in front of them, the first round tasters, who are the gatekeepers deciding whether or not to submit the wines to the Five Star (blind) tasting, certainly do. Presented with an array of wines from one of the “rockstar” cellars, the primary taster is unlikely to consider many (if any) of them unworthy of consideration for five stars. This means that a disproportionately large number of these small batch production wines occupy the tasting benches at the Five Star judging. Often the same judges who submitted them (sighted) to the final round tasting are on the panels which make the Five Star call. Statistically, a high number will make the Five Star cut. By way of an example: this year the Guide gave Five Star awards to four different chenin blancs from David & Nadia – all no doubt worthy, none produced in quantities of more than a few barrels. This is not to diminish David & Nadia’s achievement, or even (in this case) to question the value of the award: merely to challenge the usefulness of the accolade to wine drinkers (and perhaps partly to explain the proliferation of laureates.)

The Platter Guide is not a wine show. It does its best to judge everything in the industry. Its universe is therefore greater than any other ratings agency: it reviews over 6000 wines every year, unlike even the biggest competitions which consider an entry of between 1000 and 2000 submissions. Many of the wines presented to the Guide’s panellists are never submitted to competitions. In most cases, this hardly matters, but there are also the small-batch geeky wines which must be taken seriously. Balancing the recognition due to them with the recognition due to the high-end prestige cellars is never easy. My impression this year is that the end result reflects an excessive swing away from styles – and wineries – whose best wines are no less impressive but which are produced in larger-than-ultra-boutique quantities.

This is particularly evident when you look at the retail pricing of the Five Star laureates (from before they collected the award). Port2Port lists many of them, and they range in price from R120 per bottle for the Laing’s Semillon (from the Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope winery) to R3500 per bottle for Sadie’s Paladius. Over 60% of them sell for R450 or more. This suggests a high percentage of wines produced in very small quantities – and therefore a preference (from the Guide’s perspective) for a craft style.

What, you may ask, are the editors of the Guide to do? They ensure that whatever is submitted to them is judged – without fear or favour, or even the payment of an entry charge (unlike WineMag, whose shareholders wanted to limit commentary about wines on the site only to those for which producers had paid a submission fee). Their tasters have soldiered their way through many wines over many years. Pure economics means that those who judge for Platter will all be Cape-based, which means they are more exposed than wine drinkers anywhere else in the country (including Gauteng – where over 60% of the country’s premium wines are consumed) to geeky wines, and the value system by which they are judged. To revert to the earlier analogy, they are like Burgundians judging Burgundy when presented with these small batch treasures: they are not in the Bordeaux headspace when it comes to considering other submissions.

The answer isn’t obvious – but it is worth noting that shortage is a key factor in the way a producer determines the price point of a wine he wishes to sell for more than R300. It also plays a part in the way the primary taster thinks about the wine. It’s not easy to keep back from the Five Star tasting wines made by “rockstar” producers who are currently in fashion, and whose pricing suggests that they believe their creations deserve the highest possible ratings. If enough of these wines are submitted by primary tasters to the Five Star blind tasting, statistically they are likely to dominate the results. Way too many of the Platter Five Star laureates occupy this rarified space.

Ideally we all need to stop thinking of the Five Star wines as objectively assessed inhabitants of some vinous hall of fame. There is no doubt that the Platter Guide is the most complete resource of its kind available in South Africa – and possibly one of the best in the world. However, it is not infallible, nor are the boundaries between 4, 4.5 and 5 stars etched in a clear black border line. Wine is performance art, and so is wine judging. It can never be susceptible to objective criteria. It’s not the fault of the Guide that we persist in imbuing it with divine insight. But its publishers and the producers – all of whom are driven by the imperative to sell – must share some responsibility for the height of the pedestal and the reverence accorded to the golden calf which stands atop its plinth.

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