Book Launch and Review – Platter’s 40th Vintage is Aged to Perfection
Platter’s by Diners Club International 2020 South African Wine Guide – John Platter SA Wine Guide (Pty) Ltd, 2020 – R295
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4.5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 5/5
I use Platter’s – or, in full, the Platter’s by Diners Club International 2020 South African Wine Guide – a great deal. Almost every day. I use it to plan where to go for my wine tasting visits. I use it to contact the vineyards. I use it when writing my reviews. I use every section of the book: information on the award winners; the individual winery entries, their summary information, wines and ratings; the summary year’s ratings; the industry details of South Africa’s wine regions, districts and wards; the cultivar summaries; the accommodation listings (less so); and the maps at the back. It is my wine bible.
It was with much excitement that I ventured to the Table View Hotel in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, to the launch of the 40th Anniversary Edition. The invite was 6.00pm for 6.30pm and I was there in good time. The dress code was ‘Smart/Casual’ which, among winemakers, left much open to interpretation. Friendships re-acquainted, business completed, some excellent networking opportunities, and tasty canapés consumed with a glass of MCC, it was not until 6.45pm that the Ballroom doors opened. Casual was the order of the day. I should have known it was ‘Africa time’. The room was full and full of expectation. The launch of any Platter’s Guide is rightly secret, from who the major award winners are, to the 5* wines, and even to the cover colour.
Publisher Jean-Pierre ‘JP’ Roussow took to the stage to welcome all, including Esh Naidoo, the Managing Director of Diners Club South Africa. The anticipation was tangible as JP thanked the many Guide contributors before saying a few words about the Guide and its history. The wine landscape was for a very different South Africa 40 years ago when the first Platter’s Guide was launched. The Guide was aimed at the “average, aspiring, enthusiast and the confused” drinker. It cost a mere R6.95 and listed some 1,250 wines that included only 1 Chardonnay. John Platter proclaimed that the “reds lagged only marginally behind the world’s best” and that “the average wines were the highest quality in the world and at the lowest average prices”. I wondered how true that statement remains today. Value for money is certainly a hallmark of South African wine.
Ten years later, in 1990, the number of wines rated in the Guide had swelled to 4,000 – with 40 entries for Chardonnay – with Sauvignon Blanc overshadowing Chardonnay. By 2000, the Guide was bigger still with the commentary that there was a lack of iconic wines being made in volume, at least to reach around the world in sufficient quantity to make Top 10 or Top 20 listings. Four thousand wines became 6,000 wines in 2010. There were 40 5* wines and Sadie Family Wines was the Winery of the Year. Only the numbers have changed since then perhaps. JP later commented on the current lack of volume of iconic wines. He mentioned too that the 125 x 5* wines for 2020 were testament to the improving quality and understanding of what happens in the vineyard by the viticulturalists and a more outward approach by the travelling winemakers.
The first closely guarded secret was revealed as JP proudly showed the new Guide to the room, describing the new colour as ‘Karoo Night Sky’. The silver lettering shimmered on the cover beneath the ballroom chandeliers. It looked weighty and classy as befits middle age and, in my opinion, a much better colour than the rather insipid salmon pink of the 2019 Edition. It was time then for JP to handover to Editor Philip van Zyl to announce the 125 5* wines. He explained the 2-step rating method for the 9,000 wines: first, ‘label-sighted’ for the context of site, climate and style (Platter’s is a wine guide and not a competition) and then ‘blind’ for all wines scoring 93/100 and above. The handing out of the certificates – from AA Badenhorst to Warwick – with obligatory winemaker photographs – was done with efficiency and due magnitude. I felt a growing mutual pride and celebration in the room. The Wines of the Year awards followed in some 26 cultivar/blend/style categories that included sparkling, dessert and fortified wines with the top award shared in many tasting categories. The awards included only the second one for a Viognier in 40 years. Many winners of course returned to the stage multiple times.
All that remained before tasting all the 5* winners were the ‘Big 3’ awards. The first, for Newcomer Winery of the Year 2020, was awarded to Peter Ferreira Cap Classique. Like Platter’s itself, I sensed a reassuring stability since Peter Ferreira is no newcomer. He is South Africa’s ‘bubbly king’ as Cellar Master at Graham Beck and renowned for his generosity for sharing knowledge. The award is for his new business venture with wife Ann. The 2012 long-matured Blanc de Blancs MCC was not only the MCC of the Year but also gained the highest score ever awarded by the Guide for a sparkling wine. The Editor’s Award of the Year 2020 was won by Franschhoek winery Boekenhoutskloof. It recognises, as JP and Philip alluded to earlier, the making of iconic wines in large volume and wines made at several price and quality levels. Over 100,000 cases of the high scoring Chocolate Block, for example, are produced to give worldwide reach.
The prestigious and most anticipated award for Top Performing Winery of the Year 2020 was tightly contested. I did wonder who the eventual winner might be as a small number of estates picked up multiple awards during the evening. The margin was extremely close with Mullineux (joint venture Leeu Passant included) just pipping Sadie Family Wines, another multiple winner of the top prize, by virtue of generally slightly higher scores. It was another celebration for the Swartland as well as for Mullineux who not only are the award holders from last year but also won in 2014 and 2016. It was only a week ago that I tasted their wines at the Swartland Producers Street Party in Riebeek Kasteel and watched the Springboks win the World Cup with Andrea and Chris Mullineux (and a few hundred other wine loving supporters). The formalities over it was time to taste many of the top wines.
As for the Guide, it is never easy to keep going for 40 years. Markets and customers change over the years, nay decades, and it is a challenge to keep the connection. Change too fast and wine readers will want more of the old. Stand still and risk that the competition will overtake you. Platter’s has well navigated that middle vine row path. The traditional and reassuringly familiar 0-5 Star rating remains but does so alongside the ‘Parker System’ 100-point metric that is the global standard. Overall, the Guide covers nearly 9,000 wines from 900 producers in just shy of 700 pages. This, intriguingly, is a few pages shorter than the 2019 Edition though I cannot yet see where. Platter’s can be pre-ordered now via their website. The R295 price remains reassuringly stable too and outstanding value for money – given the incredibly detailed information and obvious mammoth judging and editorial effort – and only a modest increase from 2019 (R270). This compares favourably with 2 issues of Decanter Magazine and a cup of Seattle coffee at Exclusive Books. Digital subscription via the Platter’s App – another example where the Guide had moved with the times – is an option (R175) for those who prefer not to carry the weighty tome around with them while wine tasting or shopping. The two can be bought together as the ‘Platter’s Bundle’ for R395, a 20% saving.
I always enjoy reading the opening 2 sections: Trends in South African Wine and the Editor’s Note. This is where the Guide brings extra value. The topics obviously change each year. I recently read a US report by Beverage Dynamics that predicted alcoholic trends to watch for in 2019-2020. These included inter alia: cans; whiskey sales booming; continuing expansion of rosé (they can make it in 3 weeks!); the slowdown of craft beer; premiumisation; tequila on the rise; explosion in ready-to-drink (mostly cocktail) sales; private label production; single barrel picks (mostly spirits); and low/’healthy’ alcohol beverages. The comparison is interesting with parallels as well as differences. Platter trends in common for 2020 include the move from bulk to premium winemaking as several vineyards have withdrawn from bulk-production to make more profitable wines. Packaging gets a mention too, with a watching stance on wine-in-a-can as well as bottle closure methods. I mentioned above the impact of improved vineyard expertise and more attention in the cellar on wine quality. These 2 trends are covered in the well titled paragraphs of ‘Maximalist work in the vineyards’ and ‘Minimalist work in the cellar’. I won’t expand on more as the Guide far better explains. The last trend poses a question about the developing secondary market. Having been to a few fine wine auctions, many of which had several unsold lots, I share the scepticism but agree the cautious optimism. The modern South African wine industry and its quality improvements remains young. Moreover, there is a culture in drinking young wines – enabled by cash flow conscious wineries – rather than laying wines down to keep. Try asking for a 2017 or even 2004 Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay! Climatic conditions too, unlike in much of the Old World, are not conducive to long-term storage whilst temperature and humidity-controlled cellaring is prohibitively expensive to all but the very few. Private label production is a trend here that could easily have also been listed as I see an increasing number of winemakers making their own wines while still tied to the extant wineries. Turning to the Editor’s Note, Philip van Zyl outlines many of the editorial changes and continuations – icon and cellar icons, for instance – from previous editions.
The bulk – or perhaps, the body – of the Platter’s Guide of course remains structurally the same. This is not to devalue the substantial work undertaken to compile the information. This is against a tight annual publication deadline that does not change as the number of wines ever increases. Each vineyard entry gives a brief producer introduction at the top together with a host of detail for winery location and whereabouts, tasting opening times and facilities, contact information, owner/viticulturalist/winemaker names, vineyard area and main cultivars planted, production quantity and the balance between red, rosé, white wines, and much more besides. In between, the wines are listed according to their name, vintage, colour and style, together with their rating and mini-tasting description. Wines gaining 4½ stars and 5 stars are highlighted in red text for easy identification. The remaining sections that make up the final 80-90 pages – the finish – are updated from the 2019 Guide.
How to improve? The Platter’s Guide is such a well-established brand – worthy of an Editor’s Award for its iconic status itself – that it is difficult to know. It is one of the few wine guides in the world that aims to taste and rate every wine from every vintage. The detailed content for each winery and its wines is as self-defining as it is essential and so I cannot see any opportunity there. I don’t personally use the Touring Wine Country section that covers Wine Routes, Wineland Tourism Offices, Specialist Wine Tours, Restaurants and Accommodation a great deal but then I live in Cape Town and so have less need, preferring to search using the internet for restaurant menus or accommodation rather than the Guide. This leaves format and layout. The A5 format is a trusted one for any travel or like guide and, whilst bulky at 700 pages, does not really lend itself to a different size or shape. I have suggested before that a ribbon and/or bookmark – as included in many previous editions – would aid page-keeping for a book of such thickness and number of pages. It is something I have discussed with the publisher and accept the reality that manual attachment would adversely impact on price and printing deadlines.
More radical would be to change scope of the Guide and its awards. Sustainability is not only vital for the future of our planet, but it can make good business sense too. A new award for, say, Organic Winery of the Year, to include the biodynamic producers, would give a useful stimulus to the style and sector. Mindful of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust decision last year to separate wine from spirits learning, there must be a business opportunity for a Platter’s South African Spirits Guide. This could include the gin, rum, brandy, grappa and other distilled beverages that are being made for an increasing number of brands, many produced by South African wineries. There is in my mind a need for such a guide and Platter’s has the editorial and operational experience to deliver as well as the brand trust and recognition to make a success of such a new initiative.
In sum, the 2020 Platter’s Guide is as excellent as ever. The quality in both content and production remains. There is no other wine guide to match it for the comprehensive and trusted content – as reliable as Mullineux winning the Top Performing Winery Award. The Guide remains excellent value for money and is indispensable for any wine lover whether, in the words of the very first Edition 40 years ago, you are an “average, aspiring, enthusiast or confused” drinker. Buy it now to get the most use from it. The new Guide, with its sublime Karoo night sky colour, will certainly give me 2020 vision for the wine year ahead.