Passion for Pairing – Jean-Vincent Ridon – (Ridon Communications (Pty) Ltd, First Edition 2020) – R599
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 5/5
Galileo, the Italian astronomer and physicist, stated that ‘Passion is the genesis of genius’. Although a scientist, he would no doubt have had an opinion on food and wine. After all, they embrace both science and art. Food and wine are made for each other. So too are wine and learning. Learning and passion are indivisible. Passion and pairing couple well also. Thus, ‘Passion for Pairing’, the title of this excellent book, speaks loudly. It matters not whether you are an advocate of the traditional school of ‘horizontal pairing’ – which gives equal importance to both food and the wine on the basis that both complement each other with similar ‘likeness’ – or one of the rebels who believe in so-called ‘vertical pairing’, in which either the food or the wine has the upper hand, as pairing is better based on ‘contrast’, with the rationale that ‘opposites attract’. Or, indeed, whether you consider both or neither. Food and wine and passion equally fit – they harmoniously balance – whether on the plate or on the palate.
Moreover, having tended his vineyards as well as learned from and tasted his wines, it is indisputable that passion and Jean-Vincent Ridon exquisitely pair. ‘JV’, as he is known to his friends, is a remarkable man and a genius. Read the Preface of ‘Passion for Pairing’ and you will discover that has been inter alia a sommelier, a wine-broker, a chef and restaurateur, a retail wine merchant, a wine importer and distributor, cellar master and winemaker, vineyard ‘owner’ and viticulturalist, and educator. Extensive as this list is, JV’s modesty precludes mention of entrepreneur, consultant, strategist, mentor, judge of many alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, bon viveur, innovator, (dare I say) rebel and – now – author.
Born in Crozes-Hermitage in the largest appellation of the Northern Rhône, France, JV was brought up in the right country for a sommelier with an emerging passion for food and drink. From paternal and maternal grandparents who not only loved wine but also cooked for an extended family, to Catholic upbringing, to buying his first wine at the tender age of 10 years old (beginning, like the rest of us, with a sweet wine – a Manzabillac from South-West France), it comes as no surprise that JV’s career path has moved and developed as it has. The ‘flying sommelier’ has lived and worked in many countries – France, the United States and Belgium – whilst making wine in Turkey and elsewhere. I can well relate to the arrival in Cape Town and the ‘few days to decide that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my days’. It took me a weekend in 2010 to make that decision; for JV it was in early 1996 and soon after the first democratic elections in 1994.
The lengthy Preface usefully sets the scene for the rest of the book as it well articulates why JV has become the enthusiastic sommelier that he is. He is one of the most experienced and most knowledgeable of South Africa’s wine experts. I like how he explains his passion for good service in the hospitality industry, born of the high standards in Europe and North America. The Preface firmly establishes JV’s authority and credibility, together with the raisin d’être for writing the book. The desire for human contact – away from the technical, theoretical aspects of winemaking – is very real. I have huge respect too for how he has put his passion and beliefs into action to assist others by being an early contributor to the South African Sommelier Association and founder of the Sommeliers’ Academy. The stereotype of the surly French waiter could not be further from the truth.
‘Passion for Pairing’ is an impressive tome for a first foray into writing a book. The glossy hardback stretches to 248 pages and is sumptuously illustrated by artist and photographer Gerda Louw. Each page is a visual feast that makes one want to reach for a glass of the wine in the photograph. Gerda’s passion for art and photography clearly matches – or should I say, pairs – with JV’s passion for food and wine. Each of the 7 Chapters takes the reader on a journey through a rich and mouth-watering meal: from Fish to Shellfish, to Game and Meat, to Vegetarian, to Cheese, and to Dessert. The cuisine is decidedly South African: kabeljou, snoek, kreef, abalone, waterbuck, kudu, springbok, apricot atchar, chakalaka, pap, boerewors, bobotie, waterblommetjie, bunny chow, Cape Malay, butternut, gruberg cheese, malva pudding, koesister and koeksister. Sixteen famous chefs tantalise with the fine dining creations and add their twist and ingenuity to the many traditional South African dishes.
JV curates each dish with dexterity and all the practical knowledge that an experienced, top sommelier brings. The food comes alive with snippets of information about the history behind the particular type of fish or cut of meat, or origin of cheese, or dessert. Little did I know before that koesister and koeksister are not the same though I, as many, use the words interchangeably. Koesister is Cape Malay and different to the fluffier and spicier Dutch koeksister. Every item of food is paired with a specific beverage. I liked how these included not only wine but lager from Limpopo, India Pale Ale from Paarl, Dunkel beer from Rustenburg, and Weiss beer from Newlands in Cape Town.
The wine list is impressive to say the least. It covers every style from sherry apéritif to brandy digestif, with sparkling Cap Classique, white, rosé, red, dessert and fortified in between. The wines are all South African. There are the big and well-known wines and brands – Graham Beck Cap Classique, Kanonkop Pinotage, Meerlust Rubicon, De Wetshof Chardonnay, Ken Forrester the FMC, and Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia – but not exclusively so. JV has sensibly included representation from every major wine-growing region: Stellenbosch and Franschhoek; the Swartland; Paarl and Wellington; Tulbagh and Wolseley; Robertson; the Cederberg; and cooler Constantia, Elgin, and Walker Bay. No favouritism is offered either to grape variety, whether red or white. The noble varieties deserve their own mention of course, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. There is the well-known Chenin Blanc (Steen), Shiraz, Pinotage, and Cabernet Franc too, together with another 20 minority cultivars that include inter alia Sémillon, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre and Nebbiolo. The inclusion of such a wide range of region and cultivar and style must have been no easy task. I salute the inventiveness and creativity to cover such a wide portion of South Africa’s wine industry within the food pairing context.
‘Passion for Pairing’ comes into its own with the thinking and theory behind each food and wine pairing. This is where the sommelier expertise and approach make this book unique. JV explains in layman’s terms how the characteristics of each wine or food counterbalances heat and spiciness, sweet and savoury, saltiness and astringency, tanginess and sweetness, texture and complexity, and more besides. The commentary fascinates to show a rare depth of understanding. Each wine has its own Serving Suggestion for temperature and shape of glass to show it off at its absolute best. There is an alternate pairing too – a foreign wine – that highlights yet more JV’s encyclopaedic wine knowledge.
Mention should be made too of the sections after the Preface that cover the history of food and wine in South Africa, of the Sommellerie, and Pairing Guidelines. It seems barely believable now that 20 years ago there were virtually no restaurants in the wine estates of the Cape Winelands, given the excellence of fine dining opportunities that now exist. The history of food and wine in the Cape is another story, with humble beginnings of Khoi and San peoples and long before the first wine was made in the Cape early in 1659. The rest, as they say, is history with all the influences of the French Huguenots, the Dutch and the British. It is perhaps no surprise that Cape Town is regularly voted one of the best food cities in the world.
I enjoyed reading a definitive account of the definition, role, and skills of a sommelier. The sommelier is so much more than a glorified wine waiter, with skills that extend to all beverages as well as food. JV traces their origins to the shamans of the First Peoples and, no doubt, had the Khoi and the San in mind within the South African context. I did not know that the ancient Egyptians brewed beer to purify the dirty water of the Nile but was aware of the role of the Church and monasteries in vine-growing and winemaking. I was fascinated to learn that the modern sommelier stems from the ‘échanson’ – akin to the royal food-tasters of the Middle Ages – aided by a ‘soumelier’ who tended to the luggage of the Court. The role of the sommelier in wine developed only at the end of the 18th Century. It was not until 200 years later, in 2014, that the identity of the sommelier was agreed at international level.
JV sensibly is not too prescriptive about food and wine pairing in ‘Passion for Pairing’. The standard rules of thumb about ‘red with red’ or ‘white with white’ are far too generalised and take little account of the complexity of the dominant, secondary, and other elements of a dish. I am sure JV is right to state how fundamentally important his background as a chef is to his skills as a sommelier. He is right too to draw attention to the serving temperature of a wine. Did you know, for example, that cold temperatures enhance the perception of acidity or tannin in a wine whilst warmer temperatures emphasise roundness and the bouquet of a wine?
I digress but such is the rich and tasty information within the writing. Allow me to return to the Introduction of ‘Passion for Pairing’ in which JV legitimately tackles the so-what question: ‘Is it relevant?’, he asks, to write a book on food pairing. His extensive experience in the kitchen, front of house, the vineyard and the cellar certainly answer the question, ‘What do I have to contribute?’ as his background give him a unique position and perspective in South Africa. I completely agree with his analysis of the gap between the chefs in the kitchen and staffs in the restaurant. One does not have to watch many episodes of chef Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ from 15 years ago to realise that. ‘Passion for Pairing’ takes a useful, informative, and relevant step seriously to close the gap. Consequently, the book will appeal not only to sommeliers but also to wine enthusiasts, foodies, chefs, restaurateurs and many more besides. It is so much more than a coffee table book as it has real practical advice and information. JV, rightly, has resisted the temptation to include individual recipes in the book, even though there were moments when I wished he had. To have done so would have detracted from the very focus on pairing is his purpose.
In sum, I highly recommend ‘Passion for Pairing’ which, given the depth of research and glossy content, is well worth the cover price. I shall certainly be paying much more attention to pairing in the kitchen at home and whilst eating out in future. Merci beaucoup, genius JV, santé et bon appétit!
What is Biodynamic Wine? – Nicolas Joly (Clairview, Reprinted 2011) – R185
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 4/5
Coincidentally for South African readers, biodynamics and Pinotage are of remarkably similar age. They date back to 1924 and 1925, respectively. Biodynamics is an alternative attitude to agriculture that draws on the teaching of its German founder, Rudolf Steiner. It was the first organic movement and emphasises a holistic and systems approach by treating the earth as a ‘living and receptive organism’. Plant growth and livestock care, together with soil fertility, are ecologically inter-related. Biodynamics eschews the use of chemicals – herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers – whilst highlighting the application of manures and composts. Further, sowing and planting are governed by an astrological calendar to add to the mystical and spiritual practices. Opinion is divided, almost 100 years later, as to whether biodynamics is a pseudoscience or not and whether the reported benefits would happen with organic practices alone.
Turning to wine, vineyards make up circa 5% of biodynamic agriculture. It is difficult to obtain reliable up to date figures but in 2013 there were over 700 certified biodynamic wine estates adopting the strict criteria set by Demeter, the certification organisation. South Africa has just 75 hectares of biodynamic vineyards. Three wine estates are recognised: Waterkloof, Reyneke and Elgin Ridge.
Nicolas Joly, the author of ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of biodynamic wine and has been working with the approach for 30 years in the Loire Valley, France. Born in 1945, his formative years do not perhaps mark him out as a major protagonist. He studied at Columbia University and worked for merchant bank JP Morgan in New York and London. However, he left in 1977 to run his family’s vineyard called Coulée de Serrant in Saviennières. The 7-hectare estate has produced all its wine biodynamically since 1984. Coulée de Serrant single vineyard has the rare distinction – along with Romanée-Conti and a handful of others – to be granted its own AOC.
My aim in writing this piece is to review Nicolas Joly’s book rather than offer a critique or my opinion of biodynamism. This is not an easy task. First, it is difficult to avoid consideration of the efficacy of the approach and some of its more esoteric practices whilst reading the book. Second, and as an applied biologist with a Doctorate from Cambridge University, I fall into the ‘scientific cul-de-sac’ that is imprisoned by its misplaced ‘materialistic dogmas’ and so, according to Joly, I am unable to pass judgement anyway.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is a slim volume that stretches to little more than 100 pages. The paperback was first published in 2007, this being a reprinted 2011 edition. Make any internet search for books about biodynamics and this book will show high up in the listings, such is its standing and importance. Joly sets the scene in the first chapter by describing how the 1930s appellation contrôlée concept of ‘regulated wines of origin’ gave ‘Lady Vine’ a place where she felt at ease. He introduces biodynamism by describing the 4 states of matter, drawing from Plato’s ancient wisdom. These are gravity, heat, air, and light, together with water. This secret language affects different plants at different stages in their growing cycle in different ways. Should the vine, for example, have help to raise it up to ‘escape the earth a little’ by trellising or pruning? Or should it re-connect with gravity by annual pruning?
Chapter 2 deals with the so-called errors in agriculture that since the 1950s have destroyed the original, authentic taste that the AOC system once guaranteed. Joly lays the blame at the feet of modern agricultural practices with their use of chemical fertilisers, general/systemic herbicides, and technology. These have inter alia killed the micro-organisms in the soil leading to impoverished, industrial-scale cultivation. He continues, in the next Chapter, to comment on like industrial processes in the cellar that have changed viticulturalists and winemakers from ‘nature’s assistants’ to factory workers. Joly cites interventions such as the use of commercial yeasts, temperature control during fermentation, osmosis, and micro-oxygenation. The modern cellar, with its electrical and magnetic pollution from HT cables, mobile phones etc, disrupts the ‘’form waves’ of nature and the solar system that naturally occur. He ties in his thinking from earlier by describing how the rain, heat and wind of climate affects vine flowering and fruiting to imprint on each vintage in the unique AOCs. We have, he suggests, lost our way by substituting our intuitive experience of energy and natural forms by cutting ourselves off from life and relying on physical matters and modern science. Rather than being (as opponents argue) ‘sectarian …for the wealthy … esoteric … and obturantist’, biodynamics derives from real laws and offers the way ahead.
The fourth Chapter is where Joly brings the practical application of biodynamics to the fore. ‘Bio’ means life whilst ‘dynamism’ accelerates or stimulates life. Here, he describes Steiner’s 1924 suggestions to improve the well-being of plants by using natural preparations from medicinal plants that have been inserted into their corresponding animal organs to amplify their effects. He explains the thinking behind enclosing camomile in a cow’s intestine, together with manure or fine silica quartz in a cow horn and their multiplying effect on soil bacteria and to activate photosynthesis when atomised and sprayed onto the vines at appropriate times of the year. The pace of the writing accelerates too as Joly furthers develops the idea of ‘invisible energy information’ and how biodynamism seeks only to activate what nature has already in place. He starts to link biodynamic application to the solar and stellar system and hence season.
This well leads to the final Chapter that connects these celestial systems to the earth. Joly returns to the complex world of energies and how the earth is bombarded all sorts of frequencies of differing cosmic wavelengths that impinge on the varying rhythms that sustain life. ‘Matter is never the mould, only the content of the mould’, he argues, and so the earth (and all life) is composed of particles made up by specific informational forces. We must therefore understand these formative forces – visible and invisible, centripetal and centrifugal, spring and autumnal, earthly and cosmic, solar and stellar – and use this knowledge to improve the vine. This relates to the states of matter in Chapter 1 – fruiting + heat impulse, blossoming + light impulse, growth + water impulse and root growth + earth impulse – that act in different ways according to the positions of the planets in relation to the earth and the stellar constellations behind them as they orbit the sun. Agriculture has destroyed the living agents so that the plant has become ‘deaf to the invisible’ with the result that our food quality and human nutrition are poor. This can be visibly demonstrated by crystallisation tests with copper chloride powder. The resultant petri-dish images show greater uniformity and size of structure for organic and naturally produced food and wine than for over-processed products. Joly then introduces the sowing and planting calendar by German Maria Thun for which she measured each planetary and stellar influence on the plant world. The relation of every planet and the earth has a different energy effect based on mathematical laws. Thus, if we understand the health-giving forces of the moon or Saturn or Mercury or the stars, we will be able to apply them to (say) fruiting and when to harvest the grapes in the biodynamic vineyard.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ ends with a short (2 page) concluding chapter, ahead of Appendices that set out a Quality Charter to permit an appellation to express itself fully. Joly summarises by describing biodynamism being not a pseudoscience or some illusory sorcery but ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’. He returns to the Greek Gods, their forces and ‘mortality’. Real wine should transport us into a far-off, ethereal, and magical world that is distant from earthly forces. That, according to Joly, is achieved and sustained by a knowledgeable and respective biodynamic agriculture.
As explained above, this is not a book one can read without applying one’s own values and beliefs, indeed experience and thinking, to the topic. Joly argues his case well and coherently. The simple style of his writing, with little jargon or (if used) simply explained, makes for an easy read. There are minimal photographs and illustration other than to amplify or explain specific points. This lets the book flow, but I would have liked more than the 5 main chapters or the use of section breaks, or both. Much of the information is new and challenging and these would have allowed me time to reflect and think as I read through the book.
I enjoyed how Joly told his story. He builds up the case for biodynamic wine making in a logical way, with each step built on the previous one and with good linkages. I liked how he closes the open threads by returning to the centre stage every so often. Predictably, there was much that made sense and much that did not. I am a child of the late 1950s and brought up in very rural England. I can therefore well relate and understand an agriculture that was far more ‘organic’ and far less reliant on agro-chemicals. I thus empathise when Joly talks about and posits that human animal husbandry practices have caused avian flu, encouraged mad cow disease, or sheep scrapie and swine fever. Should we use the anti-biotic and medical approach of veterinarians to combat animal disease? Or practice better methods of production? Do we treat the cause or the effect? And, what is health anyway? These commercial arguments apply as much to the vine and winemaking.
I also empathise with the organic movement and the related one, surprisingly little mentioned, of sustainability. One test for me on the concept of biodynamics is whether its effects are sufficiently large or significantly different and distinct to those of organic agriculture. Joly does not tackle this question head on and that leaves room for wonder. ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is written more for the converted and the evangelist than the doubtful which I, as an evidential scientist, am. Thus, many of the more far-out claims and statements cause me to question even more. These include the suggestion that a vine can be protected from sunshine by treating it with teas prepared from seaweed, or that biodynamic wines improve several days after being opened, that breeding either at full or new moon determines the sex of an animal (80% male or female), or that certain people can alter the rate of growth of a plant by their very presence and thinking. I would have liked to have seen the ‘scientific demonstration’ of these claims refenced in the Bibliography at the end of the book. The observation, for instance, that some church spires appear like an inverted amphora intrigues. Science is about making proven and predictable connections. Observations such as this must pass the ‘so what?’ test for me, otherwise they become meaningless. Does their likeness prove the existence of opposing calling down cosmic forces (the church spire) and calling up terrestrial forces (the sunken amphora)? Where does coincidence begin and end? Otherwise, it becomes possible to bring together any two pieces of information – whether related or otherwise – and draw conclusion from them.
Ultimately of course, and I am trying to resist the temptation to comment on the efficacy of biodynamics rather than the book – though the persuasiveness of the latter drives the reader’s opinion on the former – and therein lies the rub. Here is a poser. I buy 2 identical shirts. They are indistinguishable from each other. One is made by an ethical producer with well-paid staffs working in safe and healthy working conditions, whilst the other comes from a sweat-shop factory using cheap labour. Without this background information, is one shirt any better than the other? Well, not if they are identical. If anything, the sweat-shop shirt will likely be priced cheaper and so offer better value for money. Apply now to a biodynamic wine. Is the biodynamic wine any better than an organic wine or an old vine wine or a vegan one or a commercial one? The ultimate test for me is whether the biodynamic wine tastes better and how much better. Blind tastings, so far at least, have proved inconclusive.
Meanwhile, I do agree that the back story has a role to play. It will increasingly do so with the conscious marketing of ethical and sustainable products and services, and not only for the environmentally aware millennials. The shirt may not look any different or the wine taste any better but just knowing how each was made matters. The emotional link and connection with the consumer are real. This could have been more emphasised by Nicolas Joly. He does mention personal connection, already touched on above, in the sense that biodynamics is ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’.
Joly is nonetheless an authoritative author and, after all, a biodynamic practitioner with 30 years winemaking experience rather than an academic theorist. He concludes ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’, as I shall here, with these wise words. The farmer would say, “You are what you eat”. The viticulturalist would say, “You are what you drink”.
Wine by the Glass – Oz Clarke (Pavilion Books, 2018) – R155
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 4/5
It is a little-known fact that Oz Clarke and I went to the same school – The King’s School, Canterbury in England – and just 8 years before me. Better known perhaps is that the name Oz was given to him ‘in the school showers’ as he played cricket like an Australian, whose team was touring at the time. From there, the parallels diverge as I went up to Cambridge and he went to the other place. He has written almost 50 books. I enjoy my website writing but have yet to write my first book.
I came across ‘Wine by the Glass’ in a Cape Town bookshop and it immediately appealed. The hard, cloth blue cover and thick paper pages give an air of durability that would readily survive any wine spillage whilst reading with glass in hand. The book is small enough to fit in a holiday bag or for the pool or beach. Indeed, there remains a bookmark from Rick’s Café in Casablanca as a reminder of happier days when we could freely travel the world unencumbered by restriction or a mask. There is also a torn Tasting Menu from Oldenburg Vineyards with my notes written on it.
‘Wine by the Glass’ easily divides into 3 sections: the Basics, Practical Stuff and Becoming a Geek. The first section begins with ‘Wine at a Glance’ in which Oz Clarke brings his wisdom of wine down to 12 words, 6 grape varieties and 6 countries. Sadly, South Africa does not make the list. Sections that describe the grape varieties (Pinotage does get a mention here), wine styles, vine-growing and winemaking, together with a full list of countries and their wine regions – those that you would see ‘in a wine bar or stood facing a wall of wines in a supermarket’ – complete the section. The middle part is the practical how to? of wine. It covers essential tips such as how to read a wine label and wine classification, how to buy and order wine, glasses and openers, food pairing, how to keep wine and vintages. The final section is for the geeks who – like me – want to ‘taste like a pro’, have all the right word descriptors to hand, identify wine faults, build a cellar, and find out more. The back of the book has a handy aide memoire of the key wine countries and their regions together with a glossary of wine terms (aka jargon).
The book is a friendly read. The sections are short and so easy to dip into in any order. There is no Index but the Contents and chapter introductions well sign post the reader. One could read from cover to over in under 4 hours without difficulty. Throughout, Oz Clarke’s pacey yet humourous writing makes the book a pleasure to read. Pinotage, for example, is described as ‘the grape that doesn’t do what it says on the tin’ which is a fair comment that the Pinot Noir x Cinsault (Hermitage) cross of 1925 did not produce an elegant Burgundy grape that was high yielding. ‘At best it tastes of mulberries and marshmallows toasted on a November bonfire’, he goes on to write, ‘at its worst …..’. Natural wine is ‘organic on steroids’, New Zealand is summed up in 3 words “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’, whilst the reader is told that a friend practised spitting in the bath.
The back-cover states that no previous knowledge is required. That is right as the language is simple and avoids the technical which, if necessary, for the topic in hand, is readily explained. I liked how Oz Clarke dispels the wine snob and ramps up how anyone can enjoy any wine with an encouragement to experiment, for it is very much my wine philosophy. The book has no photos save for some witty line drawings – the Old World v New World label: Grand Cru Classé Château Oz Clarke v Clarkey New Dawn Shiraz – is typical of the style and character of the book. I could not quite decide whether ‘Wine by the Glass’ was meant to be a reference book, guidebook or reading book. It mattered not as it was all and none. Oz Clarke covered all the bases and all the basics.
I thoroughly recommend whether you are a wine novice, an amateur or student of wine – or even holiday reader. There is something for all. ‘Wine by the Glass’ costs little more than a reasonable bottle of wine and will last longer too!
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.