This tasting life

Boxes of wine are accumulating around me – packs of two, six, or, most threateningly, 12. The three wintriest months are also those in which 5 000 or 6 000 wines are sampled and rated each year for Platter’s South African Wine Guide, and I’m part of the team responsible for it.

Hence the 350-odd wines (multiplied by two, as there’s a spare sample of each) that will pile up rather faster than, at first, I’m able to work my way through them. Hopefully my progress will speed up but I’m still at the early stages when I’m tentative and slow.

I’ve just spent hours dithering, for example, with many judicious sips, over a mere half-star for one modest wine. The maximum is five stars but the rather odd concept of a half-star is allowed to give greater flexibility — and greater scope for my vacillation. Somewhere, sometime soon, I hope again to reach a confident but unassuming balance between arrogant certainty (these are personal assessments, after all) and pathetic unsureness.

The step following the judgment is to assemble some words to characterise the wine and implicitly justify the rating. Then I log on to the remarkable online world of the Platter intranet, on which a few dozen people in the large Platter team can be working simultaneously. Some will be from the support crew, entering basic information into the database about the wines that have been submitted and delivered to Platter’s Stellenbosch HQ. The tasters (15 of them, working at the HQ, at home or at one of the regional centres where some areas’ wines are tasted) enter their notes. Winery introductions are written, and the editors check and check again.

Problems are dealt with as they arise or are anticipated — many wines will be retasted by others as a confirmatory mechanism, for example.

Editor Philip van Zyl has already entered the dark, lonely spot at the centre of this large electronic web. Agonisingly painstaking, and apparently sleepless for four months, he will stagger forth in September, pale and hollow-eyed, clutching the large file generated from the database and deliver it to the printers in Singapore.

Meanwhile, as those boxes pile up, other wines delay my response to their mute demands – deliciously delay, sometimes, like a pair of Sequillo wines just released on to the market in something of a rebranding exercise. Sequillo is a Swartland winery whose presiding genius is Eben Sadie, best known for his Sadie Family Wines label. Sequillo offers marginally larger quantities of wines sourced from other vineyards — thankfully less expensively.

The new presentation of the wines is original, even startling: clear-glass bottles, with funky, charming labels evoking the rough, rural farming atmosphere of the vineyards. Most importantly, the wines are excellent, sophisticated yet approachable. The Red 2009 (a blend of shiraz and other southern French varieties) is packed with red fruit but is too fresh and disciplined to be simply fruity — it verges on profundity, but easily sidesteps solemn austerity. Friendly enough, then, but deep-souled and thoughtful.

The pale-gold White 2010, a complex blend based on old-vine Swartland chenin blanc, is similarly a triumphant unity of freshness and light richness, intensity and delicacy, sweet fruit and dry elegance. You’d have trouble finding the equals of these wines, especially the Red, at anything approaching R150. Warmly recommended, both.

First published in the Mail & Guardian 1-7 July 2011


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