An argument

The following criticism of some of my Platter ratings was made by Clarie Botha as a comment on my bio page. It seemed likely that it would go pretty unnoticed there, which would be wrong for such a lengthy and impassioned contribution. So I am putting it up here, with my own response as a comment on it.

My son phoned me from Stellenbosch on the 19th February 2014.

He was looking for Grenache for our next wine tasting and on the recommendation of Platter’s Wine Guide he found himself at Vriesenhof.

He knew the news would be of value to me as I always admired Jan Boland Coetzee and his wines. He found the Grenache and Jan kindly spent some time with them and the call was to inform me that the 2005 Kallista was excellent – but in particular, the 2009 was in the style of the 2003 and would therefore probably age for decades.

Living in Boksburg all of that made pleasant conversation, but I didn’t foresee finding out for myself so soon. As luck would have it, my diary opened up unexpectedly and I managed an overdue winelands trip early in March.

I always take Platter along and in this case the 2013 and 2014 editions. I didn’t  look at Platter before arriving at Vriesenhof as I thought I knew what to expect. The Kallistas and the Grenache were both outstanding. The 2013 Chardonnay is probably one of the best ever produced in South Africa. It was, however, 2008 Pinotage that really bowled my wife and myself over. We married in 1971 and through the years she shared my passion for good wine and I benefited from her ability and knowledge of good food. Every trip, local or abroad, pleasure or sport, featured wine as well.

After leaving Vriesenhof we looked at the two Platters. It is difficult to express my amazement at your evaluation. Awarding the 2008 Pinotage 2½ stars is ridiculous. I read further. Your words like “another old style offering” shows a subjective approach that is in my mind superficial and biased. Looking at the further ratings of Vriesenhof, I believe the picture becomes clear. The Grenache is rated 4½ stars because it is more fruit driven.
You actually tried to teach the master how to make wine by rewarding the approach that appeals to you. Objective evaluation went out the window. This leads to a totally ridiculous result.

Let me attempt to illustrate. Dictating to the Port makers in Oporto to modernize their style in making Vintage Port would, in my opinion, be arrogant. To tell the winemakers in Bordeaux to follow Australia would be the same. The world of wine would become poorer if the old world style disappeared.

You use the words “old fashioned” as being stuck in the past. I believe this to be wrong, but more so it is unacceptable for any critic of note. Indeed, the opposite is true here. We have a legendary winemaker and a man who uses his invaluable experience of decades to create timeless master pieces and classics. Living products that will age for decades to come. Wines that will be talked about long after he’s no longer with us. A winemaker who can teach the next generation.

To your credit, in the 2013 edition you quote the winemaker Nicky Claasen saying he draws his inspiration from the Great 1973 Cabernet from Kanonkop that Jan Coetzee created. It just seems to me that you do not fully appreciated what he stated.

I personally rate Micheal Woodhead’s 1987 Le Bonheur Cabernet Sauvignon as the best South African red wine I’ve tasted. This is subjective, yes, but my son recently still found a bottle for me in Franschhoek – so it stayed around. Heaven forbid me offering to share it with you because it was created from old clone Cabernet that had a distinctive pencil taste that the old clone offered. Nothing “fruit driven”, so clearly not for you.

In all fairness I drove to Simonsig immediately after reading your ratings to compare the Vriesenhof with the Redhill Pinotage that Platter rated 4½ and a wine that I rate as a benchmark. On the day, on what I tasted, there was only one winner. The Vriesenhof was classier. In my view it was clearly the better wine.

You may disagree, but the ridiculous rating of the Vriesenhof is borne out by the Platter Guide itself. Jan’s second tier Paradyskloof is rated 3 stars.

In Platter a 2½ star rating is defined as a “good every day drinking wine”. So I noted other Pinotage ratings in Platter. The Obikwa was rated 3 stars and the Two Oceans (not even bottled) 3½ stars. I believe almost anybody with some knowledge of wine would rate these as everyday wines. The Vriesenhof definitely does not fall under that definition.

I bought both these wines previously from Checkers on special where you buy two and get one free. That worked out at about R20.00 a bottle. I enjoyed a bottle of each and the other four bottles are lying in my cellar looking for an occasion. Yes, they are “fruit driven”, but unexciting wines that are left behind because of my enthusiasm for something better. Worse thing is that my wife warned me it would happen but I was curious and I’m always hopeful of a bargain.

Adi Badenhorst said something that stuck in my mind while he was still at Rustenburg. He stated that the Rustenburg wines reflected the estate, while he designed the Brampton range to reflect the cultivar.  This is well stated and I believe applies to Vriesenhof and Paradyskloof.

It is so easy to be critic. There is, however, a responsibility that goes with it. When you give a 2½ star rating to the Vriesenhof Pinotage it reflects on the winemaker and his estate. There may be financial implications, but more importantly it reflects on the status of the winemaker. What you really are saying is that he doesn’t know what he is doing with Pinotage.

I believe Pinotage can compete with the best cultivars in the world. Kanonkop proved it, but it won’t be the Obikwa or Two Oceans versions that conquer the world.

The subject of “New World” and “fruit driven” seems to be a very old and ongoing obsession with Mr. James.  It is found in all his evaluations. I just opened the 2004 Platter and the  Buitenverwachting Christine was awarded 4½ stars and praised for “now more new world- oriented (riper fruit, big alcohol)”.

Let us understand our history. In this country the old and the new world meet. We have cool and warm areas. There is a place for all styles. It makes us unique. We should treasure all of them. It enriches us.

Let us value our wonderful winemaking history. Having our diversity in mind I do believe Platter should strive to have more than one taster for each entry to give a more credible and objective assessment.

As a legal man, looking at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Platter ratings of Vriesenhof all done by Mr. Tim James, I suggest a disclaimer stating: “Please note that the ratings appearing here reflects the personal opinion of the taster and do not reflect the quality of the wine at all”. I am being harsh, but I believe it is warranted.

Just a friendly warning. I noted that there are no ratings for Arendsig anymore.  Lourens van Westhuizen is a fine winemaker and well worthwhile watching. If ratings are not credible, our beloved Platter will lose its value (although it may remain as a valuable index of South African wines) and like Wine Magazine will sorely be missed.

I hope you will find my opinion thought provoking and not small mindedly ignore it. After all, we are all wine lovers who should appreciate all styles and our judgement of the quality of a wine (neither classic styles nor new ideas) should be held back by our inherent biases. This should particularly be true for wine writers who is held in high regard by the wine making and wine drinking community.

P.S. The “Odd sins” wine group had its Grenache tasting. Ten members are between 35 – 45 years old, myself and my wife between 60 – 70 years old.

Seven wines were tasted – Grier (Villiera) bought from Woolworths, Paradyskloof, Arendsig (unlabled), Tierhoek, Nederburg (Woolworths), Vriesenhof and AA Babenhorst (unlabled). The AA Badenhorst and Arendsig are not freely available. The Vriesenhof won followed by AA Badenhorst, Arendsig, Tierhoek, Nederburg, Paradyskloof and Grier. They were all excellent wines and the Grier kept on developing in the glass. The Vriesenhof scored an average of 18.08 out of 20, which is the highest any wine ever scored in the history of the club.

17 thoughts on “An argument

  1. Mr Botha is perhaps the first person to have discerned in me a preference for fruit-driven, New World-style wines. Most people with any understanding of my tastes in wine know that is quite the opposite of the truth. Which is, of course, a very different matter from my objections to wines which display no intensity or flavour derived from fruit, possibly because they have been left in oak too long, or the oak is otherwise not well handled, or the fruit has been damaged by a fault (rampant brettanomyces could do it, or cork taint, for example), or, no doubt, other reasons.

    I’ll come back to the question of Vriesenhof later, and first deal with a few adjacent matters raised by Mr Botha.

    He says that my alleged fondness for “fruit-driven” wines is old and ongoing and “in all [my] evaluations”. Unfortunately, to support this large generalisation, he only instances one example, which he does with a disingenuity that is (perhaps?) surprising in a “legal man”. He says that in Platter 2004 “Buitenverwachting Christine was awarded 4½ stars and praised for ‘now more new world-oriented (riper fruit, big alcohol)’”.

    In fact, the wine was praised for being a good wine. The phrase he quotes is an objective description of the change from the previous style. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that it is the changed style that is being rewarded. The sentence continues, it should be noted, with a “but”: “but forcefully structured, not simply fruity”.

    In rather similar vein Mr Botha suggests that I “use the words ‘old fashioned’ as being stuck in the past”. In fact, as far as I can see, I only used the words “old-style” and “old-school” (let’s try to be accurate here!) – and attach no value judgement to them at all. They are attempting to give the reader an idea of style, rather than of quality. I imagine it’s easy to agree that “old-style” wines can be either good and bad; just as “modern-style” wines can be good or bad. The fact that I don’t admire a particular example of old-style wine does not mean that it is the style itself I object to.

    In fact, there are elements of old-style South African winemaking that I admire greatly – for example, lower alcohols, modesty in oaking, dryness, vinosity rather than simple fruitiness. There are also elements that I don’t like – such as clumsy oaking, “dikvoet” over-extraction, over-acidification, dirty cellars.

    But Mr Botha is generally wrong, in his eagerness to paint my lack of admiration for some of Vriesenhof’s wines as being because of my lack of professional objectivity, and my distaste for older traditions. He thinks I would not appreciate wines like 1987 Le Bonheur Cabernet, for example. I have, however, frequently expressed my admiration for the wines of Mike Woodhead (the then owner-winemaker), especially the 1984, perhaps, along with those of other resolutely old-style wines of that decade, like Welgemeend, Kanonkop and Meerlust. I specifically enthuse about Woodhead’s 1980s Cabernet and Prima in the Le Bonheur entry in my book on SA wines. My disappointment with modern Bordeaux reds is something I’ve frequently expressed.

    Mr Botha also seems to think I have an objection to pinotage, because I rated the Vriesenhof 2008 just 2.5 stars (the 2009 I gave 3 stars to, and perhaps he noted that I had previously rated the 2006 and 2007 at 3.5 stars); I had indeed found the 2008 Vriesenhof somewhat problematic – but not because I rate pinotage lowly. The current Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage I regard as one of the best red wines in South Africa, and there are many other pinotages I admire.

    As to the absense of Arendsig ratings from Platter, I cannot comment, as I do not know why they were not submitted for tasting. I have heard good things about these wines, but confess I don’t know them – a lack which I’d like to remedy soon.

    So to Vriesenhof, whose wines Mr Botha thinks I was horribly unfair to – apart from the Grenache, which we can agree to like greatly, and perhaps apart from the Chardonnay, which I also like (at 4 stars), even if not quite as extravagantly as he seems to.

    I do find a wide range of quality emerging from Vriesenhof’s barrels. The Vriesenhof Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 was one of my most-liked reds at last year’s CWG auction (see here http://grape.co.za/2013/08/all-those-cwg-wines-rated/). This is not the place for me to make my guesses as to why I find more problems in some of the more recent wines from Vriesenhof – especially what I’ve described in Platter as a “leather, savoury overlay”, “the fruit a little dulled”, etc etc.

    Mr Botha and I must perhaps agree to differ. It is very possible that there is some bottle variation that happens with Vriesenhof wines, depending on what was the cause of the less attractive features in the bottles I tasted for Platter. I say bottles advisedly, because Mr Botha should know that I take my Platter tasting very seriously, and do not easily downgrade a moderately well-reputed wine like, for example, Vriesenhof Kallista (I gave the 2005 4 stars, and I know that English critic Tim Atkin gave it a modest 88/100). In the case of the 2009, which I gave a half-star less, I can assure him that the judgement was not just my own – that is not how Platter works in cases like this. Another senior, very experienced taster was given these Vriesenhof wines for a second opinion, and gave ratings and remarks in accordance with my own.

    Mr Botha says that “the Grenache is rated 4½ stars because it is more fruit driven”. He has no evidence to make that assertion (for a lawyer, he’s not very aware of the need to present evidence!). I do not even mention that it is “fruit-driven”, and that’s not how I would ever describe it. It’s rated 4½ stars for the reasons that I do give, not for the reasons that Mr Botha somehow deduces.

    If Mr Botha had lovely bottles of the other wines, I’m delighted for him, and hope that at least most other customers also have that pleasure.

  2. Off topic, I know, but I also really liked the Le Bonheur Cabernet Sauvignon 1987. But I loved the ’86! And the 1984 was even better.

  3. Lourens (Arendsig) does not enter his wines into Platter because the ratings that he received when he did enter were degrading his brand. Stylistically the panels do not favor what Lourens have always tried to do in his focus on making Single Vineyard Wines. To be brutally honest, he doesn’t need a rating from Platter or other competitions to sell his wines…something other brands rely on.

    Arendsig is a brand that started out as a very small passionate operation with the focus of making terroir specific wines. Lourens was a pioneer when he started in 2004 and his hard work has paid off. It has become a little cult wine brand with a very loyal following like Mr Botha and others.

    Arendsig is a winemakers brand with a personality like Lourens behind it that makes people fall in love with the wines. Competitions are not a focus for us in growing the brand and sales.

  4. Colyn, well said and I agree whole-heartedly with your centiments. Furthermore I have personally heard platters being called a telephone guide for the wine industry more than once. I often find that their scoring is out of line with international competitions where a wine would get silver or gold, yet here they are rather poorly rated. And not to be basful, but I think the sales figures of the guide might reflect on the distain as of late for it. Perhaps a few figures platters ? For both print and online copies.

    • There are few things as out of sync as the result of just about any international (or local) wine tasting competition to the next one – To put stock in these results is statistically on par with buying lucky packets.

      I would much rather make use of Platter as a reference point and make own mind.
      It also does a great job as a “telephone directory” and providing useful info on the producer than any competition does as a quality guide.
      Even without taking the ratings into account (depending on your thoughts on the ability of the spesific taster rating your favourite producers)this makes Platter as useful asset.

  5. Andre Simon wrote in his book entitled: “In the Twilight” (1969) the following:

    “It is usually easy enough to tell which is the worse of two bad wines, but it is extremely difficult to tell which is the better of two good wines. It is possible, of course, to know how much alcohol and other matters there are in a wine, but it has little to do with the wine’s quality. The value of a gold ornament can be assessed by its gold carats, but the quality of wine is a matter of personal opinion- which is liable to vary with your palate, your mood, the temperature of the room, and other such factors. Which is why it is so difficult to compare two or more fine wines and decide which is best.”

  6. …I think if we accept what Andre Simon said, then that must be the reason why we get the kind of arguments that we see here. I think criticism is necessary but it turns ugly when people take it personally.
    Myself started out liking the ripe/concentrated/wooded styles but eventually I found it demanding. I didn’t come to realize what the issue was until I started following Tim’s blog. So for me at least his writings are of value.

  7. I understand Vrede en Lust also withdrew from Platter for the same weak reason as Colyn Truter’s attempts to justify one of the brands he represents’ absence. A case of “I don’t like what I am getting, so I don’t want to play anymore”. Make better wine, then you will get the ratings you deserve.

    • Andrew please talk to me when you know what you’re talking about. I have had many sit downs with Philip van Zyl about how Platter could play a bigger role in the industry with the focus on tasting quality rather than every single wine produced in this country. So i will not venture into that again.

      However, I don’t know if you are in the Wine or Restaurant business but I think you must really open your eyes a bit!

    • Andrew, always easy to make sharp comments when you dont use a real name. We pulled out of Platter for good and validated reason, suggest you re-read my reason for withdrawing 3 years ago.
      http://www.vnl.co.za/2011/08/16/we-opt-out-of-platter-sighted-reviews/
      Nothing has happended since then has changed my view in regards the value of sighted, subjective ratings.
      The Vrede en Lust wines continue to gain accolades but most importantly, they sell out, which means our target market enjoys them. That is what is important to us : happy customers.

  8. My two cents worth: most of us have a handful of wines/wineries/winemakers who hold a special place in our wine tasting souls, and this is good thing. However it does mean that we are fairly subjective in our opinions of these wines and while it is human nature to want other people to like what we hold dear it is also true that for a guide/competition/critic to exactly replicate our evaluations of these wines would be highly unlikely.

    Mr Botha suggests a printed disclaimer stating that all ratings reflect the personal opinion of the taster and are not a true indication of quality: I would have thought this a given for any guide or competition.

    It is all subjective,Mr Botha, and thank goodness for that,its partly what makes wine ratings fun.

  9. On a lighter note I would suggest that Tim James would prefer to be mistaken for a fan of Neil Pendock rather then an an outspoken advocate of fruit forward new world styles being better than old world finesse.

  10. Clarie, 2.5 stars, and the descriptors ‘old fashioned’, and/or ‘rustic’, are amongst the ways a wine writer will suggest that a wine is technically faulty, without having to say it :-)

  11. Marianne – I have no idea what KWV’s intentions are. Invitations to participate in the next edition of Platter have not yet gone out (nor have details of the likely-to-be-revamped tasting system), so perhaps it’s unlikely that they have taken any such decision.

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