I had the great pleasure the other day of tasting the 25 syrahs that had been nominated for five stars in the 2015 Platter Guide (see here for my pre-tasting remarks). Now, I have to keep pretty cagey about any details, those that I know, so please forgive any evasions: the results of our efforts will only be declared, as far as I know, when the book is launched in November.
But maybe I can say that my team of three was being pretty strict, and were not as generous with five star awards as has been the case in the recent Platter past – and very possibly not as generous as we should have been, given that we were sampling what is arguably the strongest varietal grouping of Cape reds.
I think that most of the other Platter tasting teams were also being very careful of over-generosity, and that’s a great thing (as a corrective at least). Certainly my team (we also tasted a few tiny categories of white wine) approached the business with great care. We tasted our 25 syrahs in groups of five, and discussed nearly every wine in detail – only when there was total initial agreement did we pass on, and frequently called on further opinions from the two roving tasters before making our final assessment.
Did we get anything wrong? Perhaps we will come to think so when we look at the results. I suspect that, if we did, we committed sins of omission rather than commission. Although I think that this was about as good as a tasting of a biggish group of wines can be – leisurely and very careful – no quickish group blind tasting can ever, in my opinion, substitute for, or be as valid as, actually drinking a wine over an evening (preferably two), in full understanding of its origin and aims.
I’m preparing myself to endorse our positive results, that is, and perhaps be a little less certain about some of those wines we ultimately rejected.
It must be said, more or less in brackets, that there were a few wines that we thought should never have made it this far through the Platter tasting process. The context is that, like some other people, including some Platter tasters, I think the scoring has become somewhat over-generous in recent years, partly reflecting improved standards – something that should rather be reflected in a recalibratation.
But what of the state of Cape syrah as evidenced by this tasting? The experience reinforced, I suppose, my existing opinion, that, at its best, the standard is brilliant, world class. Which means that I’d be happy to rate some of these wines in a line-up of the best of the northern Rhone, with the best of New Zealand, Australia and California thrown in.
This is certainly not gung-ho patriotism, which is not my style anyway. And I would say much the same about white blends (both the Bordeaux and Swartland styles), chenin and sauvignon blanc, for example, and possibly about chardonnay.
One of the most interesting aspects of our 25 glasses of good Cape syrah, was, in fact, how varied they were. They ranged from the more “natural” style – earlier-picked, notably fresh, with no obvious oak influence – to more typical New Worldish stuff: ripe, big, powerful, with obviously wood. With various permutations in between. In my judgements, though my personal tastes are almost entirely in favour of the former group, I tried to reward the good examples of the other extreme too, recognising that they have a totally valid appeal (there are no absolutes or universals in wine-tasting except, perhaps, the concept of balance).
What I do find difficult to cope with in the latter style is when (and it’s not inevitable at all) there is the sort of sweetness that comes from a combination of ripe fruit, a few grams of residual sugar, and oak; and there certainly were a few of these blockbusters. But Cape syrah is a thrilling category – and then, of course, equally exciting (with some equally dire exceptions), is the category of syrah-based blends.
It’s a good time to be a Platter taster. Even more is it a good time to be a winelover in South Africa. Take syrah – see the prices reached by the best of Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Oregon, Martinborough, etc, and just be grateful for what you can find (with judicious care!) on the local shelves.