The return of John Platter

Like some other successful people, John Platter saw his name become a brand – and a saleable one. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was a leading wine critic and journalist in the Cape, already best known for his enduring achievement: what was first called, in the maiden 1980 edition, John Platter’s Book of South African Wines. It’s been known by other names since then, but always with “Platter” in the title. He sold the guide, retired from a serious involvement with wine and left for strange and foreign parts – Kwa Zulu Natal! (Though I do know they make some decent wine there these days.)

johnplatterbookAnd now the accomplished journalist is back, with a genial, thoroughly pleasing, somewhat idiosyncratic (and even occasionally rather odd) book, called My Kind of Wine, picking up, more or less, where he left off 16 years back, happily combining freshness of vision with depth of understanding. It’s mostly the record of his findings on a “fascinating, palate-stretching” tour around the Cape (and, minimally, KwaZulu-Natal) winelands – a Cape, as he says, “in flamboyant ferment”. It should also be pointed out that Erica Platter is also back – a crucial force in the Platter Guide for a long time, she is a force behind the scenes here too.

Although John claims to doubt that there can be “best” in wine, most of the producers (some 60-odd, I’d guess) he writes about so enthusiastically, and the 200-plus wines whose pleasures he records, would generally be recognised as leaders in the field: from well-established ones who were familiar to him from his time in the Cape (Meerlust, Thelema, Hamilton Russell, etc), all the way to the “new wave”. Of course there’s room to dispute his preferences, and it’s perhaps rather a pity that he doesn’t seem to recognise the great leaps by the big merchant labels, like Nederberg, KWV Mentors, Bellingham.

As to the range, one of the aspects of this book that I found most interesting is John’s alertness to some winelands envy and hostility that I scarcely notice myself – directed primarily from some established owners and winemakers at the avant-garde. He quotes, without divulging his sources, some arrogant, irrelevant and ill-informed comments in his section on the Swartland Revolution: “Scavengers without commitment nor [sic] capital”; “Men at arms without farms”! It’s grimly entertaining to guess at who might have come up with those vulgar stupidities.

John himself is generously open to the best of both the traditional and new wave producers; certainly he is highly approving of what has happened in Cape wine in recent decades. His analyses and descriptions are mostly light-hearted though meticulously checked and well-informed, organised by grape variety or wine style, and accompanied by numerous (adequate rather than brilliant) photographs of the people, places and wines he’s talking about. The tone, the thrust, of his book is best described by John himself in his foreword: “This is not a systematic – much less a comprehensive – tour of the wine lands. It’s a ramble. Written not for the cognoscenti…, but for the less hooked.” As such, it is both easy-going and fresh, while those cognoscenti need never fear that they will find nothing of interest.

Some of the interest will be found in a section at the end under the rubric “My take on…”. This is a somewhat capricious selection which glosses a few winemaking terms and practices (malolactic fermentation), makes comments – some alarmingly brief – on large subjects (corks and screwcaps, terroir), and has a much lengthier and more valuable discussion of “Wine words, tasting notes”. Interestingly, and to me surprisingly, there’s no “take” here, or anywhere in My Kind of Wine, on the wider socio-political aspects of the South African wine industry. OK, that subject might be a touch heavy for a light book like this – but should it be so resolutely avoided? I wonder if John found much socially different in the winelands compared to a few decades back, when he got a lot of disheartening flak from the more backward parts of the industry when taking a moderately critical political stance.

John’s writing style plays its part in a resolute determination to present wine as an unintimidating source of delight. The many subheadings are in the same breathless genre as a number of recently trendy wine names – and in fact such examples as “Life isn’t bad”, “Wow oh wow!” and “Ripe tannins murmuring”, “Three halves and a renegade” could still end up on some dreadful labels somewhere…. Beneath the subheads, interspersing the eloquent, fluent prose I remember of old, there’s a new and rather self-conscious element. Lots of short, punchy sentences. Some are very short. No grammatical subjects. Or verbs. Irritating.

If the above account covers “idiosyncratic”, I must yet justify my earlier remark about occasional oddness. Well, right at the very beginning of My Kind of Wine, where habitual book-readers expect a title page, nothing! Perhaps it’s my own idiosyncracy to find this disturbing – but it seems to me to be pushing casualness too far. Then, towards the end of the book, there’s a brief section called “The advocates” with a portrait of viticulturist Rosa Kruger and her important work, and one of the now hopefully fading American critic Robert Parker. Huh? An important influence, undeniably, but then so are many others, and the styles with which Parker is associated are dealt with passim.

This anomalous inclusion does sort of prepare the reader, with its sudden arbitrariness, to turn the leaf and discover a much longer section, a fifth of the book, of recipes for “Wine country food”. Why? Personally, I’d rather have had another 40 pages about John’s kind of wine and with further perceptive observations on the Cape wine industry today. But this is mere cavilling. My Kind of Wine is a welcome addition to the short list of good books on Cape wine.

• My Kind of Wine, by John Platter, published by PawPaw; 224 pages; retailing at around R370



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