Going for five

Today – Friday 21 August – is the tasting of the candidates for five stars in Platter’s 2010. The climax for the tasters, perhaps, but it’s still nearly three weeks before editor Philip van Zyl and publisher Andrew McDowall jet off to Singapore to have the incredibly complex database fed into one of those clever machines they have there, to emerge as a book (60 000 copies of it, or thereabouts)  from the other end.

Even then, if things run true to form, it won’t just be a question of the two of them eating spicy prawns and drinking gin slings at Raffles, while idly wondering what colour cover the book should have. There’ll still be sleepless nights of last-minute checking and entering and reconciling and correcting proofs. As a subsidiary editor and as a proofreader for the book (I always wonder if I should admit to the latter function) I remember last year Singaporean emails with proofs, requests for checking and entering stuff coming well after what I thought had been the final final deadline. Do I think this year will be different? Well, I’m keeping my diary not too full….

But now, at least,  most of the Cape’s 6000-plus wines have been tasted (am I out of date with that number?) – there might be a few stragglers still coming in, there usually are, and probably fewer wines have been tasted  this year than last, and there’ll be more entries in the book than ever before including a note saying “tasted last yr”,  reflecting the fact that many producers still haven’t sold out of what they offered a year ago and so haven’t sent in anything new.

There are, however, more five-star candidates than there have ever been before, I believe. Last year there were about 80, as I recall, and (without being sure) I think there are well over a hundred this year. The wines arrive at this point (the tasting at the Devon Valley otel in Stellenbosch) after a sighted tasting by one of the panel of tasters, who seriously reckons the wine is worth the highest rating. (I say “one”, but in fact there are a surprising number of wines that get referred by the editor to other tasters for a second – or third – opinion, usually tasted blind.)

Anyway the candidates will be tasted, from neutral bottles, in formal, blind, anonymous silence by the panel consisting of all the Platter tasters, who will be asked, basically, to say either yes or no to each candidate. Simple arithmetic will then decide which get the nod and proceed to glory, and which are told to go home and be satisfied with their mere four-and-a-half stars.

In fact, because of the neat conjunction of there being a record number of tasters this year (sixteen? more?) and a record number of wines, it looks likely that there will be two panels sharing the task between them. A much better idea, anyway, it seems to me: the fewer wines that any individual has to taste the better the chance of them doing the job well.  Factors like tannin build-up, shadow effects and sheer fatigue militate against the chance of anyone making a sensible, fair assessment of wine number 50, let alone wine number 80 at the end of a long morning.

But what this new situation will mean for the number of five star wines this year is anybody’s guess (though a competent mathetician should be able to get closer than a wine expert  to working out the likelihoods of a majority of yesses, I suspect.

There should though, with all those candidates, be a bumper crop of five-star winners – which would probably be right, given continuing improvements in Cape wine. (I suspect we do need to have a re-calibration of Platter in the light of higher standards: many people, including me, feel that we’re awarding too many high ratings – but that’s another story.) And I’d take a small bet that one or two of the winners this year will be from new or newish wineries that few people have heard of. And I say that without – I promise – even knowing what’s on the tasting menu today, apart from those I nominated myself.

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