The Platter ditherer

I sometimes wonder if I am the most pathetically vacillating of the Platter tasters. The others, I suspect, are confidently dishing out their stars on the basis of a magisterial swirl, sniff and spit – with perhaps the occasional judicious swallow allowed. I do something approximately like that some of the time, but usually the process is repeated at least twice before I fling my stars at the wine, along with a few hopefully justificatory words.

But with serious, interesting or somehow difficult wines the process can last over days, with many anxious re-tastes – and sometimes even the opening of the second bottle to allow the process to continue….

It’s partly that increasingly I find giving scores to wines an inappropriate gesture. I remember what was perhaps a breakthough moment for me (or perhaps a breakdown moment) some years ago when I was an associate judge on the Trophy Wine Show. I was confronted with some 150 shirazes, as I recall (cold-ridden Jancis Robinson was chairing the panel).

I did my best, but soon after, reacting to the utter absurdity of the process, virtually sobbed on Janice Fridjhon’s shoulder (which she kindly made available) that this was not how I wanted to relate to wine. Since then I have refused to participate in big tasting line-ups – I don’t believe anyone can do them well or usefully, though some can undoubtedly do them much better than I.

One problem I’ve been facing the last few tasting days is some big, ripe, oaky reds with established good reputations. I know that I would be reluctant to drink a glassful of the stuff, given the choice, but I also have to recognise that this is an established, widely accepted style, and I must try to divorce my personal preferences as best I can from my judgement. If I can’t do that, then I can’t claim any professionalism and shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing – and I mostly thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. So I work at it.

But quality is not always something that is immediatley apparent. First, quick impressions can mislead, in either direction.

As an aside, I remember with just a shred of bitterness that there are people who think that, because Platter judging is done “sighted” – knowing the identity of the wine we’re judging – we can’t be objective, or even (it is sometimes claimed) honest. There’s an inherent problem to try to overcome, of course, in all sighted tasting, but to deny the possibility of honesty reflects more on the critic, it seems to me, than anything else!

Another interesting problem came to a head this evening over dinner. I decided to try with my prawns-and-pasta a rather grand, very well reputed 2010 chardonnay that had been open for over three days while I grappled with it daily. (I’d used it in the sauce, so it seemed fair enough to drink a glass or two of it.) I thought I’d finished my judicious dealings with the wine, having eventually awarded it 4 stars, lower than it had previously achieved.

Over the last Platter weeks, I’ve strongly formed an opinion that chardonnays from 2010 (unlike, for example, sauvignon blancs) are, on the whole, rather poor – certainly a disappointment after the splendours of the great 2009 vintage. There are undoubtedly exceptions (I thought, for example, that the Waterford Chardonnay Reserve 2010 was well up to standard – but my respect for what Francois Haasbroek is doing with the Waterford wines is altogether huge); my generalisation, however, reamains.

So I wasn’t altogether surprised when this other rather famous chardonnay, lacking its customary concentration, complexity, intensity, etc, seemed good enough for four stars but not for more. Another Platter taster, to whom I referred the wine, agreed with me.

Tonight, I thought it very good, and I’ve replaced the half-star I’d docked. No chardonnay that improves in an open bottle over three days, and is lovely on the third, is lacking all that much. (Is it worth all this angst for a half-star? I have to remember that for a producer, or a winelover seeking advice, it might well be worth my angst; and in fact it is worth it for me, too.)

At least I’m confident that I shan’t put it forward for the five-star tasting (when the candidates are tasted blind by a full panel). But I have an awful feeling that the ordeal is not over. Tomorrow, I suspect, I shall search through the pile of boxes to find the other bottle and open it – just to check.

That pile, incidentally, part of it pictured here, is blissfully more untidy than usual. I moved house just as the Platter business was starting and, while it was hardly the most suitable time for me to do so, it has at least given me a spare room in which the cases of wine (those waiting, those emptied, and those consisting of the unwanted spare bottles) accumulate and sprawl. While I dither at my desk.


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