For many tasters in the Platter Guide team, I suspect that the communal tasting of candidates for five stars – the guide’s ultimate accolade, as they say – is the highlight of the tasting season. For many consumers it produces the most important list of top South African wines. And it’s happening today (Monday 8 September), with an interesting new methodology.
The Platter season is drawing to a close (if not quite yet for a few of the editorial team – notably the sleepless Philip van Zyl, pulling things together, especially editing the tasting notes submitted, some of which let it be kindly said are not quite as good as others, in terms of expression or accuracy in reflecting the technicalities of the wines). For a few months those tasters have been working their way through the large majority of South Africa’s current releases – though a few producers choose not to submit their ranges (especially those that consider the ratings they get not good enough, or not useful enough for their marketing strategies), and quite a number are holding back on some new vintages, waiting (let’s hope not in vain!) for the current vintage to sell out.
So. The tasters allocate their scores to the wines, at their own pace and in the comfort of their own space. Where there’s a sizeable discrepancy with previous ratings, a second opinion is sought. And a more or less random selection of about 10 percent of all the wines submitted also go through a blind tasting procedure – just to confirm (again, hopefully) that all is in order.
But with the very top wines, all the individual taster can do is nominate a wine as a candidate for five stars, to be tasted blind in a formal situation by small teams of tasters. I’m not sure how many such candidates there are this year – I suspect over 200, a good few dozen more than last year. Going by previous experience well over half of those will be rejected as five star wines.
It has to be said (well, I think so, anyway) that the panel in the past has often got things wrong. When, last year, for example, Alheit Cartology and Sadie Columella didn’t make it and a few somewhat dubious candidates (again: well, I think so, anyway) did make it, it wasn’t hard to think that the judging panel had done not uniformly brilliantly.
And why or how should they have? The wines were allocated to teams, but tasters still had the impossible (well, I think so, anyway) task of fairly making judgements of wines on the basis of a more-or-less quick sniff, swirl and spit – not always certain, surely, whether the tannin or acid lingering from the previous wine was somehow influencing the current one.
My criticism of the usual competitive wine-judging arena is certainly not that the wines are tasted blind, but the blindness in conjunction with tasting too many wines in too short a time
With a bit of luck – and with a great deal of effort and thought, and quite a lot of expense, from new publisher J-P Rossouw – we’ll do better this year. The procedure is going to be rather different, though I’ll only find out all the details when I arrive at the tasting venue (a club at Newlands Cricket ground!) tomorrow. Definitely it will be more leisurely, with tasters grappling with fewer wines, on both of which aspects which I’m pinning a lot of hope.
J-P is bringing in some supplementary tasters, mostly with Platter experience but “disqualified” from the sighted tasting because of their direct commercial interests. So there’ll be, I believe, seven panels of 3 tasters each. Each panel will be allocated not more than 30+ wines, covering whole categories (I’m sure shiraz will be the biggest as usual!), with the whole day available to taste them in if necessary (surely not, even for the slow and steady).
They’ll be tasted blind and scored in silence and discussed, one by one – that’s what more than anything else should enforce a slow pace – and a consensus final score will be reached. Probably importantly and very usefully there will be two roving tasters who can come in to help if there are any serious tussles and disagreements.
More importantly they will try to encourage a uniformity of standards between the groups. Given the importance of this role, it’s lucky that the two will be the greatly experienced pair Michael Fridjhon (not an “ordinary” Platter taster this year for the first time in very many years), and Cathy van Zyl.
So that’s it. There’s every reason to believe that this year’s list of five-star winners will be more unimpeachable than it sometimes has been (well, I think so, anyway).