Before we began the Platter five star tasting last month, I asked the question on what standard are we judging these wines, international or local. In the ‘How to use this guide’ section of Platter, the ultimate five star rating is described as ‘Superlative. A South African classic’, which might appear to make my question irrelevant. But what is the point of that rating if it has absolutely no relevance on an international level as well?
The purpose of my query related in particular to pinot noir and riesling rather than sauvignon blanc or cabernet. Although both of the first pair are considered notoriously difficult when it comes to making good, let alone great wine outside of their home turf (Burgundy and Germany respectively), pinot noir at least has enjoyed considerable and consistent success with Platter five star ratings.
Having written that, I was more than a little surprised on checking past editions that one, two or, even three pinots have received that ultimate local accolade every year since the 2007 guide (Success or otherwise in the 2015 guide remains to be seen.) Are we deluding ourselves that we can produce so many pinots of such quality?
What makes this issue more pertinent is that it’s not a big category; I would guess the maximum number of pinots nominated has never exceeded single figures.
This Platter success was a topic of discussion last week at a convivial lunch, hosted by Paul Cluver and his sister Liesl Rust, the purpose of which was to introduce the latest, 2011, Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir. My fellow guests were Caroline Rillema, Higgo Jacobs and Tim James.
Tim made the point that it seems far more difficult to get five stars for sauvignon blanc or cabernet sauvignon, varieties which he believes are deserving of more five stars than they receive.
In defence of the pinot producers, none claim to have reached anywhere near the level they feel is possible, both young vines and cellar experiments are hurdles yet to be overcome. For instance, I have been, mildly, critical of Elgin pinots for being more about structure and not enough about silky caress. ‘But this wine has;’ the always charming, young Cluver quickly riposted and I have to agree; it’s drinking beautifully now with plenty of life ahead, though I question an increase in interest.
There’s no doubt every vintage has seen an improvement on the previous, in part to winemaker, Andries Burger’s better understanding of his raw material (and plenty of drinking experience with great Burgundies, DRC included!). Currently made from a single, old vineyard planted to one clone, I’m sure when other, older vineyards are introduced, the wine will be more complex. At R380, it is among the priciest of local pinot offerings but the question remains, how much value does it offer, especially when compared with slightly less pricey and highly rated examples. (I have no idea whether it was nominated for or received five stars in the up-coming guide.)
By chance, I had the opportunity of comparison with some Burgundies the following day, when I attended a Burgundy tasting hosted by Suzy Himely, owner of that Aladdin’s Cave called La Crèmerie in the Gardens Centre. She has recently acquired a liquor licence, allowing her to sell wines and spirits; these now complement every other French delicacy, including a wide and tempting range of cheeses.
The tasting, presented by Great Domaines’ Morgan Delacloche, featured seven Burgundies bookended by a Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and Hine VSOP Cognac. The two pinots included were both from Bouchard Père et Fils; one, a generic Bourgogne Pinot Noir La Vignee 2012 (R265), the other, the slightly grander Gevrey-Chambertin 2012 (R480).
Let’s put it this way, it’s worth trading up to the Chambertin and, from the point of view of purer fruit and enjoyment, I’d choose a Cape pinot over the generic Burgundy. One is caught between a rock and a hard place with Burgundian pinot; generics rarely offer value or a taste of what Burgundy is about and better are exponentially more expensive. That said, the Chambertin has charm and authenticity; the sort of wine that will evoke, ‘Ah, I now I get Burgundy’. Given the exchange rate and the inherent cost of Burgundy, it’s not badly priced.
So where does this leave South African pinots? As our vines age, we will definitely be a contender among New World producers – our wines have been described as ‘light’, ie lacking concentration and gravitas, a vine age factor. The best are enjoyable and have charm but we, like everywhere else, are way off the grandest and horribly expensive Grand and Premier Crus Burgundies.
Nor do enjoyment and charm make up for complexity and true greatness. The trouble with receiving a Platter five star rating is that is the ceiling. What now happens as the wines do get more complex and grand? I think we have been a bit hasty in our enthusiasm, as understandable as it is after those much less convincing organic wines from the old BK5 clone.