Interview: John Platter

The South African wine industry has been transformed over the last 25 years. John Platter, the country’s most influential wine critic, has witnessed it at close hand, and has firm views on how SA can establish itself as a true global force. JAMES LAWTHER MW is all ears.

John Platter has been the voice of South African wine for the last 25 years. A career which started with a weekly wine column for the Rand Daily Mail in the 1970s led to the launch of the best-selling John Platter South African Wine Guide. Now in its 26th edition, the book has established Platter as his country’s foremost authority.

As a front line commentator and even participant (grape grower and winemaker can be included on his CV), he’s witnessed the wine industry evolve from the old, restrictive government-controlled regime to the present post-apartheid boom.

‘Compared to today, the South African wine industry pre-1990s was in a very sleepy state,’ says Platter. ‘It was politically and administratively settled with quotas and guaranteed prices and so farmers were not encouraged to be experimental. Frankly, it was a very self-satisfied and smug atmosphere,’ he explains.

So in this, the 10th anniversary of the first free, democratic elections, what have been the most significant changes? “The single biggest catalyst for reconstruction was South Africa’s readmission to world markets,’ says Platter. ‘That produced a whole range of incentives, experiments and exposure to different work practices. Styles of wine had to be matched to what consumers wanted, the pointers often given by supermarket buyers. This was refreshing from an industry point of view but unsettling for lots of farmers who had to come out of a virtual cooperative system to something that approximated a free market engagement in the world.’

One of the biggest challenges has been improving the vineyard and vine selection system. This has meant a large-scale programme of uprooting and planting with better quality clones and rootstocks. Greater emphasis has been placed on red varietals (16% of the surface area in 1990, 45% in 2001) with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot leading the way.

Virus-infected vines have also been a major problem to contend with. ‘Our exposure forced us to admit that grapes from virused vines weren’t ripening properly and that we were making wines with unripe tannins, and calling this the South African style. Now we’ve questioned all this and are steadily getting to grips with the virus problem through better farming practices and by obtaining good planting material from clean nurseries.’

Additionally, there’s a greater spread of regions where vineyards are being planted. Until the early 1990s, the restrictive production quota system boxed people into selected areas of the Cape. The ending of this has meant that vineyards can be planted anywhere, as the Australians and Californians have always been able to do, and there’s a kind of pioneering spirit of adventure now under way.

‘I think we’re still largely in the trawling, prospective phase of matching varieties and rootstocks to Cape terroirs,’ says Platter. ‘But there have been some interesting things happening in some of the newer regions. Elgin is going to be exciting, possibly for Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, then there’s Sauvignon Blanc, again from Darling and Elim/Cape Agulhas, which is also looking to Chardonnay. Shiraz, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre look comfortable in Swartland and there’s Cabernet, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in the Cederberg region of Olifants River. Regional things are happening but people are still experimenting so mono-viticulture won’t be developing yet.’

What has grown on Platter and a few others is the potential for Shiraz and Rhône-style blends in the Cape’s Mediterranean climate. ‘I think Shiraz and a general Rhône mix is the next exciting thing. To be absolutely frank, trying to do Cabernet and Merlot is fantastic in little pockets but when you look at the region as a whole, they are not suited to our burning, roaring climate. What we can do on a scale that has some meaning is to match our climate to what really works, to produce outstanding, good value wines. We now have some wonderfully individual examples of Shiraz, and the next stage will be to get down to stylistic definitions. There are not many blends as yet but my guess is that these varieties (Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan) will provide our comfort zone in the next five to ten years.’

Plantings of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan are as yet tiny, as are those of Nebbiolo, which has also shown promise. Red varieties that he thinks as a whole have yet to meet expectations include Merlot and Pinotage. As for whites, Platter feels that despite the success of Sauvignon Blanc, a top-class white blend is something that producers should get to grips with. He’s also waiting for a much higher, more deftly oaked, standard of Chardonnay.

Who, then, are the most exciting producers of the moment? Warming to his theme of Rhône varieties, Platter hails Charles Back’s Spice Route and Fairview labels – ‘single vineyard wines that are unpredictable but often stunning’. Gyles Webb of Thelema – ‘thoroughly professional but unflashy’ – and André van Rensberg of Vergelegen – ‘a real craftsman’ – are on a roll, as are the estates of Boekenhoutskloof, Rustenberg, Rust en Vrede and Steenberg. As to the future stars, Platter names Rudera, Dornier, The Foundry, Sadie Family, Vins D’Orrance, Flagstone and Ken Forrester as worth watching.

Whether or not South Africa needs a flagship wine is a hot topic. Could the label ‘Cape blend’ do for South Africa what Shiraz has for Australia? And should it be regulated via a minimum dose of Pinotage?

In Platter’s view, regulations are not a good option and neither is he completely sold on the idea. ‘Regulations are so difficult to enforce and would lead to more argument and debate. What we need to do is simplify. As to whether the Cape blend thing is a good idea, I’m not sure. There are some people, and I think I’m one of them, who believe these things have an organic life of their own, with markets and entrepreneurs playing their bit. I would disagree, however, with those that say Pinotage is the national grape and therefore obligatory, partly because if we’re going to do that, we should be making better Pinotage.’

A more pressing problem, and one in which he is actively engaged, is the political future of the industry. ‘Where you have a white to black population ratio of one to eight, and the wine industry is 99% controlled and owned by whites, there has to be a fairly dramatic structural change to fit into the new political scheme of things. Long-term sustainability demands this.’

As a consultant to the government-appointed South African Wine Trust, he is tasked with transforming the industry. ‘The government doesn’t want to be prescriptive, it wants change to grow from within. But as a goal, it is trying to achieve one third black participation by 2014. An industry approved and negotiated Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) charter will set workable models which the government will back financially and possibly by using its own procurement policies in favour of BEE groups.’

In his recently published and highly acclaimed travel diary/wine book, Africa Uncorked (co-written with wife Erica), Platter admits: ‘There’s still not a lot of ‘transformation’ evident.’ But after a sharp-eyed and colourful account of their adventures in the ‘Extreme Wine Territory’ of a dozen African countries, he concludes with a heartening view of the South African wine industry today.

‘A new generation is asserting itself, and it shows in altogether finer wines – much less clumsy and tough, riper, more subtly oaked. The global wine quality renaissance had hit home. The men and women in charge now have thrown off the confines and conformism, and complacency, of the past. They’re shaking up an over-regimented, over-protected wine industry.’

Africa Uncorked is published by Kyle Cathie.

Written by James Lawther MW