Tim James: On the continuing emergence of natural wines
By Christian Eedes, 6 September 2016
It was the most unusual line-up I’ve experienced at one of the big final Platter’s tastings. (For those who don’t know, this event has in recent years evolved into one where a number of three-person panels blind-taste the many hundreds of wines that have been nominated for more than four stars.) This small category was entitled “Alternative whites”, and consisted of nine wines, ranging in colour from fairly standard mid-straw, through golden-orange to pretty dark old-gold. Far from all brilliantly clear, a few downright hazy.
There’d never before been such a category, but such is the proliferation of such wines in the Cape in recent years that it was clearly necessary this year – given the patent unfairness (and silliness) of putting alongside more standard stuff a blend of chenin, viognier & muscat that had macerated on its skins in clay amphorae for 7 months. Etc.
Unfortunately, one or two producers of such avant-garde wines don’t submit their wines to Platter, but most do and it’s an excellent and rewarding challenge to the Platter’s tasters (not all of whom get around a great deal, it must be admitted) to deal with wines that in some cases stray wildly from the established norms of excellence and style.
And I was surprised and delighted this year that there were many more than I knew about. It was almost invariably a privilege and a pleasure to taste them – and even more to drink them, which is the big advantage for the Platter’s home taster, a privilege denied those going to “tastings” or judging competitions.
Snapshot brevity is a severe limitation that applies to the final blind Platter’s tasting too, of course – and I’m nearly as sceptical of that as I am of all big tastings, though the methodology is evolving and it seems to me that it’s getting to be as good as possible. For one thing, the judging panel, once its members have made their own rating of the wine, takes into account the score given by the “home taster” – who had the opportunity to linger over the wine and come to a more lengthily considered opinion; and this can affect on the panel’s deliberations about a final score.
Another innovation this year was to break up the large categories in such a way as to give the palate a rest. So, my nine Alternative Whites came between two sessions of shiraz with 25 wines in each (the panel continued with the other 36 shiraz candidates next day!).Quite apart from time off while the new wines were being poured, it was a marvellous break from tannic young shirazes, often oaked and alcoholic, to sample these interesting whites.
I’ve strayed more than I intended from the “alternative” theme. I’ll conclude by reverting to the pleasure of getting to actually live a bit with sample wines. It’s true that there are few such bottles that I drain to the last drop. One such this year was, extraordinarily, a muscat de Frontignan from Kyle Dunn, who formerly worked with Adi Badenhorst but now concentrates on his own Skinny Legs range (some brilliantly “alternative” packaging too). It’s called Special Rendition 2014 and was a two-week whole-bunch ferment and then a few years in old oak barrels; it’s bone-dry, mineral-stoney, and even rather austere, despite the varietally typical grapey introduction. Especially with food it’s fascinating and marvellous – if you like that sort of thing (probably pretty dreadful if you don’t), but I have no idea if and where and at what price you might find it.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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