He is the son of an Italian-Austrian who ranched cattle in Kenya's Rift Valley. She is the daughter of a South African sugar-cane farmer. While John and Erica Platter were not actually born into South Africa's 300-year-old viticulture industry, they have nonetheless become the foremost ambassadors of the country's wine.
The Platters' annual South African wine guide was first published in 1979. The 2003 edition is 520 pages thick, and required reading among the sundowner-sipping svelte of the veldt. Now, after what they describe as "a year, or two, of drinking dangerously" the couple have completed a safari into winelands throughout the African continent. The result is Africa Uncorked (Double Storey Books; 288 pages), the Platters' book on "travels in extreme wine territory."
A former foreign correspondent and UPI bureau chief in Africa, John Platter dropped out of journalism to buy a farm in the South African Cape, then began making his own wine and writing about it. "I was lucky. I just found I had a nose for it," he says. His safari with Erica, also an ex-journalist, to 13 African wine-producing countries was a nostalgic reminder of a 17,000-km honeymoon trip from London to Nairobi via the Sahara Desert and Abidjan, Ivory Coast in a battered Land Rover.
The Platters' latest expedition of discovery was anything but a leisure trip. Wine tasting in Africa, they concluded, was hardly a gentle ramble through the usual vineyards. Vine growing and winemaking in many parts of Africa, says John, "is as far from Burgundy or California as bungee jumping is from croquet." Highlights included raising their glasses to passing elephants in Kenya, finding winemakers in Muslim Africa where drinking alcoholic liquor is taboo and, on the edge on Réunion Island, seeing wine-producing vines planted up to the rims of black volcanic chasms. And then there was dodging the fallout of civil unrest and surviving border crossings, cyclones, mosquitoes, leeches and, in some cases, John recalls, the wine itself. "Robust goat flavors," "old and neglected," "sweaty saddle stuff" are a few of the observations in the Platters' book, which reflect the sometimes tortuous route they took in their tastings.
But generally the Platters were delighted to find a passionate wine revival under way, from the deserts of North Africa to the most southerly vineyards in Africa, near Cape Agulhas at the tip of the continent. The best among their discoveries included the Chardonnay Barrique of Morocco ("the finest white wine in North Africa"), Algeria's Domaine Ouzeva 96 (cabernet sauvigon) from Medea ("an area too dangerous to visit"), the Moelleux (chenin blanc) from Réunion, and Richard Leakey's Kenyan Ol Choro Onyore Pinot Noir 2001.
Having had a go at uncorking Africa, they have now set their sights on South America. "We hear we might find some of the highest vineyards in the world in Ecuador," says John. "If we get there, we'll drink to that." And devotees of their guide will look forward to reading all about it.