WINE, THE BELOVED COUN­TRY

AT THE 2011 NEDER­BURG AUC­TION, IT’S NOT JUST THE SOUTH AFRICAN WINES AT THEIR FINEST, FINDS ADITI SAX­TON

India Today - - WINE AUCTION -

“And af­ter all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more per­fect day for a gar­den-party if they had or­dered it. Wind­less, warm, the sky with­out a cloud.”

The scene was set for Kather­ine Mans­field’s gar­den party but not a word need be changed for the 2011 Neder­burg Wine Auc­tion. The lawns are man­i­cured, the mar­quees glow white, and the wine is flow­ing, un­sur­pris­ingly, like water. Trimmed and broad-brimmed hats are con­fec­tions as airy as the savouries passed on sil­ver salvers. Frills and frocks in splen­did colours com­pete with the bril­liantly hued protea, or­chids, chrysan­the­mums in cylin­dri­cal cen­tre­pieces dot­ting oc­ca­sional ta­bles. Cape Town’s tem­per­a­men­tal weather gods are smil­ing; the days be­fore had been nippy and the next por­tended rain. Weather and wine are so in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined but for the auc­tion, sun­shine and blue skies hit just the right flavour and bal­ance awaited from the glis­ten­ing bot­tles.

It re­ally is a grand gar­den party with all talk of busi­ness ush­ered dis­creetly off to one side. Be­gun par­tially as a pro­mo­tional plat­form for Edelkeur, South Africa’s first no­ble late har­vest wine pro­duced at Neder­burg by le­gendary wine­maker Gün­ter Brözel, the auc­tion has moved suc­ces­sively from strength to strength. Each year for the past 37, the Neder­burg Auc­tion on the epony­mous es­tate in Cape Town’s Winelands, has brought more South African wines un­der the ham­mer. From the 15 wines first of­fered in 1975, there were 323 en­tries for 2011, of which just half were se­lected by an ex­pert panel. The or­gan­is­ers, Dis­tell Spir­its, whose wine port­fo­lio in­cludes South Africa’s beloved Two Oceans la­bel, and award-win­ning brands such as Dur­banville Hills, Fleur du Cap and of course, Neder­burg, run a tight ship.

The auc­tion it­self is an aus­tere af­fair where Bac­chus takes a back­seat to Her­mes, the pre­sid­ing de­ity of trade and com­merce. It takes place in large hall, away from the fes­tive sur­rounds of the es­tate’s Manor House where the party is in full swing. If not for the sparkling whites and blush­ing rosés, a glass read­ily re­plen­ished by al­most ev­ery el­bow, it could be a large an­nual gen­eral meet­ing for a cor­po­ra­tion. And in a sense, it is. The auc­tion is a barom­e­ter for the still rel­a­tively nascent South African wine in­dus­try. Out­side the capri­cious worlds of cov­eted awards and fine-din­ing menus it of­fers a gauge for their fu­ture per­for­mance.

In the hushed hall, two screens present im­ages and in­for­ma­tion for the prod­uct up for bid­ding. They flank a panel of five on the podium; auc­tion­eer An­thony Barnes is at the cen­tre with spot­ters on ei­ther side that whis­per dis­cretely when his ea­gle eye hits a blind spot on a raised pad­dle. A pro­jected spread­sheet cy­cles through the lots, records clos­ing prices and un­of­fi­cially tal­lies the ris­ing val­ues of

the auc­tion sales. Con­ver­sa­tions on the side­lines all mute dur­ing the big sales. The auc­tion­eer clicks through the numbers in a dry mono­tone, be­tray­ing no vis­i­ble ex­cite­ment at the ris­ing prices—this year’s record-breaker was Rand 68,000 (ap­prox­i­mately 4,26,000) paid for a sin­gle case of six 750 ml bot­tles of Mo­nis Col­lec­tors Port 1948—though he does al­low him­self a chuckle at the close, that is drowned in the fi­nal ap­plause.

Dis­tell’s stan­dard­i­s­a­tion, which we are in­tro­duced to a day prior at a visit to Die Bergkelder, their Two Oceans’ win­ery, is in ev­i­dence ev­ery­where. The scope, the scale, the stan­dard­i­s­a­tion that is the hall­mark of the brand, clearly im­prints the pro­ceed­ings. There is nary a glitch and plenty of mo­ments of bril­liance, es­pe­cially when sam­pling the wines.

At Bergkelder, the maker of white wines Pi­eter Baden­horst (a ti­tle he prefers to white wine­maker, he jokes, in multi-racial South Africa) took us through the process. The destem­ming and crush­ing in augers for a free run of juice for whites, how the must, the pulp of the grapes is, ex­posed to the skin for the reds, or mac­er­ated, through the first fer­men­ta­tion are be­gin­ners ba­sics. The use of tum­blers ver­sus pneu­matic arms in mac­er­a­tion to bal­ance tan­nins or achiev­ing wooden notes in gi­ant steel vats (through oak chips or blocks or staves de­pend­ing on the de­sired ex­po­sure) is heady stuff. Dur­ing the sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion, the in­tro­duc­tion of minute amounts of oxy­gen to mimic ag­ing in bar­rels may seem com­pul­sively con­trol­ling, but with wine the de­li­cious lies in the de­tails.

There are vine­yards and mak­ers for ev­ery va­ri­etal, hy­brid and blend and South African wine is still strug­gling to find a co­he­sive iden­tity. None­the­less, the sheer range

makes for an in­cred­i­ble day of exclusive tast­ings. What you taste at Neder­burg, you can only buy at Neder­burg. The Pino­tage, a viti­cul­tural cross be­tween Pinot Noir and Hermitage, comes close as the pa­tri­otic pref­er­ence. But oenophiles al­ter­nately adore it, or like this year’s guest speaker David White, ab­hor it with an all con­sum­ing pas­sion.

Ac­claimed, and sur­pris­ingly young, White, is a pro­lific blog­ger at Ter­roirist. The sec­ond ‘i’ makes him fa­nat­i­cal only about wines, “es­pe­cially those that have a sense of place” though his key­note ad­dress may have struck fear in the heart of the older es­tab­lish­ment, the tra­di­tional gate­keep­ers. He spoke, con­vinc­ingly, on how tech­nol­ogy and so­cial me­dia can and are in fact al­ready, de­pos­ing fig­ures in­stalled on pedestals—critic Robert Parker was a spe­cific tar­get—to pre­pare the path for a more demo­cratic, consumer-di­rected ap­pre­ci­a­tion. It was a fit­ting theme for a South African wine auc­tion, the new­est con­tender in new world wines.

One of this year’s top five pur­chasers, Mahin­dra Thakur, CEO of Flemingo In­ter­na­tional, says of his an­nual pil­grim­age to Neder­burg, “It’s the most in­no­va­tive way to pro­mote a coun­try’s pri­mary pro­duce, the only new world wine auc­tion on this scale.” Over­seas buy­ers snapped up over a quar­ter of the wines at the auc­tion, an­other record. Clearly, the mar­ket is ex­pand­ing and many of those cases and oth­ers from the Dis­tell vinotèque, like JC Ler­oux’s sweet, sparkling Le Do­maine, will be mak­ing their way to In­dia via Aspri Spir­its. That’s a win-wine sit­u­a­tion.

Clock­wise from Top: Africa’s national flower, the protea, comes in many colours, but the pur­ple is es­pe­cially apt; wait staff ap­pear with de­li­cious good­ies be­fore you know you want them; the 2000 Neder­burg Caber­net Sauvi­gnon Mer­lot had a re­serve price of Rand 1,000 per case for a lot of 12; guests at the Neder­burg auc­tion snap a mem­ory at the event

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