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