15 September Nederburg Auction

It’s auction season again, with Nederburg this weekend and the Cape Winemakers’ Guild sale in three weeks time. Both are established events on the industry calendar, with enough longevity between them that it’s no longer realistic to think of Nederburg as the “institution” and the Guild auction as the parvenu. Both have had to evolve over the years – a measure of the market itself becoming more sophisticated, with different expectations, and, more importantly, different reasons for buying auction wines.

In its first decade the prestige of the Nederburg sale powered the competition between bidders and set pricing which, taking inflation into account, achieved levels which have probably not been repeated. As the punters became more astute, they learned to cherry-pick what was on offer, leaving the big commercial lots for the liquor chains and the re-distributors, and focusing instead on the small parcels of vinous gems, or the ancient rarities for which Nederburg justly became famous.

About ten years ago Nederburg began losing its cachet: with more (not always wonderful) wine on offer than there was demand for, prices fell, image was tarnished, and a major re-think was required. The last few years have revealed the benefits of this soul-searching: volumes are down and the selection process which is rigorously applied goes a long way to ensuring that literally every item in the catalogue has passed the strictest scrutiny.

I must confess myself initially a little sceptical about the claims of the independence of the selection process: would Nederburg (and its shareholders, Distell) really allow a panel of largely foreign wine tasters to decide whether its own wines would be permitted on the sale? When you are footing the bill for one of the most sumptuous events on the industry calendar, surely you want a say about whether or not your own production can be included in the line-up?

Accordingly I agreed to become a member of the selection panel for this year’s sale, to witness the process in action. Every one of the panellists was an internationally recognised palate, mostly UK certified Masters of Wine, all familiar with Cape wines, all equally at home tasting current release wines from the leading wine appellations of the Old and New World. Decisions were taken after discussion, and with the group (divided into two panels) constantly cross-calibrating to ensure an evenness of standard. We didn’t know anything about the origin of the wines (though it was easy enough to guess the source of the 1957s and 1967s) and the panels’ decisions were final – so no concessions even for the paymaster’s wines. Looking at the line-up for this weekend’s Nederburg sale, the one thing you can be sure of is that every wine which made the cut is there on its merits.

The catalogue reads a little like a Who’s Who of the Cape wine industry: no longer is it a clubhouse filled with a cosy network of old boys. The 2010 Almenkerk Chardonnay from Elgin sits alongside the 2005 vintage of Axe Hill (Port) from Calitzdorp; Catherine Marshall’s 2011 Pinot Noir shares space with David and Nadia’s 2014 Aristargos. A couple of different vintages of DeMorgenzon’s Reserve Chenin Blanc (2005 and 2014) will compete against a selection from the Old Vines Project: the Sadie Family’s ‘T Voetpad 2015, the 2004 Boekenhoutskloof Semillon and the 2011 Alheit Cartology.

The big parcels of slightly ordinary Nederburg Auction wines are ancient history: instead there are impressive single site offerings, some cellar-aged reds (Bin R121 Shiraz 2006, Bin R163 Cabernet 2003 and 2011, Bin R101 Malbec 2003) and a carefully compiled selection of the cellar’s fabulous dessert wines – Edelkeur back to 1982 and Eminence to 1989. As for the truly aged collectibles – there’s a small parcel of the legendary Stellenzicht Syrah 1994 (which beat Penfolds Grange twice at international blind tastings), 1970 Lanzerac Cabernet, magnums of 1980 Meerlust Cabernet and two extraordinary, still vibrant vintages from Chateau Libertas – the 1967 and 1957.

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