There is something particularly appealing about wine auctions. They express implicitly the happiness of the buyer rather than the motives of the seller – even when the auction exists primarily on account of the vendor’s avowed purpose.
Consider, for example, the annual sale at the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, an event that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year but exists because of the gift, in 1443, of a hospital to the citizens of Beaune by the Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. A few years after it opened its doors to take in the sick and destitute of the town, Jean Guillotte le Verrier donated some vineyards to the Hospices to provide annual revenues for the upkeep of the building and fund the order of nuns who cared for the patients.
This tradition has continued into the 21st century. The Hospices now owns more than 60ha of prime Burgundian vineyard and has its own winery and a winemaking team. Every year, on the third Sunday in November, the Great Hall of the Hospices hosts an auction of the wines from the latest vintage. In 2018, the total sum raised for the 828 barrels on offer was a not unimpressive €14 million, roughly R220 million.
The Hospices de Beaune auction served as an inspiration for the Nederburg Auction when it launched in 1975. Few, if any, of the buyers in Paarl – now almost a lifetime ago – realised they were witnessing the beginnings of what in time would become one of the great auctions on the international calendar. Rival retail chains would bid against each other for parcels of wine available only at the annual sale. There was also a charity component; ancient bottles donated, usually by producers and sometimes by the auction’s guest speaker.
In many ways the 1980s were the heyday of the first incarnation of the auction. Combined volumes and values (adjusted for inflation) peaked in the first 25 years of the sale. In 1978, the average price of a six-bottle box of wine was R56.41. Ten years later it had increased three-fold (inflation helping along the way) to R191.41. By 1998, it had again almost trebled to R510.64. However, in 2008, despite smaller volumes on auction, the average price had lifted
to just R872. No one realised it at the time but the model needed a little reinvention. The fine wine market had evolved, and auctions were no longer the only way to buy premium Cape wines. Unless the selection on offer was highly desirable, utterly unobtainable and, most importantly, quality approved, there was no longer any reason to get into a bidding war.
Out of this evolved a second incarnation, with its own extremely precise set of guidelines: only the very best wines should be allowed to make it into the catalogue. Restricting the volumes under these circumstances would not involve an artificial manipulation of price: if only the finest wines are on offer, prices should naturally percolate upwards. The principle was tested in September 2018 when 1 525 six-bottle cases realised an average price of R3 444 – five times the result of two decades earlier.
However, from the industry perspective, an even more important step up the evolutionary ladder was required. The post-isolation era in South Africa had seen an extraordinary boom in Cape wine sales, growing from roughly 25 million litres annually to almost 20 times that amount. This increase in volume had originally been achieved on a combination of the ‘Mandela factor’ and low prices, neither of which were sustainable marketing strategies. It was clear that unless South African wine was being consumed abroad because of its inherent quality and prestigious image, it would always be susceptible to fashion swings, pricing fragility and the inevitable tarnish of political life. What South Africa really needed was a united effort, one that focused solely on world-class quality presented on a national rather than a producer-driven platform.
The obvious vehicle for this was the long-established Nederburg Auction. However, the name of the sale identified it too closely with a single producer, and it seemed unlikely that the company that owned the event would sacrifice more than four decades of brand-building for no direct benefit. By the same token, without a united front the fragmentation which has long characterised the way the Cape wine fraternity interacts with itself would continue to apply its own particular version of the laws of entropy. Then, to the surprise of the wine industry, Distell, Nederburg’s holding company, voluntarily offered to give up the ‘Nederburg’ name and make its team available to create something more suited to the purpose of expressing the achievement of Brand South Africa in the 21st century.
This is what inspired the launch of the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, the successor in title to Nederburg. Free of a single producer’s brand, it is open to every winery in the industry that is willing to submit its selection to an expert panel for approval in terms of quality, image and relative rarity.
The response of the wine industry has been extraordinary: producers have dug deep into their own private wine ‘libraries’ to make available their finest bottlings. The line-up, sourced from 65 of the nation’s best winemakers, is a cornucopia of vinous treasures, some wines so rare that only a single bottle is available, others assembled into mixed cases, a few offered in several case lots to help top-end restaurants brighten their wine lists with a couple of gems. Its offering includes a range of vintages from the youthful but unobtainable to the fully mature, all from guaranteed and immaculate storage.
The panel that has curated the line-up for the inaugural auction – due to take place on 19 October in Stellenbosch – comprises experts in wine quality who are also knowledgeable about the image and reputation of the country’s wine producers. Conscious of the concerns of consumers and investors who want some assurance that what they are buying is truly fine and genuinely rare, they have based their decision-making on the age-worthiness of the younger wines and the stability, complexity and rarity of the older examples. Few people realise that the great South African wines from as far back as the 1950s are still drinking beautifully. Wine enthusiasts lucky enough to attend tastings of these treasures are constantly amazed at their longevity and at how they have transformed from wine as we know it to a taste experience that is hauntingly memorable.
The catalogue for the sale, available two months before the event, will serve as a guide to buyers who want to secure the very best, but who are rightly cautious when it comes to making a choice about wines that are not in general distribution. It is already clear this panel has been even more rigorous than its predecessors, with roughly half the volume of the 2018 auction destined to come under the hammer this year. Precious little in life is certain, and even less when it comes to wine. However, buyers entering the auction hall on 19 October can be confident the wines on offer will represent the very best of 80 years of Cape vintages.
FOR WINES FINE & RARE
It took almost two decades after the end of South Africa’s political isolation for global fine wine markets to begin ‘discovering’ Cape wine. This is hardly surprising; in fact, bearing in mind how long it takes for change to make its way through the value chain, the turnaround time was little short of astonishing. Excitement levels began rising just after the millennium, but it was only about 10 years later that the enthusiasm of the world’s most authoritative wine critics became a consistent – and insistent – message.
In 2013, Neal Martin, Robert Parker’s senior taster and the man charged with covering the Cape wine scene, described South Africa as the most exciting New World wine country. Five years later, writing for Vinous, probably the most specialised publication serving American as well as European consumers, Neal said, “I reiterate my claim that no country, no wine region, has been as dynamic, progressive or, indeed, as exciting as South Africa. It is almost unrecognisable compared to a decade ago.” Tim Atkin MW made much the same comment. “South Africa,” he said, “is the most exciting wine-producing country in the New World.”
The Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson, writing in 2017, observed, “This month’s tasting in London of New Wave South African wines may well have been the most exciting I have ever attended in a capital spoilt for professional wine tastings … because of the consistent quality and novelty of the wines … More than any other wine-producing country except perhaps France, South Africa can boast a serious cohort of radical and cohesive young winemakers forging a new wine identity for their country.”
The massively dynamic and utterly transformed industry brings its own set of challenges to wine buyers. Jancis Robinson hit on one of the issues in her article following the New Wave tasting: “Of the 55 producers attending, 15 were names I had never heard of; not because they are of no interest but because they are so fledgling.” When young winemakers are able to make wines from some of the oldest vineyards in the country, and work with varieties utterly obscure in terms of the expectations of the average consumer, quality is infinite but volumes infinitesimal.
The best new-generation Cape wines can be easily identified but almost impossible to find. By the same token, the best fully mature wines from the more familiar estates and cellars have long passed through the trade and are equally inaccessible to collectors and enthusiasts who missed the opportunity to buy them when they were as young as the cult wines of the New Wave. To navigate this potential minefield, and to make some of these extraordinary wines available to local and international buyers, it became necessary to devise a new kind of wine auction.
Conceptually, it would depend on the wholehearted support of the key producers: when wines are truly rare and genuinely unobtainable, the only way to be sure that you can source perfectly stored examples is to get them from the people who made them, and stored them under ideal conditions. Everything on offer would have to pass through a filter designed to sift out anything that doesn’t meet the highest international standards or doesn’t have the brand strength to stand alongside the world’s most desirable wines. In short, the auction selection would have to be curated by experts with no vested interest in what is offered for sale.
The newly launched Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction has been created with these criteria in mind, making it the only place on the planet to buy these vinous gems. During the period of its gestation, all the key players in the industry were consulted. To the surprise of many of the sceptics, who imagined that the ‘rock stars and hipsters’ would shy away from any expressions of unity with the more formal industry entities, all without exception came on board. It seems they recognised that this concept would work only if it represented a truly united industry.
Creating a selection panel that would be able to work ‘without fear or favour’ and to which all producers would willingly submit their wines turned out to be easier than most people expected. Cathy van Zyl MW, the only South African resident who is a fully qualified member of the Institute of Masters of Wine; Francois Rautenbach, who heads Singita’s fine wine programme; and Michael Fridjhon, international wine judge and critic, all agreed to serve on the selection and tasting panel. In little over six months
the dream of a united platform representing the best of Cape wine – the edgy and dynamic present as well as the tried and tested past – had become a reality.