Sale of SA wine treasures to fund preservation initiative

Specimens from a hallowed collection of great South African wines were tasted this week ahead of the historic Tabernacle auction in July. Clifford Roberts was among the fortunate few invited to wet their lips.

A remarkable auction of fine wines takes place on July 10 with some of South Africa’s greatest heritage specimens going on sale to help fund the preservation of local wine history.

The dominant component of the sale, which includes selected international classics, comprises wines from the most comprehensive collections of South African wines. Among the treasures contained behind the thick, reinforced door to Distell’s underground Tabernacle wine library in Stellenbosch is a bottle of 1821 Grand Constance, of which same vintage a bottle sold for close to R1m last year.

While the Tabernacle is occasionally a supplier to prominent auctions of fine wine, the upcoming event under the auspices of long-established auctioneers Strauss & Co, stands out for the cause it will support.

“All the funds raised through the auction will be used for a wine history preservation initiative in honour of Duimpie Bayly,” says Tabernacle curator Michael van Deventer, who is also manager of Distell’s Vinotèque.

A luminary of the South African wine and brandy industry, Francis ‘Duimpie’ Bayly passed away last year. He is credited for enormous technical leadership and mentorship as well as visionary initiatives that included the founding of the Tabernacle under what was then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW), in 1979.

The library is situated at the sprawling Adam Tas production facility where many of Distell’s well-known wine brands are made. At the time of its opening, the idea had been to retain vintages of SFW wines as an internal company reference. The emergence of fine wine as a category in South Africa had been fuelled just five years prior with the historic establishment of the Wine of Origin scheme.

But as time went on, its acclaim went beyond that of mere filing cabinet. Rather, it ascended to widespread recognition as a vital, living record of South African wine legacy. A tabernacle is a temple or sanctuary; and so the space at Adam Tas has become.

Gradually, the collection began taking in wines from the wider industry too.

As can be imagined, storage needs quickly outstripped the available space originally set apart for the Tabernacle. Although this original location only has capacity for some 12 000 bottles, the rest of the collection is held at various of Distell’s other locations.

Details of the preservation initiative are still being finalised and are likely to include a visitor centre, says Michael. The first steps however include the recent revamp of Tabernacle facilities, mainly with improved lighting and air reticulation in the private tasting lounge.

“Nothing was done in the cellar itself,” says Michael. “We didn’t want the bottles to be moved around.”

Some of SA’s rarest and most spectacular vinous treasures released for this historic auction.

The auction on July 10 will offer a total of 99 lots with 64 comprising up to three bottles and dedicated to South African wines from the Tabernacle. It will be presented by Strauss & Co, which partnered with sommelier, wine entrepreneur and former Nederburg Auction co-ordinator Higgo Jacobs to add fine wine to its portfolio in 2019.

“For me, the importance of preserving and sharing these wines is the inspiration they give local winemakers, but also the credibility they provide to the ageability of South African wines,” he says.

Higgo further highlighted the involvement of Amorim Cork, which has been major role-player in not only preserving South African wine heritage, but also giving classic old wines a new lease on life via its re-corking programme.

“All the South African wines on auction have been re-corked, which gives the buyer greater convenience in opening the wine as well as guaranteeing the condition contained within,” he says.

The full catalogue of wines was opened, inspected, recorked, and resealed under the supervision.

Among the wines included in the sale are a trio of 1940 Chateau Libertas (starting prices R20 000 each); the 1966 GS Cabernet Sauvignon (starting at R25 000), which scored 100 points from influential UK wine writer Jancis Robinson.

Also on offer will be the 1974 Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon Auction Reserve, described by Michael Fridjohn at a tasting in the Tabernacle this week as “the classic of the decade with ’74 certainly being one of the greats of Cape vintages”.

The tasting also featured the 1974 SFW Stellenbosch Cinsaut, 1963 Lanzerac Pinotage, 1961 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon, 1968 GS Cabernet Sauvignon and 1974 Overgaauw Cabernet Sauvignon – all wines that will be available on July 10.

Why sell them at all? Michael van Deventer says sales of these special wines are important because amongst others, space must be managed to allow the collection to take in new wines. “For it to survive, the Tabernacle must be a ‘living’ collection,” he says. “Wine lovers should be able to access them to understand and appreciate our history and capability,” he says.

Starting prices at the Straus & Co Virtual Live Auction vary. Tabernacle wine reserve prices begin at R1 500, for bottles of 1970 Chateau Libertas.

The Strauss & Co Tabernacle Virtual Live Auction starts at 11am. Bids will be taken online, telephonically and in person at Strauss & Co premises in Johannesburg, at 89 Central Street, Houghton. The auction will also be streamed.

Registration for prospective bidders has opened and pre-sale bids are being received. Lots and further details may be viewed at Strauss & Co.