The final wine auction of this year’s Cape season takes place at the Rembrandt Museum on 19th September. While it goes under the name of the Cape Fine and Rare Wine Auction, it’s actually the successor to the Nederburg Auction, hosted under a wider-brimmed industry hat. This is no bad thing: while the Nederburg Auction dates back to 1975 and has been through a number of iterations, it was in need of more than a cosmetic face lift. The evolution of the wine industry in the 45 years has been substantial. The number of privately owned wineries has increased seven or eightfold. There are now around 9000 wine labels in the trade. Nederburg may still be the biggest premium wine brand in the country, but the centre of gravity of the fine wine trade has moved considerably.
Distell Ltd, Nederburg’s ultimate owner, has been acutely aware of the shift in the balance of power. Millennials everywhere seek craft and boutique in preference to corporate and industrial. This means that they would rather take their chances with artisanal production than seek out the security of brand. The appeal of Nederburg means less to them than it did to their parents. For the producers who for over 40 years submitted their wines for inclusion in the Paarl sale, the shadow of Big Brother was beginning to loom uncomfortably large over the event. It’s one thing to agree to sell wines to the audience which Distell’s deep pockets attracted to the auction. It’s another to lose your identity under a brand umbrella ranked in the Top 50 most admired wine names in the world.
The new auction has been designed to catch the zeitgeist. If big used to be beautiful and small is now a la mode, the Cape Fine and Rare Sale has embraced the change with almost too much enthusiasm. In its heyday the Nederburg Auction saw over 50000 litres of wine change hands every year. Much of what went under the hammer came from the Nederburg cellar, special blends and special bottlings intended for a collectors’ market but increasingly disposed of in retail and on the wine-lists of hotels and franchise food chains. The catalogue of the 2019 Cape Fine Wine Auction contains a fraction of this volume: a mere 3000 litres are on offer, the equivalent of a little over 300 dozen, with many of the wines available in quantities of 12 bottles or less. Much of what was submitted comes from the producers’ private “library” stocks: it is unlikely that parcels such as these will be seen again on a sale – unless investors bring them back to auction at some stage in the future. The term “rare” is certainly not being used frivolously.
The term “fine” is less easily measured, since subjectivity plays a role. As a member of the panel which made the final selection I cannot pretend to impartiality on the subject. I can however point out that I worked with Cathy van Zyl MW and Francois Rautenbach, that we aimed for consensus rather than majority decisions, that we included brand reputation (since this affects investment potential) in our considerations and that we rejected significantly more wine than we accepted.
Among the casualties were a number of Libertas Vineyards/Nederburg products – which proves that although Distell is still footing the bill, it has been meticulous in not using the auction as a platform for its own wines. Instead, it has been true to its avowed aim of giving the Cape wine industry a platform from which to present its collectibles to the world. It’s also clear that the country’s producers have accepted this in good faith. Virtually every player of note – from New Wave to classic estates – submitted wines for consideration. The final line-up is an impressive and unprecedented array of the Cape’s best and most fashionable brands.
For more information, and access to the online catalogue go to