The second Cape Fine & Rare Auction takes place on May 22 with a 200-year old bottle of sweet Muscat de Frontignan hogging all the headlines. But it is not just Groot Constantia’s bottle of Grand Constance 1821 that makes this year’s event worth registering for. A new tasting panel, a new set of criteria and overall set-up has ensured that the range of wines on offer and the quality level has never been higher. Geoffrey Dean talked to leading South African wine critic Michael Fridjhon,
Cathy van Zyl MW and François Rautenbach about why wine buyers should tune in this year, what’s on offer and how the auction delivers a captivating slice of South Arica’s continually evolving wine history.
“It’s also a wonderful opportunity for people who know SA from 20 or 30 years ago to rediscover what the SA industry is showcasing and producing, because I do believe our wine quality is a lot better across the board that it was 20 years ago,” says Cathy van Zyl MW
A 200-year old bottle of sweet Muscat de Frontignan will come under the hammer at the Cape Fine & Rare Auction on May 22 when some of South Africa’s rarest and finest wines will be available to international buyers. The bottle of Grand Constance 1821, which was made by Groot Constantia on the Cape Peninsula, was recorked in 2019 under the meticulous supervision of leading sommelier Jean-Vincent Ridon, the CEO of Amorim Cork, Joaquim Sá and celebrated South African wine critic, Michael Fridjhon.
Changing the format of the auction
The Cape Fine & Rare Auction, which was first launched in October 2019, was the successor in title to the well-established Nederburg Auction, which had run since 1975. The latter had for years been the highlight of the country’s wine calendar but Fridjhon, who had tasted at or written on every one of them, felt it was time for change.
“The decision was taken by the sponsorship manager at Distell to open the auction more broadly to the industry as a whole,” he said. “It was always open to the industry, but there was some discomfort from certain producers that they were sharing their brand with the Nederburg brand. More wines can now enter – it’s absolutely open to every producer in the industry. As long as you are prepared to meet the terms and conditions, which are pretty easy, then you can come and play. It doesn’t matter what other routes to market you cultivate.”
Fridjhon, along with Cathy van Zyl MW, head sommelier and winemaker Joseph Dhafana and general manager of Singita Premier Wine Direct, François Rautenbach, formed a team of expert South African tasters who sampled most entries blind and decided which should go forward into the auction. Apart from quality, a key essential was that the wines could not be commercially available.
“The conditions relate to rarity, the finesse or fineness of the wines and the fact they should not be commercially available,” Fridjon explained. “They need to have some age and rarity. Some entries are undisputed – if you come from a serious property, and the wine meets the criteria of known quality, known age and known rarity, you can tick a box and say that’s a logical player. At the preliminary stage, a bunch of wines are included automatically, and a bunch excluded automatically. Then you have the chunk in the middle – which are not about brand but what’s in the bottle.”
Van Zyl believes that the wines on offer this year are even better than at the last auction in 2019. “The quality bar was set higher this time,” she told The Buyer. “I hope a lot of overseas buyers appreciate that we’ve gone through this rigorous quality control. It’s a vital process as some wines are quite old and we need to check on their provenance. That tells producers how serious we are about putting good quality lots on auction. There’s a need for wines that excite people with wines they really want to buy. Good prices and good lots say the auction is well curated, which builds confidence and feeds into the auction.”
“We do still have old classics like Meerlust, Simonsig and Kanonkop, but this auction gives us the chance to showcase new classics. There are no 1970s but a Zonnebloem Cabernet from 1986 which has some great fruit on the mid-palate. We were a little hesitant about that but it’s a really well-judged wine, and reached a beautiful plateau. Even in the whites, there are some very interesting wines such as David & Nadia, Sadie and Vondeling, which is an estate that people should look at. The old vine selection cases quite often have some gems, as do the Cap Classiques. It’s been an honour to taste through as you see an unfolding history of the South African wine industry. Some 1990s Pinotage have matured fantastically, and are alive and well.”
Van Zyl urges wine lovers out there not to ignore South Africa as a source of enjoyable but very high quality wines. “But obviously as with any wine country, you do have to know what you’re buying,” van Zyl professed. “Buying on this auction is a short-cut for someone who doesn’t really know SA that well but is wanting to learn. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for people who know SA from 20 or 30 years ago to rediscover what the SA industry is showcasing and producing, because I do believe our wine quality is a lot better across the board that it was 20 years ago. There used to be over-extraction, overworking and not enough understanding of the role of small oak. There was an under-ripe framework where virused vineyards couldn’t get the fruit properly ripe. Now there’s a better understanding of how to get the best out of a vineyard. It’s less recipe-driven winemaking. Now producers have aspirations and are prepared to experiment and chase the holy grail of quality. There’s been a slow trickle-up process with bigger producers making smaller batches and picking earlier. They realise they need to create excitement with their brands.”
Rautenbach feels that, as people have become much more familiar with Zoom over the course of the pandemic, long-distance auctions can benefit. The Cape Fine & Rare will be held as both a virtual and a live event in the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, with bidders in-person and online. “International guests are looking for really good South African examples of Cabernet, and also styles they’re unfamiliar with, making it a voyage of discovery,” he said. “We want to encourage people to put away older vintages. For example, the 2009 Rustenberg Peter Barlow is still a stellar wine, and I know it doesn’t matter what we pay for it now as it will be worth a lot more in 10 years time.”
Collectors who wish to buy at the auction can register here: