I’ve just had the privilege of tasting my way through the myriad wines of all Nederburg’s ranges for the Platter guide. I haven’t counted but there were well over forty wines. Each day recently I would sample eight or ten of them, as well as retasting some of the more ambitious ones tried the day before, to see how it was developing (with important consequences for my final judgement in at least one case).
It has seemed like a lot. Sometimes, writing up the formal notes (which generally takes much longer than the tasting, and the scribbling down of words and phrases), I would turn and look over my shoulder at the ranks of bottles meekly awaiting their turn at what I wish I dared call my tasting bench – and I could swear that Nederburg had sneaked in and added a few more.
Now I’m nearly done, and am coming to a few general conclusions. Nederburg, with its cellarmaster Razvan Macici, has had something like a rapturous reception in the last few years, getting a good deal of praise for its definitive return from the glum days of the 1990s when it was a pretty tedious brand. Deserved praise, and I have joined in with equal enthusiasm.
But I think perhaps the time has come to look a bit deeper, to take the basic quality for granted. With all the resources at its disposal, Nederburg should be a good brand, at all the levels at which it operates. It is – but, frankly, it’s not exceptional. If you were to compare the relevant price point wines to the Boekenhoutskloof, Porcupine Ridge, Wolftrap family, for example, I think the latter are better and more interesting, even if the quantities are admittedly mostly smaller. (And if you’re very impressed by Nederburg doing well overall in the lotteries we call wine competitions, try imagining how many wines they enter, thus hugely increasing their chances of many golds as well as many also-rans!)
I’m pushed to this rather ungenerous thought by the fact that I think the wines at the lower and middle levels (the Foundation and Winemaster’s Reserve ranges) are no longer improving. Perhaps even the opposite in one way: tasting this year there was a general change in style – subtle, perhaps, but marked: all the reds (mostly 2008s) particularly are that much riper, and most have three or four grams of residual sugar, not too obvious as sweetness, but playing a role in vulgarising the wines in the style of mass-production Australian stuff. (Well if this is what the Distell researchers are sure that’s what the market wants, I suppose the change is here to stay – but it’s worth considering the plummeting international reputation of that class of Australian wine.)
At the Private Bin level (all those wines with names and numbers like Merlot Private Bin R181, sold at the Nederburg Auction), I think the quality: price ratio is less impressive (except perhaps for the very good Sauvignon Blancs and some of the dessert wines). Too many of the reds are just too big, too soulless, and too heavily oaked. These wines are made in pretty small quantities, and should be more interesting than they are. Similarly, the newish expensivish Manor House range cannot compete, I’d say, with many wines from smaller producers
In general, though, I am perhaps being ungenerous, reacting too strongly against too much praise for the wines. Many of the main label, big volume wines are indeed good value, and decent stuff. If you find yourself in one of the huge number of restaurants that have been bullied or bribed into carrying a lot of Distell wines, you should certainly feel aggrieved – but unworried at the prospect of drinking, say, Edelrood, or Nederburg Shiraz. They are most appealing wines, as are many of the others in the middle-range. But there are also a number of pretty dull bottles, both red and white.
The basic overall truth remains: it’s time to stop praising Nederburg and to demand more.
And don’t forget that Nederburg, while it’s been getting all the limelight and has the good luck to have a cellarmaster who is both excellent at his job and a bit of a charismatic showman, is not the best that Distell has to offer. The most praise should be directed, really, at the Fleur du Cap ranges. But that’s another story.
A final word about how well Nederburg is doing at their most ambitious level: the two Ingenuity wines. Last year I nominated the White for five stars and was pleased when it got them. This year, I was very worried on first opening the bottle: aromas and flavours were muted, though the structure was fine and with concentration one could see (or imagine?) Good Things lurking. I worriedly put the cork back in and waited for the next day. It responded to the time and air by opening up beautifully. Not quite as showy a wine as the 2008 was (there’s less sauvignon and viognier, more chardonnay and semillon than last year), but subtler, I think – though still pretty forthright – and very good indeed.
The real improvement over last year was the Ingenuity Red (a blend of Italian varieties). ln last year’s Platter I noted that the bright fruit had to struggle out from smothering oak. In the 2006 version, Razvan has used less new oak and this in itself has contributed greatly to making a much lovelier, really attractive wine. I’d say that it would be worth laying it down for a good for years – but in their wisdom Distell have put their finest, most maturable red wine into a pretty, skittle-shaped bottle that is virtually impossible to store on its side. Something nearly as awkward for the White, which would also benefit immensely from ageing. How stupid! They’ve also made labels for these very serious wines on which it is only by a good deal of study that you are eventually able to find the vintage. How stupid again! But within the inept packaging the wines are great.