The rise and rise of Nederburg

What a difference a decade has made for Nederburg! Long South Africa’s best-known brand both locally and internationally, and the mighty flagship of Distell, it was ten years ago a lacklustre affair, looking for prestige to its annual Auction and to the great sweet wines of the past (even Edelkeur and the like aroused little enthusiasm any more).

The 2011 Platter guide has recently been released. When it came to choosing the Winery of the Year for 2011 it was, as the guide’s editor, Philip van Zyl, had remarked to me, something of a no-brainer. Five Nederburg wines had been given the guide’s highest accolade and rated five stars – a remarkable record number, and approaching 10 percent of the total. (The photo shows van Zyl and Macici at the Platter launch.)

Ten years back, the 2001 edition of Platter, somewhat slimmer than it has now become, had given four stars to a mere half-dozen or so of Nederburg’s wines. The number steadily increased, and this year 22 rated that or higher. They were supported by the lower-range wines, which were on the whole correspondingly higher too. Lyric, the sauvignon-chenin-chardonnay blend was given the 2011 Superquaffer of the Year award – all 90 000-odd cases of the stuff.

Platter is also a big ship in its own way, and it is testimony to the guide’s nimble responsiveness that it has responded to the steady improvement in Nederburg quality by continually lifting ratings for some existing labels, and by its enthusiasm for some new wines, such as the Red and White blends in the Ingenuity range. The first Ingenuity Red received four stars in Platter (and a little criticism for being over-oaked); the second vintage got a half-star more (and was less heavily oaked, incidentally); the third vintage was this year put forward for five stars – and got them.

Given that there have been spots of criticism directed at Platter for under-rating Nederburg’s top wines, it is interesting to see how much better they have recently fared in Platter than in, say, the Veritas awards. Ingenuity Red has never received any Veritas medal (probably it has never been entered). But the three vintages of Ingenuity White have received mere Silver Veritas medals, while all of them have been Platter five-stars – their quality was recognised there from the outset (I’m happy to say that I was the taster who put the new wine forward).

This year, while Platter gave a five-star rating to Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve Noble Late Harvest 2009, it also received mere Silver at Veritas. (Veritas gave Edelkeur 2008 a Siilver too, while it last year received 4.5 stars in Platter; this year the 2009 Edelkeur got five stars). Similarly, the maiden 2009 vintage of Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay Private Bin D253 this year got five stars in Platter, Silver at Veritas. The natural sweet Eminence 2008 was the only current Nederburg release to receive either Double Gold Gold or Gold at Veritas in 2010.

Logically (what a bit of wishful thinking on my part to invoke logic!), the advocates of blind tasting competitions should be criticising Platter for its “over-rating” of Nederburg!

Changes at Nederburg

Most important, of course, is the change that has come over the entire gamut of Nederburg wines, from the Auction Reserve and Ingenuity ranges through Manor House and Winemaster’s Reserve to the more modest pleasures of the big-volume Foundation range. All 14 million litres of the stuff … the bottling lines run continuously during working hours, filling 4 000 bottles an hour

So what happened at Nederburg to make this possible? This is a large and complex machine, but it’s tempting to seek the individual genius, and there’s fortunately one to hand. Razvan Macici, Nederburg’s Rumanian-born cellarmaster arrived almost exactly a decade ago, and has presided over the change with benign assurance, charm and immense skill. But the Distell overlords did provide him with a new cellar and – presumably – useful support. He gives plenty of credit, too, to the senior winemakers (of whom Zimbabwean Tariro Masayati, the “black white winemaker” as he calls himself, has been longest-serving; Wilhem Pienaar arrived in time to take in the 2010 reds).

But Razvan leads, as was clear when we spent the better part of a morning in the comparatively small, separate section of the massive Nederburg complex where the label’s most ambitious wines are created. Here the fermenting tanks and holding tanks are ridiculously tiny compared with the towers of stainless steel in which the standard wines are made. In some ways – in the huge Distell economy – no doubt Razvan’s top wines (and there are more, even finer, yet to be released) are irrelevant. But as a sign of intent, as a cipher of the quality increasingly associated with the Nederburg brand, they are eloquent.

So what is yet to come? Next year should see the release of another pair of wines at approximately the Ingenuity level – a Bordeaux-styled white blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I sampled the latter alongside the wine destined to be the Auction Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the same year and marvelled at the difference. Partly it is a matter of winemaking, and particularly of the tannin management of which Macici is a master.

The Auction Reserve 2008 is tighter, more austere in its youth (along with the other Auction reds from now on, it is planned to be released only at ten years of age – itself a remarkable development in the Nederburg strategy). The other Cabernet 2008 is softer and sexier, with a slightly different flavour profile. I asked Razvan where the grapes came from, and he told me the precise vineyards (at some distance from each other, both high on the Paarl side of the Simonsberg).

It is easy to assume that Nederburg is all about winemaking and not about origin – and this is clearly the case at the lower levels, where the wines are designed to meet carefully elaborated profiles. And at the higher levels, Nederburg’s marketers have still not managed to grapple with the idea that origin is important if the wine is to be taken increasingly seriously: labelling everything as “Wine of Origin Coastal Region” or “Western Cape” is just not good enough. (And the minuscule vintage dates given on the Ingenuity pair is similarly sending the wrong signals for top-level wines.)

The Nederburg marketers are still way behind the Nederburg winemakers, I think. They must learn to understand the difference between bland brand wine and serious wine and how to convey it to winelovers. But the difference is something that Razvan Macici and his team do know and understand. Though I think we must not necessarily expect from them the same sort of attitude to wine that we are finding in the makers of “natural wine” in the Swartland, for example (to look at the rows of huge old oak foudres that serve a merely storage or decorative function, and to realise the great use that would be made of them in the impoverished cellars of Riebeek and the Pardberg is enough to make one weep!)

But that does not preclude seriousness, or mean that the quality being achieved is not based on hard and intelligent work in the vineyards owned or controlled by Nederburg. Razvan Macici knows his vineyards well, and how best to deal with their produce in the cellar. Probably terroir will continue to be downplayed compared with cellar skills at Nederburg, for the time being at least – it would be a mistake to imagine that the revolution there has reached its culmination. But even now that does not preclude quality. The youthful Bordeaux-style red blend I tasted from barrel – the wine is as yet unnamed, and will not be relased for a year or two – made that very clear. It seemd to me to be one of the finest such wines I have ever tasted from a South African cellar. Nederburg’s star (revealed in clusters of five, perhaps!) is shining bright.

This is a much extended version of the article which appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 19-25 November 2010; Tim James is a taster for the Platter guide and one of its Associate Editors.

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