30 years of the Cape Winemakers Guild auctions

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

On Saturday 7 September 1985 at the Rosebank Hotel, Johannesburg, Sothebys’ David Molyneux-Berry MW raised his gavel on the first Cape Independent Winemakers Guild (as it was then known) auction.

That year 13 members offered 18 wines, ranging from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon but also, and unusually, Rhine Riesling and Special Late Harvest. If the prices received seem laughable today, Guild members were delighted with the total of R161 305 realised on the 1 700 cases (x 12) at an average price of R95 per case. Walter Finlayson must’ve been especially happy when his Blaauwklippen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1982 fetched the top price of R180 – per case! I guess the bottle I still have in our cellar would go for much more than that today.

Much has changed in the intervening years, not least the male winemakers’ receding hairlines! Lady winemaker members have been few and far between: the first was Janey Muller of Lemberg in Tulbagh, who had a wine on the second auction. Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick followed; more recently Rianie Strydom of Haskell and now her own Strydom Family Vineyards; and Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux Wines have joined. Total membership too has swollen from the original eight members to the current 45.

Other guild and auction landmarks include:

  • 1992 – Moved from Johannesburg to Dock Road venue in the V&A Waterfront, to be closer to the winelands. Since 1993, with one exception, the auction has been held in the winelands.
  • The same year, Dave Hughes replaced Molyneux-Berry as auctioneer for that year’s auction. For the next five years, Michael James of the eponymous organisation wielded the gavel.
  • 1996 – Syfrets came on board as the auction’s first sponsor. It was subsequently incorporated into Nedbank, auction sponsor to this day.
  • 1997 – The date of the auction changed to the end of September and has since been held around the last Saturday in September/first in October.
  • 1998 – Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills took over as auctioneer, a post he still holds.
  • 1999 – Nedcor donated R100 000 to start the NIB CWG Development Trust, which benefits farm workers and their families involved in the industry.
  • The official name was also changed to the Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG), ‘Independent’ being dropped, that same year.
  • 2006 – The CWG Protégé Programme started. Aiding transformation in the wine industry was the reason behind offering oenology graduates from the previously disadvantaged sector of the community three-year internships with guild members. To date 13 protégés have been through the programme and a further eight are completing their internship. Proceeds from the sale on the auction of an 18-litre bottle blended from wines from all members support this programme. A new viticulture protégé programme, starting in 2015 and sponsored by the VinPro Foundation, will run along similar lines.
  • 2013 – The equivalent of 3 219 cases (x 6 x 750ml) were sold on the auction at an average price of R2 609. Hartenberg Auction Shiraz 2010 was knocked down for the highest price of R6 200 per case of 6 x 750ml. Total sales came to R8 401 400.
  • 2014 – To ensure the authenticity of all wines sold on the auction, a security foil strip along the base of the back label indicating the year the wine was sold on the auction was introduced.

The Development Trust’s funds almost doubled, with the addition of R98 300 raised from the Guild’s silent auction the same year.

This year’s 30th auction paints a very different picture from that first one, where there was a good deal of nervousness about the event’s success. Today, there are many international as well as local buyers (the auction has always been open to private individuals as well as the trade) and it seems every year a new record of some sort is set.

The selection of wines has also changed, though some would say the style/varietal spectrum has remained too narrow. Despite South Africa generally receiving more acclaim for its white wines than reds, the latter dominate the auction because that is what buyers want and, possibly erroneously in some instances, it is believed that reds age much longer than whites.

Nevertheless, this year’s white wine selection does feature varieties recently introduced to the Cape or undergoing a revival.

Johan Malan has blended the relative newcomer, Roussanne with the Cape’s prized Chenin Blanc in his The Red Ox White Roussanne Chenin Blanc 2013. Natural ferment in older oak for the former; fermentation and two years of ageing in old wood, as well as oxidative handling with no sulphur added during the first year for the Chenin, all reflect the modern approach to vinification.

Fruit for Andrea Mullineux’s Semillon ‘The Gris’ 2013 comes from a 55 year-old granite vineyard on the Paardeberg. Old vines are now a big story in the Cape, preservation of the best being a major objective. Semillon in its white form might have declined in vineyard area but is growing in qualitative importance. Semillon Gris, a mutation, isn’t officially recognised as a wine grape, hence the labelling of Mullineux’s wine. Whole bunch pressed, natural ferment in old oak, this individual has the pithy grip of many white wines produced in today’s more non-interventionist methods.

Chenin Blanc, on which there has been a surge of attention for several years, is represented by five wines, all barrel-fermented, most naturally and in older oak but all focusing on the grapes’ origin.

Revival among the reds is left to Adi Badenhorst’s Kalmoesfontein Ramnasgras Cinsault 2012. Like Semillon and Chenin, Cinsaut/Cinsault used to be far more prevalent in Cape vineyards; despite a decline in area, winemakers are paying enthusiastic attention to improving the variety’s reputation, both as a varietal wine and in blends.

One style of wine that wouldn’t have been permitted on that first auction is privately produced potstill brandy. For several years, Carel Nel has offered a Boplaas brandy of varying ages; these have proved very popular and expensive auction lots. This year’s eight- year-old 1880 Ox Wagon Reserve offering will no doubt follow that trend.

Of course, there are many old favourites such as Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz and blends in new guises on offer.

Altogether, the Cape Winemakers Guild looks set to celebrate a successful 30th auction on Saturday 4 October 2014.

– Angela Lloyd