Musical Cabernets

Friday, 6 February, 2004
Neil Pendock
The timing is right
By Neil Pendock

The deputy editor of WINE magazine, Christian Eedes, has single handedly developed a new genre of wine writing which, for want of a better label, could be called musical winewriting. His technique is to highlight cultural connections between wine and music, which is quite appropriate given that both activities are important components of a modern lifestyle. Thus we get Californian punks Green Day on Pinotage, Louis Prima on Vrede en Lust and garage rockers the White Stripes on Shiraz.

Tasting three decades of Nederburg Auction Cabernet as part of the pre-auction tasting in the run-up to the 30th Nederburg Auction, I was struck by how appropriate Eedes’ musical metaphors were to these wines and I would propose Depeche Mode, a fashionable band from the 80s, as my analogy.

First off, the timing is right: the Nederburg wines ranged from a porty fruitcake of a ’71 to a monster (14.5% alcohol) millennium Cabernet which coincides with a band formed in 1980 from the remnants of two seventies groups Norman and the Worms and No Romance in China. Depeche Mode is French for Fashion Update, which is particularly appropriate for Nederburg, in light of their sponsorship and identification with the SA fashion industry.

But perhaps the most cogent connection is in Depeche Mode’s hit ‘Get the Balance Right’ which is just what Nederburg cellarmasters Günter Brözel and Niewald Marais (from 1989) did. Harmony and balance are the fingerprints of these wines and three separate collections of the 30 vintages will be available for sale on the Auction – a remarkable historical record of a remarkable period in SA history stretching from before the dark days of the Soweto riots in 1976 to the birth of the new democratic rainbow nation in 1994 and beyond.

Retired Cape Wine Academy principal, Christine Rudman, reminded us of the old conundrum of Cape wine that even years produced better wine than odd years, especially in the 70s and 80s. This tasting solved the riddle: from 1971 to 1990, the even vintages had higher alcohols than the odd, with the exception of 1978 which at 12.01% alcohol, was about the same as 1977 at 12.04% and 1982 which at 12.50% was slightly lighter than 1981 at 12.55%.

Alcohol is a preservative and the even vintages were generally in better shape than the odds. Whether the even alcohols were higher because the grapes were picked later or the summer was hotter, would take a farm manager and a meteorologist to answer, but the observation that evens are bigger than odds is indisputable.

Things fall apart after 1996 when alcohol takes off like a rocket: 12.84%, 12.85%, 12.97%, 13.83%, 14.44% … My bet for the spark that lit the fuse was the controversial SA Airways test match between Australia and SA which took place in 1995 and saw the Aussie big reds score big with the (mainly international) judging panel.

Brözel commented over lunch that in his opinion, wine commentators are responsible for this move to more showy wines in the industry in general: reds fermented in new French oak barriques with big alcohols and extract and the demise of less sexy cultivars such as gewürztraminer and wines made in a sweeter style.

Nederburg quite clearly changed direction in the mid-nineties, aiming for a bigger, international style. After tasting Brözel’s elegant and balanced beauties from the seventies, lets hope the next musical metaphor won’t be those wildly popular Pop Idols who make a big splash and then sink without trace.