Bell bottom wines

Friday, 13 August, 2004
Neil Pendock
Shakespeare detected a tide in the affairs of men which "taken at the flood, leads on to fortune" and nowhere is this more obvious than in fashion - of both the Armani and Mondavi kind.

A review of the last three decades of wine and haut couture confirms that while nothing lasts for ever, sooner or later, everything becomes fashionable again.

The seventies were a decade of sartorial excess: bell bottom flairs with platform shoes you could do a double back flip from, topped off with an afro wild enough to lose your mirrored sunglasses in.  

1975 saw Nederburg Edelkeur sprung on a wine drinking public whose taste in whites ran to Premier Grand Crus so dry they could be used as salad dressing if olive oil had been available.  It quickly became the taste of an indulgent generation.  For the first time since Hendrik Cloete supplied his famous Vin de Constance to the courts of 18th century Europe, sweet wine became fashionable and Sammy Linz from the Rebel chain of liquor stores made sure it was widely available.

Bone dry Blanc de Blancs from Spier and Boschendal were fashionable tipples and there was also a good selection of Riesling, both Cape and Rhine/Weisser with the Nederburg Paarl Riesling a canonical example.  After almost sinking without trace, the German grape is now on the threshold of a renaissance.
The 70s saw the birth of the regional wine route.  Stellenbosch was the first and remains the most dynamic.  Before Spatz Sperling from Delheim, Neil Joubert from Spier and Frans Malan from Simonsig had their brainwave in 1971, SA wine was dominated by co-op and merchant wines, with a few honourable exceptions like Rustenberg.  Today co-ops reinvent themselves on a regular basis under exotic names and appellations become smaller and smaller, leading to an explosion of individuality and idiosyncrasy.

By the end of the decade, Billy Hofmeyr at Welgemeend and Braam van Velden at Overgaauw were tinkering with the Cape's first Bordeaux blends and experimenting with maturation in small oak barrels which produced a style of red which would dominate the 80s in the shape of Meerlust Rubicon and Nederburg Edelrood.

Then came the 80s with disco diva Grace Jones pumping out 'La Vie en Rose' on the radio. The precursors of today's metrosexuals, the ladies who lunch, were dining at Lupo's or the Cape equivalents in Camps Bay, eating pasta al dente and drinking Blanc de Noir and Nederburg Rosé by the million litres. With big hair and shoulder pads, fashion inspiration came from Dallas and Dynasty.  All this quaffing confirmed the demise of Pinotage as juice was diverted to fuel La Vie en Rosé.

While Grace Jones and Blanc de Noir are now quaint curiosities, Pinotage is looking like the Comeback Kid, thanks to a string of well received vintages.

Chardonnay hit the ground running after a couple of false starts involving winemakers smuggling the wrong cultivar (Auxerrois) into the country in their underpants and baby's nappies.  After a remarkable two-decade run, Cape Chardonnay is now widely regarded as world-class.

The 80s also saw the foundation of the Cape Winemakers Guild, an organization that highlights the human factor in winemaking and nurtures cellar celebrities.  Fashionistas would find this totally natural as high-profile designers have been synonymous with fashion since before the days of Coco Channel.

The 90s were the decade of Gordon Gekko and his maxim "greed is good."  Power dressing and trainers became de rigeur and alcohol levels in Cape wines took off like a bull market, a trend demonstrated in a remarkable vertical tasting of 30 years of Nederburg Cabernet in the run up to this year's 30th Nederburg Auction.  As SA re-entered the real world, international trends took their toll with the most pernicious effect the rise of Show Wines while foreign investment in vineyards added a splash of international glamour.

Lady Di had a huge effect on floppy hair-styles and the return of romantic dressing.  When it all went pear shaped, her pared-down landmine-lifting style became an international trend.  This fashion icon coincided with a Cape vinous icon when the paparazzi-pursued princess found refuge at Meerlust shortly before her tragic car crash in Paris, the capital of fashion.

Boutique wineries and designer labels blossomed as the millennium dawned, a trend which has continued to date.  The enthusiasm for garage wines shows no signs of slacking off and mimics the success of the Young Designers Emporium - a co-op of inspired individuals making innovative fashion at affordable prices.

The link between wine and fashion is a natural one as both are important components of a 21st  century urban lifestyle.  If modern SA wine was born at the first Nederburg Auction, it could have hardly been at a more suitable place as Nederburg's association with fashion is a happy coincidence of two of the most exciting components of our lifestyle culture.