Nederburg Edelkeur was the first sweet wine in South Africa to be made from grapes infected with noble rot. Gnter Brzel speaks to Christian Eedes about the challenges he faced in creating it. Before us are eight different vintages of Edelkeur, the sweet wine from Nederburg. I have come to hear the story of this most renowned beverage from the man who originally conceived of it, namely Gnter Brzel, 71 years young, and former cellarmaster and managing director of the Paarl winery that has produced it since 1969.
“No spittoons needed,” he says as we begin our tasting, starting with the 1974 vintage and ending with the as-yet-unreleased 2003. “I’m being delivered to the devil in any case, so I don’t mind a bit more devil in me.”
What gives sweet wines such as Edelkeur their hallmark of complexity is “noble rot” or the fungal growth botrytis cinerea. Spores of the fungus remain dormant in the vineyard soil and on vine bark until they are activated by suitable atmospheric conditions, namely alternate moisture and heat.
The initial sign of infection is that the berry becomes discoloured. If the weather stays wet, grey rot will ensue and the whole crop could be lost. Rain washes the botrytis spores off and allows other fungi to grow. It also dilutes the sugar in the berry, which is precisely the opposite of what the winemaker wants noble rot to achieve.
If, however, the weather turns dry, then this facilitates noble rot. Spores latch on to the skin of the grape and feed on moisture from within. The effect is to concentrate the juice into a sticky, sugar-rich pulp. “A sun that is not too hot and a wind caressing the grapes helping the dehydration process is what’s needed,” explains Brzel.
Spread of botrytis through the vineyard is neither orderly nor regular, and the harvest for Edelkeur may take as long as a fortnight to complete, with the pickers making five or six sorties through the vineyard during that time. On each pass, only the affected grapes should be picked, but care must be taken to leave some rot on each bunch to facilitate its spread. Also, “sick” grapes (those with grey rot) must be eliminated.
On picking, noble rot has had the effect of greatly concentrating the sugar in the berry, so much so that no yeast is completely able to convert all that richness into alcohol.
So how did Edelkeur, South Africa’s first sweet wine made from botrytised grapes, come about?
Brzel arrived at the Cape in 1956 after graduating cum laude from the State Training School for Wine and Fruit Research at Weinsberg in Germany. He was to have an illustrious career at Nederburg, one of his greatest triumphs being the development of Edelkeur.
“I saw these raisins on the vine, these beauties, and my thoughts immediately tended towards the wines Sauternes and Barsac in Bordeaux, Tokay of Hungary and the Trockenbeerenauslesen style from Germany,” he relates. “Why couldn’t South Africa make world class sweet wine but with its own texture and style?”
Practical tests were begun in 1961. Brzel wanted to learn about the attack of botrytis on grapes and how this might apply in the vineyard. It was in the laboratory of Monis, the Paarl wine company affiliated to Nederburg at the time, that he set to work.
The first step was for him and his colleagues to propagate the fungus.
Then pre-harvested, dehydrated grapes (Chenin Blanc, Crouchen Blanc and Weisser Riesling) were sprayed with the fungus in suspension. The grapes were laid out on trays in a wind tunnel and the development of the fungus carefully monitored.
Though the results from laboratory testing were enlightening, Brzel faced a major obstacle: legislation at the time restricted the residual sugar content of table wine to 20g/l whereas elsewhere in the world such sweet wines typically had residual sugars of between 150 and 200g/l. “The authorities didn’t just say no, they said Nyet!” relates Brzel. “This was done to defend the well-established fortified wine market.”
Later, Nederburg was granted an indulgence by the Department of Agriculture to pursue the development of sweet wines from botrytised grapes, the one condition being that the fungus had to grow in vineyard rather than be induced in the cellar.
A humidity of 90-100% is needed for the onset of botrytis so, from the 1964 harvest, Brzel installed overhead sprinklers in the vineyard to generate such conditions, and then induced the botrytis infection of the grapes himself. But what he ultimately wanted was for botrytis to come about naturally, and it was in the build-up to the 1969 harvest that the weather conditions where ideal for what would be South Africa’s first commercial release of a Noble Late Harvest, total production being 9 400l.
Brzel had opted to work with Chenin Blanc because of its adaptability, and Edelkeur has always been made from this variety. “You can make anything out of Chenin – from sparkling wine to sherry,” he remarks. “It’s our most versatile grape, whether you like it or not.”
Interesting to note, Brzel was still forced by legislation to ferment the 1969 very dry, as he was permitted a residual sugar of only 35g/l, still way below international standards. “I was at first enraged [by this pettiness on the part of the authorities],” says Brzel, “but I realised that the inevitable criticism that our sweet wines would attract from the rest of the world would help change this.”
No matter the low sugar on his first commercial effort. In 1972, Brzel entered the 1969 Edelkeur in an international wine competition in Budapest, Hungary, where it beat examples of Tokay to be judged best wine on exhibition. “This was encouraging to us, and forced the authorities to be more forward-thinking.”
As hard as Brzel had to battle to convince the authorities that the production of sweet wine should be legitimate, he also faced scepticism from his fellow producers. Previously the convention among local growers had been to harvest as soon as symptoms of grey rot were in evidence, for fear that a crop be lost. No one had the confidence to see if noble rot would ensue.
“After all, noble late was an entirely new category in SA. There were many who wondered who would want to drink a wine from vrot (rotten) grapes,” he recounts with a chuckle. To counter these anxieties, he also made it a priority to research the best fungicides to control botrytis cinerea.
There were also marketing challenges to face. Though he’d finally managed to put a Noble Late Harvest in bottle that was sanctioned by the authorities, Brzel admits that Nederburg had no real idea how they were going to sell this style of wine.
A start was made when the 1969 was sold on auction by postal bid in 1972, and then there were no further vintages of Edelkeur from 1970 to 1972 because of unfavourable weather conditions.
With the second Edelkeur made in 1973, it became imperative to recoup some of the investment that had gone into developing the wine, and the Nederburg Auction was conceived as a vehicle to sell this and other premium wine. The first such event was held on 8 March 1975 and the top price fetched was R121 for a 12 x 750ml case of Nederburg Johann Graue Edelkeur, the equivalent of just over R10 a bottle.
Brzel admits that he was disappointed with the prices fetched for his dessert wine, but at the very least it was now gathering a serious following in the wine world.
To this day, Edelkeur is sold only through the Nederburg Auction, the most recently released 2002 vintage fetching an average of R1 056 per 12 x 375ml case, the equivalent of R88 a bottle.
Nederburg Edelkeur 2002
Grapes: from 18-year-old block of Chenin Blanc, 2 ha in size, on Durbanville farm, Altydgedacht
Yield: 1 to 1,5 t/ha
Sugar concentration at picking: over 40 Balling
Winemaker Razvan Macici (responsible for Edelkeur since 2001) explains his approach as follows:
In the cellar, a final sorting is carried out to eliminate all berries infected with sour rot.
Grapes destined for final wine usually consist of two-thirds infected with noble rot and one-third of healthy berries to make up volume.
These are then put through the destemmer-crusher before pressing and left for 48 hours on the skins before being pressed again. Typically, one tonne of grapes produces 400l of must compared to 750l when making table wine.
The resulting viscous liquid is put through a centrifuge to clean and separate, and then inoculated with selected yeast. Fermentation takes place at around 17 to 18C – higher than usual. Once alcohol and residual sugar are at desired levels, fermentation is arrested by cooling and sulphur adjustments made.
Anaylsis of Edelkeur 2002
Alcohol by volume: 10,58%
Residual sugar: 189 g/l
Total acidity: 7,96 g/l
Free SO2: 40 mg/l (cannot be certified if free SO2 above 60mg/l)
Total SO2: 252 mg/l (NLH wines allowed a maximum total SO2 of 300mg/l compared to 200mg/l for table wines)
Total production: 3 200 bottles (375ml)
Rated: 3 Stars
Other achievements: Gold medal at the 2004 International Wine and Spirit Competition
Tagged Wineries & Cellars