Tim James: Thoughts on the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction 2019

By , 21 October 2019

Christie’s auctioneer Charlie Foley.

The Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, held last Saturday in Stellenbosch, was an undoubted success – a triumph, even, given that the organisers must have been at least a little concerned at its prospects, after the more or less abject failure of the last Strauss Auction. Most impressively, all but two of the 124 lots were sold, compared with an unsold rate of 35% at Strauss. The average price per bottle was R660 – which compared with a more impressive R812 for the third significant local auction, that of the Cape Winemakers Guild; I don’t know the Strauss figure.

Detailed results are not available at time of writing, but a few highlights were announced early. The white-wine average bottle price was R471 (there is no buyer’s commission to be added; all these prices are unaudited, but unlikely to change; all are still subject to VAT). Chenin blanc apparently did best of them, with the following wines all getting highs of R1000 per bottle: David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2015, DeMorgenzon The Divas Chenin Blanc 2013 and Alheit Vineyards Magnetic North Mountain Makstok 2015. Though that’s not exactly a large premium on current-release prices, especially for the DeMorgenzon. Bubbly did a little better, with Le Lude Agrafe 2012 getting R1 034 per bottle – here the fact that this is substantially below the price currently asked for the same bottle on the Le Lude website speaks more about the somewhat ridiculous ambitions of the producer than anything else.

Red wines as usual received much higher prices than whites, the highest being for Vilafonté Series C 2005 in 5-litre Jeroboams, the price equating to R3 303 for a 750ml bottle. The average price per bottle for red wines was R733.

But details are less important than the overall positive achievement.
The success of Fine & Rare should come as both a relief and a worry to the organisers of the Strauss auction in ways that the comparative success of the CWG Auction wasn’t. The latter differs from both: it has the sexiness of actual winemakers involved, many of them among the country’s most exciting; and the wines are all young, which is what most buyers really seem to want. Fine & Rare showed that, even at this time of middle-class consumer anxiety, there is money and interest enough to buy serious wines at auction, which the Strauss team must have been seriously doubting. But the Strauss people will have to wonder why they failed where Fine & Rare triumphed.

I would suggest a few possible reasons. Firstly, there was generally more hype and effective publicity about Fine and Rare, and its marketers presumably succeeded in convincing people that this essentially new effort was somehow a continuation of the Nederburg Auction – which, though tiring in its latter years, still lent the new incarnation an element of glamour. Secondly, Fine & Rare were astute in the team of tasters they flourished at the buying public: Michael Fridjhon, Cathy van Zyl MW and Francois Rautenbach. I don’t suppose these illustrious figures are any more competent at gatekeeping than are Higgo Jacobs and Roland Peens for Strauss, but they are more prestigious and better known, especially to moneyed people in Johannesburg. Michael also “curated” the catalogue, whatever that means.

Getting Fridjhon ensured not just the generally useful association of his name, but helped assure that the well-heeled readers of his Business Day column (republished on his Wine Wizard site) would get to hear positive things about the auction. He did declare his involvement each time he wrote about it, of course. In the second, an article devoted entirely to puffing the auction, he concluded: “The final line-up is an impressive and unprecedented array of the Cape’s best and most fashionable brands.” The word “unprecedented” isn’t really justified, given the larger and arguably more impressive range at the second Strauss auction.

I wondered if getting Francois Rautenbach involved possibly encouraged Singita to spend heavily at this auction, as opposed to the Strauss auctions. In fact, Singita was the biggest customer, spending something over R260 000 (to plug gaps in its magnificent collection of maturing wines). Francois tells me that getting invited to taste and attend is indeed significant for him; it happens at the CWG auction too, whereas there was no approach at all from Strauss and he remained “out of the info loop” – perhaps the Strauss team does need to build its market somewhat more assiduously.

But it’s hard to be certain of all the reasons for Saturday’s success – or Strauss’s failure. What is certain is that the latest auction result will immensely cheer all those intent on establishing a secondary market for Cape wine. But whether the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction is itself sustainable is another question. It must have cost Nederburg (Distell), which still pays for it all, a great deal of money – flying in an auctioneer (curiously described in the press release as “enigmatic”, whereas in photos he looks to be anything but!), and bringing in all that local expertise to taste … and curate. Etc. And not really getting much in return, as far as I can see – even if they did have a dozen wines on offer. As with the whole secondary-wine project, we must just wait and see. But that’s it, auction-wise, for this year. Back to enjoying wine.

• Full details are expected to be released later today, Monday 21 October.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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