Extreme Wine South Africa: Nederburg Edelkeur

Since I’m writing about South Africa’s Extreme Wines (see previous post) I cannot neglect a wine so extreme that it it took an act of Congress (figuratively) to get it produced, and act of Will (literally) to initiate a tradition that can be sustained only when acts of Nature permit, and that  provoked the creation of a very special stage for extreme acts and actors.

I’m talking about the wine in the photo, Nederburg Edelkeur, one of South Africa’s (and the world’s) treasured extreme wines.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Wine Gets Personal

This is a personal story for me because my small cellar now holds two half-bottles of Edelkeur from the 1977 and 1979 vintages. They were given to me by Carina Gous, Distell Business Director of Wines, as a token of thanks for giving the keynote address this year at the Nederburg Auction. I’m looking forward to sharing these wines with Sue (and perhaps one or two special friends) on an appropriately special occasion several years in the future.

Edelkeur was the personal vision of an extreme wine person, Günter Brözel, one of South Africa’s most honored winemakers who was Nederburg‘s cellar master for 33 years until his retirement in 1989. (You can see and hear  Brözel in the video below. You can read details of Edelkeur’s history here and  another story here).

Brözel’s extreme idea was to create a Noble (made with Botrytis infected “noble rot” grapes) Late Harvest wine that would express the elegance and power of South African terroir in much the way that German Trockenbeerenauslese, French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji represent their respective wine producing regions. The only things that stood in his way were Mother Nature and the South African wine law.

Mother Nature is easy enough to understand. Late harvest wines are tricky to produce because the grapes need to stay on the vines long after the usual harvest and they are subject to damage from birds, mold and other problems. Making a Noble wine is even harder and requires both luck (in the vineyard) and lots of harvest labor. You can’t count on making a noble late harvest wine every year and indeed the first Edelkeur vintage in 1969 was not followed by a second until 1972.

Extreme Wine Law

So Edelkeur required an act of nature to make, but an act of Congress? Well, not literally Congress, but it’s a fact that South African wine laws prior to the 1969 vintage did specifically forbid this kind of wine. The rules permitted (and protected) sweet fortified wines but outlawed the production of natural (unfortified) wines with more than 30 percent residual sugar. Tokaji Eszencia often has as much as 50 percent to 70 percent residual sugar (90 percent in the 2000 vintage!). Brözel was going for an extreme and the law got in his way, so the law had to be changed. And it was.

But not all the laws yielded to Nederburg’s cellar master. The most reliable way to get late harvest grapes (because Mother Nature’s part is reduced) is to harvest them earlier and dry them on racks, concentrating the flavor that way. (Just as the most reliable way to make Ice Wine is to pick unfrozen grapes and then … freeze them!) But Nature’s Law prevailed here and so the grapes for Edelkeur are left to hang exposed to and expressing wild nature before being finally picked and vinified.

A Special Stage 

And so finally Brözel was able to make Nederburg Edelkeur but that created another problem: how to distribute the tiny amount of this precious wine that law and nature permit. After some early trial and error, it was decided that a special stage was needed and this became the now-famous Nederburg Auction, where a juried selection of rare South African wines are offered up once a year to the international wine trade. Some of the 1972 vintage was sold at the first Nederburg Auction in 1975 and the link between the auction, Edelkeur and the best of South African wine has been going ever since.

The “first five” founding wineries — Nederburg, Delheim, Groot Constantia, Overgaauw and Simonsig — are now joined by many others, the Auction Selection wines determined through rigorous blind tasting panels. It’s an honor just to be selected for the auction and to have your bottles wear the “Nederburg Auction Selection” ribbon.

The auction today does much more than just allocate one extreme wine. It honors an extreme wine person’s vision and draws international attention to South Africa’s best wines.

Back to the Wine

So what does the wine taste like? Well, I’m not going to open my bottles for several years, but I was able to taste through several vintages of Edelkeur on the first day of the auction and they were memorable and gave a hint of how this wine can age. I don’t rate wines or write reviews, but I found this CellarTracker tasting note for the 1976 vintage that sums up my opinion.

Brown with a bright yellow rim. Fabulous nose – intense citrus, caramel and leather with a very slight flor touch. Amazing attack. Citrussy sweetness. Amazing life. Huge depths of flavour. Great length. Excellent

One of the people I was tasting with that day had this reaction: “They shouldn’t sell these wines; they should hold them back.” She didn’t care about the money, she just knew that the wines would get better and better and that it was a sin to drink wines like the 1979 and the 1977 so young.

She’s right, I suppose, because certainly the wines will continue to develop for many years, but I think she’s wrong, too. Yes, the wines will get better with age, which is why I’m not rushing to pull these corks, but putting some of them up for auction isn’t really about the money or maybe even [just] about the wines themselves. There’s something bigger going on here — defining the identity of South Africa and its wine and honoring the passion of the wine makers — and that’s what makes it really extreme.

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Update November 1, 2012. Here’s a new video from the Nederburg Auction website. Cheers!


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8 responses

  1. Dear Mike

    Thank you for your wonderful articles about South Africa! I have already referred to your blog in my previous Newsletter which I regularly issue for the Russian wine market on behalf of Wines of South Africa (WOSA). I would like to use some of your materials (parts of your articles translated in Russian) for the article about the old South African wines from your recent blogs Extreme Wine for my next Newsletter. Do you mind? I will surely put a reference to your blog again!

    Best regards
    Vladimir Gorodkov
    Country Manager: Russia
    WOSA

  2. Great article. We have a 1997 bottle of Nederburg Edelkeur we bought while on business assignment in Johannesburg. Wondering if we should open it!

  3. Hi
    Sorry to resurrect an old thread…

    I have single bottle of 1983 Edelkeur waiting for my 60th birthday…6 years away…

    The other five I bought in 1986 were drunk one bottle every 6 years, and they got better and better…

    Maybe I will hold it for my 70th? :)

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