Q&A with auctioneer: Wine auctions during a global pandemic

by | May 18, 2021 | Article, Lifestyle, News

The prestigious Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction (CFRWA), originally established in 1975 as the Nederburg Auction, will once again treat local and international wine collectors and enthusiasts to the country’s finest vinous treasures at this year’s brand-new hybrid auction event on 22 May 2021.

Following a hugely successful 2019 event, and after a challenging year during which South African wineries had to navigate the devastating impact of various Covid-19 alcohol restrictions, this year’s auction is set to be a spirited affair, with international auction house Christie’s Charlie Foley taking up the gavel to showcase SA’s finest wines.

Excited to be part of this year’s auction again, Charlie shares his views on the place of wine auctions during a pandemic, and reveals which wines he would take home, if he could.

Q: The global wine industry has gone through a massive change since you last auctioneered at the CFRWA in 2019. How has the pandemic affected wine auctions?

There are more bidders and active buyers than ever before. The need to separate the day from the evening with a glass of wine has fuelled buying habits. Folk want tasty bottles, crafted with passion and delivered to their door. From my side, I have saved £2.50 from bus journeys every day – that’s an extra bottle at the weekend!

Q: What are the positive developments you’ve seen due to this new reality?

Everyone wants to learn more. It’s brilliant. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course subscriptions are up, people are more inquisitive and looking to turn a passive hobby into a serious habit. How fantastic to be able to speak to buyers who want to know the whys and hows of wine. Also, the trade has upped its game. The internet was previously this big grey tool, but now it is like a limb: IGTV, e-commerce, reels, webinars, drone videos… It puts the people who make and sell wine right in your hands and helps you learn more every day.

Q: How can bidders benefit from the 2021 hybrid format?

It’s fantastic that the Cape Fine & Rare Auction is online. This means we can take the buzz of the room and spread it around the world. You can tune in from a Scottish bolthole, a Malibu beach house, a Hong Kong skyscraper or Cape Point. Bidders and buyers can take part, try and get their hands on some fab-u-lous wines and experience the thrum and theatre of this very special auction.

Q: What is the sentiment among UK-based wine collectors when it comes to South Africa’s fine wines?

South Africa has a special place in the hearts of the British. I often think of it as just below Gibraltar, like a sunnier and infinitely more beautiful shire of the UK. Our hearts bleed for the wine industry with its various restrictions. A shout-out to some fab initiatives from the UK merchants – Waitrose, in particular, has led a charge to help. South African wine can be equal parts gorgeous, golden, glittering and glorious, and who doesn’t want a big chunk of that in their lives right now.

Q: You’ve always been a huge proponent of South Africa’s wines. Why?

In 2012, I stepped off a plane at Cape Town International Airport, looked over at a cloud-shrouded Table Mountain and that’s what did it. From sipping MCC with oysters at The Old Biscuit Mill to enjoying Chenin Blanc at a spot overlooking Clifton, to a chewy red over a braai in Robertson and a lazy afternoon on a Stellies stoep with Shiraz. You can sign me up for life!

Q: You’ve seen the lots on offer this year. Your thoughts?

Expert judges for the CFRWA, Michael Fridjhon, Cathy van Zyl MW, François Rautenbach and Joseph Dhafana, are lucky souls to have tasted all these wines. Kudos to them for choosing such a fantastic line-up. It’s truly a who’s who of elegance, complexity, cavernous depth and long-lived tannins. I think this is a real treat for bidders. Some of these vintages are never seen in retail anywhere in the world, and if they are, they are meltingly expensive. This is your chance to get your mitts on some incredibly rare vintages of exquisite wines at exciting prices, that nobody, but nobody, else has.

Q: If you could pick one lot to go after – and win no matter what – which one will get your paddle waving?

One lot? How cruel! I am a hedonist and can’t count, so here are my faves. David & Nadia’s Hoë-Steen 2015 has sent shivers up my spine – I might ferret the lot behind the rostrum and forget to sell it! I also live on an IV drip of Chardonnay, so The Single Tree 2015 from Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards can be funnelled into my life support machine. And just to show a bit of butch, I want some Cab, and Le Riche’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is my choice. It is aflame, full of flickering life and luminosity. Sock it to me in magnums!

Q: There is also an incredibly exciting lot going under the hammer this year – the Grand Constance 1821…

This is glorious news. As Napoleon breathed his last on St Helena in 1821, the grapes for his favourite wine were just ripening on the vine. The chance to acquire and drink a bottle of wine 200 years after its birth, is sensational. I can only imagine the honeyed, spun sugar and hazelnut depths of this wine. Very few bottles of this wine still exist and for the CFRWA to have one up for auction… A true unicorn wine. I presume unicorns in South Africa have zebra stripes, by the way.

Q: Which styles or varieties do you expect to do particularly well this year?  

Do you know, in 2019 I was knocked off my feet by Chenin Blanc? The versatility of the variety knows no bounds, from bone dry to super sweet, and our South African friends are nailing it every single time in every single style. You could pair Chenin from South Africa to every dish in an eight-course banquet. In fact, let’s do this! Last week I was lucky to taste a rarer Cape red, Cabernet Franc, in a pure, crunchy, graphite-chiselled style. I expect Chenin will soar, Cabernet will climb the board and glorious ripe rarities will set paddles aflutter.

Q: In 2019, your auction attire had tongues wagging – for all the right reasons, of course. Have you picked your outfit for this year’s auction yet?

You’re too kind! I never give too much away, but yes, my tailor has been busy with his threads and my only clue is that this year’s ensemble is truly p-u-u-u-r-fect.

Register as bidder and private buyer: Founded with the single goal to showcase South Africa’s finest and rarest wines, the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction catalogue will be a reminder of the strength and quality of South Africa’s wines. Wine collectors who would like to bid and participate as buyers at the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, can register here.

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