50 Years on: Maestro and his Baronne

The great wine legend and I are eating braised cow stomach and French fries, and there is a lot going on. At 89 years of age, Maestro Günter Brözel has got more to talk about than three 20-somethings discussing the upcoming new Apple I-phone or the state of almond-milk flat-whites in the Cape Town City Bowl.

I had initially cornered him for lunch to engage discussion on the Baronne wine, a red bled he initiated in 1973 during his 33-year tenure as Nederburg cellarmaster. But in between bouts of “we’ll get to Baronne now”, I am told tales of interest and daring.

“My uncle flew in the same squadron as the Red Baron in World War I,” says Maestro Brözel when I chanced to mention Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand, and the visit I had to the amazing aviation museum in Blenheim.  

“And don’t talk to me about military planes, I was almost killed by a British fighter. As a kid back in Germany during War number two. It was towards the end of the war, and I was just riding my bike and heard this plane roaring up behind me. Then the damn thing started firing its guns at me, a boy on a bicycle, and I heard the rounds hitting the ground besides me, feel the strikes on the earth through the bicycle handlebars, but the bugger missed. Otherwise, I’d never have made it to South Africa.”

The thought of war has the Maestro taking a soul-sustaining forkful of tripe and a sip of red wine. I head towards the theme of today’s discussion.

“Before I get to the Baronne,” says Maestro Brözel nibbling a French fry. “We Brözels were tree and barrel and wood people back in Germany,” he says. “I remember going out into the forests with my father who was a cooper. He’d teach me about how the oak trees grow, what a 200-year-old tree must look like if it was going to give good barrel wood, how it must be felled and seasoned. I was into that stuff at a young age already.”

I mention that most fine wine barrels are of French origin. “Don’t get me started,” he says, “German wood is great, just great, but the French would make you believe anything.”

Brözel left Germany for the winemaking post at Nederburg, Paarl in 1956 where he made his mark as one of the greatest winemakers and wine people to have influenced South African wine – hence my term for him of Maestro, a title Danie de Wet from De Wetshof always used and still uses to refer to Herr Brözel. For the legacy is enormous. His Noble Late Edelkeur. Belief that Cabernet Sauvignon is the great Cape Red, which he showed through magnificent wines. There were early forays into Sauvignon Blanc. His contribution to building Nederburg into a South African behemoth wine brand. This was part of the provenance of Maestro Brözel.

“Ah, the Baronne,” he says, at last. “Man, in the 1970s South Africans were suddenly developing a thirst for red wine, as in overnight. Problem was, 80% of the country’s then 112 000ha were planted to white grapes. And red was mainly Cinsaut – only 2% of the grapes here were Cabernet Sauvignon, and that was the variety everybody wanted. The name Cabernet had built a reputation, like, you are looking for good red wine, then look for Cabernet Sauvignon.”

What Brözel understood, was that even the most fervent red wine-lovers were finding Cabernet Sauvignon a bit tough-going, especially when the wines were young. For winemakers, these were the days before malolactic fermentation and access to a diversity of tannin-softening oak barrels.

“But we had Shiraz, so I went to the guys at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery – owners of Nederburg – and said I’m going to make Cabernet, but with a dollop of Shiraz to broaden and soften the wine, make it early drinkable for all these new red wine people,” he says. “And then because it is not Cabernet Sauvignon, we give it its own name.”

The brief was a plush, accessible and friendly red wine. But Brözel was adamant that despite its approachability and the commercial positioning, the wine had to have an image of nobility.

“I stared at a map of Bordeaux for hours,” says Maestro Brözel, “seeking inspiration. There was the Gironde estuary, the Garonne River and the Dordogne….Somehow, from this, ‘Baronne’ popped-up, probably between Bordeaux and Garonne. But when I wrote it down, I knew I had it.”

With 225l barriques not yet known in South African cellars when the maiden Nederburg Baronne was made in 1973, Brözel did the aging in huge old foudre. “Perfect, those vessels were and still are,” he says. “My focus was on quality un-virussed grapes – to which Nederburg had access. A seamless blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from good grapes does not need heavy wood to produce the silky, juicy wine I wanted Baronne to be.”

And 50 years later, the Baronne legend lives on. I just hope the South African wine industry is doing enough to ensure that the legacy of our great wine pioneers, such as Maestro Brözel, also remain intact and are given the respect and the place in history they deserve.

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