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south african wine, part 3

One of the flagship properties of the South African wine scene, Vergelegen is one of those estates where the amount of money invested isn’t exactly hidden from view. Far from it: Anglo American’s huge wads of wine-directed cash are clearly visible in the beautiful winery, homestead and gardens. The result is that Vergelegen is a great place to visit, with plenty to keep the whole family occupied, including a lovely restaurant.

There’s a sense of integrity to all the building that has gone on here (this sounds like a line from Grand Designs). The winery, set into the top of a 276 metre high hill, is arranged in an octagonal plan, which links it to the homestead garden dating back to 1700. From the roof garden on top of the winery, there’s a 360º view of False Bay, Table Mountain, Cape Town, Helderberg and the Hottentots Holland range. It’s hard to do it justice with photographs.

The winery has been designed to facilitate gravity flow, which is a more gentle way of moving must and wine than pumping. The fact that the winery is set into the hill also helps create an even, low temperature in the winery and barrel cellar.

The vineyards enjoy a mild climate due to proximity to False Bay. They have a high clay content: the rocky northern slopes have excellent drainage and are suited to red varieties, while the higher, shallower soils are less fertile but well drained, and are better for early ripening varieties.

But this is a property with a long history. Created by Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Vergelegen was established over a six year period from 1700, before van der Stel was ousted by his political enemies and sent back to Holland. In that short period he achieved a great deal, turning a wilderness into fruit orchards, orange groves, vineyards and cattle stations. He also made reservoirs and dug irrigation canals. After his departure, Vergelegen was sold and divided into four separate farms (Vergelegen, Lourensford, Morgenster and Cloetenberg). Van der Stel’s original homestead survives to this day and is guarded by five huge camphor trees that he planted (left), making them over 300 years old.

Subsequent owners came and went, and in the early 20th century the vineyards were removed. In 1987 Anglo American Farms purchased the property from the then owners, the Barlows, and created the farm as it is today, with 125 hectares of orchards (pears, plums and soft citrus) and 100 hectares of vineyards. Following the comprehensive planting program, Vergelegen produced its first wine in 1992. Two winemakers have held the helm: Martin Meinert (1988–1997) and the current cellarmaster, Andre van Rensburg.

Van Rensburg (right) is well known for his plain speaking, as well as his great wines. Fishing for a response, I asked him about the recent scandal when winemakers were caught adulterating their Sauvignon Blancs with methoxypyrazine, the flavour compound that can contribute green, herby characters that add freshness, and are a key component of the successful New Zealand style. Like Michael Fridjon, who initially blew the whistle, Andre reckons the problem was of a bigger scale than just the two winemakers who were eventually caught. ‘The Wine and Spirits Board announced an amnesty for all the guys who had been adding flavours in 2003’, says van Rensburg. ‘Anyone who carried on doing this after the was either completely f**k-witted or didn’t give a s**t about being caught.’ He added that, ‘all wine industries go through a silly phase of things like this happening’.

But let’s focus on his wines, which are pretty impressive across the board.

Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc 2005
Very bright nose with lovely aromatics: fruity, with a fresh green herbal, green pepper aroma. The palate is fruity and well balanced. It’s quite rounded, and not excessively green or herbaceous. Lovely. Very good+ 88/100

Vergelegen Chardonnay 2004
Everything is hand picked. 60% is whole-bunch pressed, and in 2005 100% will be whole-bunch pressed. All barrel fermented, with 40% in new oak. One-third goes through malolactic. Andre has tried oxidative juice handling and found that it delays the wine by two or three years. Lovely nose is rich and toasty with some citrussy freshness, along with a richer tropical fruit element. Rich rounded, toasty palate with a rich nutty character. Good balance. Very good+ 89/100    

Vergelegen Chardonnay Reserve 2003
100% barrel fermented in new oak, with natural fermentation. 500 cases made. Tight but rich nose showing fine oak and lemony freshness. Nice tight palate is fresh and full with a minerally edge. Good oak, fresh acidity and quite complex. Very good/excellent 92/100

Vergelegen (white) 2003
This is an exciting wine that’s a blend of 67% Semillon and 33% Sauvignon Blanc, both fermented in French oak, 60% of which is new. Wonderful nose is tight and slightly herby with complex, smoky, slightly minerally fruit and some lemon notes. There’s lovely rich minerally fruit on the palate. Fresh with good acidity and successful marriage of fruit and oak. A brilliant wine. Very good/excellent 94/100

Vergelegen Mill Race 2003
A blend of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, attractively priced. Made in the traditional way in barrel, and with up to a month’s maceration on skins. Lovely gravelly, minerally nose, with a chalky edge, and perfumed black fruits: it’s a classic Bordeaux style. The palate has nice weight with good tannins and minerally fruit. A delicious savoury style. Very good+ 89/100

Vergelegen Merlot 2003
Like Ken Forrester, Andre blends in 15% Cabernet Franc to his Merlot. It spends 22 months in barrel with 60% new oak. Nice rounded spicy berry fruit nose is smooth, ripe and accessible. The palate has generous sweet red fruits with fine tannins and spicy structure. Smooth and rich. There’s a nice savoury green edge in the background. Appealing and well structured. Very good/excellent 90/100

Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
With a touch of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, this spends 2 years in barrel, of which 70% are new. Classic sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with a hint of meatiness and some spice. There’s a touch of chocolate too. Generous palate shows rich fruit with a nice blackcurrant spice character. It’s rich, but it hasn’t gone too ‘new worldy’, with nice structure and lots of potential. Very good/excellent 93/100

Vergelegen (red) 2001
This spends 22 months in new oak, and is from a single vineyard. Brooding nose of sweet, chocolatey, liqueur-like blackcurrant fruit with complex spiciness. Not at all overdone. The palate is concentrated, rich and sweetly fruited, but is at the same time quite elegant. Sweetly fruited, yes, but not at all over the top. Just a faint hint of greenness. Excellent 95/100

Vergelegen Shiraz 2003
This is the first Shiraz from their own vineyards. Aged for 14 months in French oak, 30% of which is new. There’s a touch of greenness on the dark fruits nose, but it’s not too distracting. Quite elegant and savoury. Nice spicy weight on the palate, which shows fresh black fruits, nicely defined with a spicy structure. Delicious stuff, and quite restrained. Very good/excellent 90/100

Wines tasted 12/05
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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