Once again Vergelegen's remarkable white blend scoops the Best White Wine Trophy. Winemaker André van Rensburg spoke to Fiona McDonald.

A bit of a loose cannon who often speaks first and repents later, André van Rensburg is as blunt as he's talented: Anglo American may own the Helderberg property and provide the finance, but the wines are his. "They're my wines." Total ownership . . . that's André!

"Vergelegen is the finest viticultural property in the southern hemisphere," he's said. "I'll never retire from Vergelegen. I'll die here," he's also said . . .

It's unequivocal statements such as these, and his now infamous remark that Pinotage is as untenable as child rape, that have earned him the label of enfant terrible of the South African wine scene.

Now in his 40s and newly-married, Van Rensburg is an enfant no more. He's taken to tempering some of his outbursts - possibly because he's under threat from higher authorities, but also probably because he recognises his influence is now huge.

An ambitious new generation of winemakers looks to him for direction and advice. What still sets him apart from the rest of the field of increasingly talented winemakers are his incredibly high standards, his total belief in expressing terroir and his bone-deep passion for winemaking.

Last year Vergelegen romped home with six Fairbairn Capital trophies: Most Successful Winery, Best White Wine, Best Red Wine, Best White Blend, Best Red Blend (Bordeaux Style) and Best Shiraz. This year Vergelegen's trophy cabinet will once again bulge, with wins in five categories: Most Successful Producer, Best White Wine, Best White Blend, Best Cabernet Sauvignon and Best Museum Class Semillon.

A few years ago, when the first Vergelegen white blend was released, Van Rensburg admitted he wanted to challenge the South African wine drinking public. White blends generally meant horrid Grand Cru or Blanc de Blanc. His plan was to make a classic Graves-style white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. In his mind it would automatically succeed because of South Africa's obvious love of the former wine. Then he would systematically up the quotient of Semillon, weaning his wine-drinking audience off the obviously seductive charms of Sauvignon Blanc and giving them an appreciation for the less overt charms of Semillon.

The first 2001 was mainly Sauvignon Blanc - 78% to be precise. In the 2002 white blend he dramatically upped the Semillon component to 67%. Now the 2003 blend's ratio is the exact opposite of that first wine - 78% Semillon and 22% Sauvignon Blanc.

"Not bad for a Semillon, hey!" he quips.

The fact that it's a blend makes it more complex than Vergelegen's still massively popular Sauvignon Blanc wines - even the single vineyard Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc. It's more of a challenge for the wine drinker, who must get to grips with the range of flavours, the wood component that adds spice and depth plus the element of age and maturity.

Underpinning the entire exercise is Van Rensburg's belief that the white blend is the best reflection of Vergelegen.

"If you compare the white blend and the red blend, you'll see there's a similarity in structure and expression - and that's Vergelegen. Initially they're a bit tight, but once they soften up, they become beautiful, elegant, balanced wines - and that's what I strive for.

"This white blend spent 10 months in wood - not too long, I think - and 80% of that was new wood with the rest a mix of second, third and fourth fill barrels."
There's no malolactic fermentation as Van Rensburg prefers to preserve the wine's crisp acidity to give the wine the backbone to last as long as possible.

One thing Van Rensburg is adamant about is the longevity of Vergelegen's wines. "I can now say that my whites last 10 years and the reds are good for 20 years."


Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show 2007

· 2007 show review
· 2007 trophy & gold medal winners
· Full results of the 2007 show - by category
· Full results of the 2007 show - by producer A-D | E-H| I-L | M-P | Q-T | U-Z

· What it is, how it works, who runs the show
· Competition rules
· Trophies, show statistics
· The judges
· In search of South Africa's finest wines
· Message from sponsor Old Mutual
· 2007 judges' feedback
· Michael Fridjhon's feedback

· 2006 Show Report
· 2005 Show Report
· 2004 Show Report
· 2003 Show Report
· 2002 Show Report

· Contact Celia Gilloway at WINE magazine: Tel 021 530-3145, E-mail celiag@rsp.co.za, Fax 021 531-2212 or 021 530-3288
· For media and promotional enquiries, contact Out Sorceress Marketing: Tel +27 (0)11 482-5936 E-mail trophywineshow@outsorceress.co.za Fax +27 (0)11 482-2272

The annual wine guide ICONS includes detailed results of the Old Mutual Tophy Wine Show, a host of various related articles, a vintage guide, industry statistics, articles about the top-performing wines and most successful producers, plus a directory of every South African wine cellar and brand owner. To order a copy of the 2007 edition of ICONS at R80, click here.