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
"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
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