Classic cabernet

Nights are drawing in; there’s a chill in the air reminding winter’s coming, even if the winter rains are so far resolutely staying away. Time to return to exploring ten-year-olds from the cellar; this time red wines.

Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009 is an appropriate first choice, given the recent release of two site-specific cabernets and Reserve cabernet from 2014.

Vergelegen is one of too few wine farms fortunate enough to have had the same winemaker for 20 or more years; in André van Rensburg’s case, 22 years. His involvement and interest has never been in the cellar only; he’s fanatical about healthy, virus-free vines.

Among the first cabernet vineyards was one with leaf-roll virus, its fruit was thought to add a touch of greenness, which consumers then associated (appreciated?) with Stellenbosch cab. Such character wasn’t on the van Rensburg list of positives; he persuaded the Board of Anglo-American, the company that owns Vergelegen, that a complete re-planting was required. Today, the 120 hectares under vine are 16-19 years old and virus-free, annual ELISA tests confirming if there’s any doubt.

If, when he joined Vergelegen, van Rensburg, viewed his position as a caretaker job for maybe five years, his first harvest showed him how special the place is. Replanting the vineyards ensured he would be there long term. ‘It’s only after eight to 10 years that one starts to know and understand vineyards,’ explains this perfectionist. By 2003 both vineyards and cellar fell under his control.

Cabernet sauvignon is inextricably association with Vergelegen; there are five or six varietal cabernets or blends including cabernet, throughout the range. Fruit for these is drawn from several cabernet vineyards comprising different soils, elevations, aspects and clones, each reflecting its own site expression in the wine.

Andre van Rensburg, Vergelegen’s winemaker since 1998

An apt segue into the two new cabernets (there’s also a merlot) from specific sites. All, from 2014, are the result of van Rensburg’s collaboration with renowned French consultant, Michel Rolland, his consultant of choice.

If there was some surprise that van Rensburg needed a consultant at all, or specifically M Rolland, he explains; ‘It’s good to get an outsider who is able to see the benefits of a vineyard when the winemaker can’t.’

The first releases of this collaboration – The First Thought Cabernet Sauvignon and the Last Word Cabernet Sauvignon (the Merlot has the moniker The Mistake) – are splendid and classic (perhaps more so without those names, which remind Vergelegen has cabernet covered from start to finish.)

The former cabernet is on a sheltered site and ripens around two weeks earlier than Last Word. While it has the more generous fragrance and open texture, there is no shortage of structure or freshness that benefits ageability. Like all van Rensburg’s cabernets, it has wonderfully dry yet ripe grape tannins, which help to counteract the 14.5% alcohol, there being no sense of heat or sweetness.

Last Word site is one of the oldest, planted in 1999 to a traditional local clone on high clay soil, which accounts for later ripening. More aromatically closed than First Thought, more a sense of ripeness than fruit, with layers of stern yet ripe grape tannins, which also lend freshness, this is perhaps the grander cabernet, demanding at least two or three years before broaching. Both wines received the same vinification and perfectly absorb their 18 months in all new Taransaud 225 litre oak barrels.

If 2014 isn’t regarded among the Cape’s great red wine vintages, these wines do not reflect that at all; surely the virus-free vines are an important factor. They will certainly age as well as my 2009 – yes, I’m there at last.

Vintage 2009 was a different story. Winter 2008 was very cold and wet, a mild spring followed with the traditional heatwave arriving in February, later than usual. Slower ripening resulted in a healthy crop with excellent analyses. Fires across the winelands were a sad negative. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. In his notes on the wine, he declares 2009 as ‘one of the best SA vintages of the last 20 years.’

This Reserve comes from several vineyards (including the sites mentioned above). Vinification featured punch downs, as opposed to pump overs on ’14 but all received lengthy post-maceration and 18-22 months in new small French oak.

Vergelegen Cabernet Reserve 09

 

Cabernet franc and merlot, 3% of each, join cabernet in ‘09. Is it auto-suggestion that the former brings a note of leafy spice? Many cabernets with a similar 14.5% alcohol would taste lush and sweet, not this classic dry, tailored style, which also achieves pleasing complexity in its meaty, dark-fruited, savoury layers.

How would it have fared on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards? I would like to think very well, as that complexity is what was lacking in some of those top reds.

 

 

Vergelegen’s red wines’ track record suggest this delicious cabernet has many more years’ great drinking ahead. I have no concerns about keeping my remaining bottle for at least another five years.

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