The speed with which new wineries have opened over the past twenty years has been breathtaking. Hardly has one become conscious of a new name, let alone tasted the wines, than the next steps into the fray.
In a rush of enthusiasm, I’ve been digging into my archives to remind myself – and now you – of the journey from there to here of well-known wineries that in some ways have been pushed aside by the onrush of newcomers.
My Vergelegen archives are thankfully detailed, especially from 1987, when Anglo American purchased the property. Their communication with the media from the building of the new cellar, restoration of the buildings, planting of new vineyards was detailed and a great resource for the future, like now. Today, Twitter and Facebook are channels of choice; many evocative photos and videos remind of the farm’s beauty, wildlife and wines.
But I jump ahead of myself. We think of Vergelegen as a wine farm, in fact vines account for a tiny portion of its sprawling 3000 hectares. After their purchase, Anglo undertook studies of all possible crops that could grow and be financially viable. The outcome of these deliberations saw just 100 ha of vines, with orchards, pastures and some other formal developments, but by far the majority of those 3000 ha has been left unfarmed. On one media visit, each of us planted an indigenous tree; I can’t remember where, nor have I seen it again. I really hope it has thrived.
In 2004 the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative was introduced to the media on the farm; Vergelegen was the first BWI Champion. Initially, there was confusion about what it would achieve as the spread of vineyards caused the loss of biodiversity. Over the years, Vergelegen addressed with a vengeance the issue of alien vegetation; streams again began to run with clear mountain water, indigenous fynbos regenerated and birdlife and fauna, notably the Cape Leopard, increased. Alongside, the vineyards flourished. It was a positive demonstration of BWI at work.
The cellar had to fit in with this majestic environment; the site was a matter of great discussion. Three sites were selected, with the one on Rondekop eventually chosen. What one can see above ground of the finished cellar is impressive and has presence but also blends in with its surroundings.
Via a local architect, the Vergelegen team, including their first winemaker, Martin Meinert, were put in touch with Paris-based Architectes Associés. Chateau Lafite’s barrel cellar, reconstruction of Chateau Pichon Longueville and the winery design for renowned chef Michel Guérard were just some of the firm’s notable credentials. They soon received their first commission outside France; to design Vergelegen’s cellar.
Tuesday 30th April 1991, was one of those windless, 30C-degree days which regularly happen just prior to winter setting in. I was among a group of media assembled at the homestead to meet Patrick Dillon, a Partner in Architectes Associés, here to talk about the design of the new winery, with a site visit slated later that morning. I see from my notes what impressed me most was that Dillon could pronounce Vergelegen (I still struggle!). An American, born in Panama, educated in the US and Paris based, he said coming to Vergelegen was like coming to another country because of its size and scenery. There was no brief for the cellar design, but Dillon knew it had to be an interesting place, the architecture projected into the landscape. The octagonal shape reflects the historic garden near the Homestead; the pathway leading to the cellar is also lined with plants.
The winery was opened by Baron Eric de Rothschild on Tuesday, 31st March 1992, when, cruelly, the heavens opened – so different from that site visit nearly a year earlier. Guests in their finery were driven in relays up to the cellar, where muddy puddles were dodged before climbing down stairs to the barrel cellar for dinner. I don’t remember how then President de Klerk and Baron de Rothschild managed to undertake the tree-planting ceremony without getting soaked, but here’s the proof.
As for the wines, I’m sure many remember Vin de Florence (R6.27/750ml), named after a previous owner, Lady Florence Phillips but probably fewer (myself included) Les Enfants 1992 vintage, also made from bought in fruit. The following year, cab and merlot from three and four-year-old home vineyards plus bought in pinot noir became Mill Race Red (remember that?) (R7.86/750ml) and Vergelegen’s first red wine. By 1994, the blend which included cab franc, was all home grown. That vintage also produced the first varietal red wine from Vergelegen’s vineyards; I still have that bottle of Merlot 1994, a kind gift at a function I don’t remember.
Martin Meinert left at the end of 1997, making way for André van Rensburg to complete the 1998 harvest, since when he has taken the wines to ever new heights. What André deserves to be best-known for is ensuring virus-free vineyards. Many had to be re-planted; today, any vine showing signs of virus is tagged and removed. The whites, headed by Schapenberg Sauvignon Blanc, which André introduced in ’98, GVB sauvignon-semillon blend 2001 (one I buy every year), have always been terrific; from 2014, when Michel Rolland came on board as a consultant, the reds, particularly Bordeaux varieties which are the farm’s forte, have reached another level. The 2015’s from that excellent vintage should generate huge excitement.
It’s a very special privilege to have seen the farm, buildings, gardens and wines grow into what they are today.