New World Winery of the Year Award
With the arrival in 2005 of Vergelegen, South African wine in the United States has turned a corner. For here we have world-class, ultrapremium wines whose quality and pricing match anything from Bordeaux or Napa. They show that South African wine doesn’t compete just in volume, but also in quality. Its presence places South Africa on an equal footing with any other wine-producing region represented on the U.S. market.
Vergelegen is more than just a great wine estate. It is also what the folks in South Africa call a national treasure. Its history, from its founding by the second Dutch governor of the Cape of Good Hope in 1700, to the present day, reflects the varied and sometimes tumultuous history of South Africa itself. It is now the recognized icon of South African wine, where heads of state and royalty are entertained at state functions (both President Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II were entertained at the winery by then-President Nelson Mandela).
Vergelegen is also considered by South Africans to be the most beautiful of the many beautiful wine estates in the Cape vineyards. Since its purchase in 1987 by the mining conglomerate Anglo-American Corporation (which numbers among its holdings de Beers diamonds, as well as platinum and gold), Vergelegen has gained a new lease on life. With its renovated vineyard, 300-year-old camphor trees and ancient oaks, beautifully restored classic Cape Dutch farmhouse and state-of-the-art winery, it is the quintessential wine estate.
More Than Just Wine
Today, Vergelegen is leading the Cape wine farms in more than just wine production. It is involved in the country’s Black Empowerment program, designed to create a management and entrepreneurial structure that redresses South Africa’s legacy of rigid racial separation. And it is the first estate to win the South African wine industry award as Biodiversity and Wine Initiative Champion, an environmental prize that recognizes achievements in restoring the local flora of the Western Cape.
It is also, of course, making great wines. Vergelegen, in Afrikaans, means the place “situated far away”—a name bestowed on it due it its distance from Cape Town in 1700. Today, it is in the heart of the wine country. The estate is in a sheltered valley, on the southern, maritime side of Stellenbosch, with the stunning backdrop of the Helderberg and the Hottentots Holland mountain ranges. It is a 7,000-acre property, of which 300 acres are currently under vine.
Under the inspired control of winemaker André van Rensburg, the winery’s white wines, particularly their Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, are recognized greats. The single-vineyard Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc (“I want this to be the greatest Sauvignon in the world,” says van Rensburg) has received stellar ratings, as has Vergelegen White, a Bordeaux-style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The Chardonnay and Chardonnay Reserve are fruit dominated, with careful use of oak.
Reds to the Fore
White wine used to be what Vergelegen was known for. But since van Rensburg’s arrival at the estate in 1997, the reds have come to the fore. On top of the heap is the heavily oaked Vergelegen V, a 500-case production of what is destined to be an iconic bottling (van Rensburg calls it his trophy wine), retailing for just under $150 a bottle. Vergelegen Red is an elegant Bordeaux blend, while the Shiraz is the latest obsession for van Rensburg, who sees this grape as performing particularly well at the estate. Mill Race Red is another, more affordable, Bordeaux blend.
These wines are produced in an impressively modern winery, half buried into the hillside. Designed by the same architectural team that created the new cellars at Château Pichon-Longueville and the circular barrel room at Château Lafite-Rothschild, both in Bordeaux, the winery is octagonally shaped, recalling the original formal gardens of the estate. Views over the Vergelegen Valley, False Bay and Table Mountain behind Cape Town are magnificent.
Don Tooth, managing director of AmFarms, the division of Anglo-American that owns Vergelegen, describes the style of the wine as a blend of new and old. “We see ourselves as somewhere between New and Old World styles,” says Tooth, “between Australia and California on the one hand and Europe on the other. And all that means is that we are expressing our terroir. Somebody described our Bordeaux blends as Bordeaux kissed by sunshine. But our style does go more to Old World elegance, and a food-friendly approach.”
In addition to the wine, there is the environmental and cultural landscape of Vergelegen, both of which are seen by Tooth and by Anglo-American as essential to maintaining its status in South African viticulture.
Restoring Natural Vegetation
“In 1995, we realized that the estate was being overrun by non-native vegetation. So we decided to take some of the profits from the wine and put it back into restoring the Cape’s unique vegetation. We took on two top conservationists, and Anglo-American, our owner, was impressed enough to put up money for a 10-year plan of uprooting alien flora and allowing the local fynbos vegetation to come through.” Since the alien vegetation uses 800 times more water than fynbos, there are huge environmental benefits in a land where water is scarce, apart from the aesthetic ones. And, as conceived by Tooth, the environmental intersects with the socio-cultural. As part of Vergelegen’s participation in Black Empowerment projects, he has set up an empowerment company that is responsible for the conservation work:
“We have also set up a Center of Learning Excellence as a learning and experimental facility, as well as a student sponsorship program in conjunction with local universities which have an environmental program,” he says.
It’s all part of Anglo-American’s sustainable development mantra. The company’s official slogan is “Meeting the world’s needs.” It is nice to think that along with coal, ferrous metals, diamonds, gold and platinum, wine from Vergelegen fits neatly into that slogan.
Vergelegen certainly secures South Africa’s place on the U.S. wine market. “Vergelegen is critically important for South African wine—you can do the volume, but you need the ultrapremium,” says Peter Morales, who works for 57 Main Street, Vergelegen’s New York State importer. “We can focus on the history, and on the modern connection with Anglo-American and De Beers, as well as the quality of the wine.”
Now, with the wines available for the first time in the U.S., American wine enthusiasts can taste for themselves the treasure that results when South African winemakers combine the best of the old and the new.
See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.