Lunch with Andrè Van Rensburg of Vergelegen
I could go on and on about the beauty of Vergelegen, the 300-year-old estate nestled below the Helderberg mountains just outside of Stellenbosch. Its gardens, restored by owner Anglo American, are magnificent, as are the grounds under the shade of old oaks, camphors and other trees that date back to the 1700s. But, I’m here to talk about wine and the winemaker who is the heart and soul of Vergelegen today.
I first met André van Rensberg 20 years ago, while he was working at Stellenzicht. Prior to that, he’d obtained his Honours B.Sc Agri Oenology (Cum Laude no less) at the University of Stellenbosch, then spent time making wine at Saxenburg and Warwick. From our first encounter, I was drawn to the warmth and openness of this huge character. In 1998, he joined Vergelegen, and working with Anglo American which acquired the estate from the Barlow family in 1987, he has ushered a venerable wine estate into the 21st century while further establishing it as a national flagship.
But while André works for a big corporation, he is hardly the corporate type. In fact he has a reputation for expressing his honest and often controversial opinions. I know I can always count on him for his personal outlook on the state of affairs!
On a Friday afternoon in February, André welcomed me with a “Soutie, it’s really good to see you” and a bear hug before shepherding me through the beautiful new tasting cellar into the popular new Stables Restaurant. But André’s priority wasn’t food, and it wasn’t long before his latest wine releases as well as a bottle or two of unreleased experimental blends were delivered to our table.
“My career is entirely linked to Vergelegen,” says André. “It’s the reason why I am making wine and the reason why there will never be an own label. For me there is no life after this estate.” Vergelegen’s success, he says, comes from making great site specific wines: “Strictly put – original Vergelegens and not copies of anything else. We are blessed with great sites, very old decomposed granite soils, brilliant microclimate and the support of an iconic South African company,” adds André.
André has used all of these resources to his full advantage. He’s had spectacular success with the estate’s flagship GVB White, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with his 2012 vintage winning Double Gold at the Six Nations Wine Challenge along with an impressive array of other international awards. Other than cumulatively being awarded more 5-star wines since 2000 than any other property, André is particularly proud of twice winning the coveted Pichon Longueville Trophy for best red blend in the world in 2001 and 2003.
There are lots of big personalities in the wine industry and they are vital to our success, particularly in the international marketplace where we are competing against the best in the world. But there are far fewer who can back up their words with brilliant winemaking. André is definitely one of those celebrated few.
ANDRÉ IN A NUTSHELL
What do you enjoy most about winemaking and why?
The interaction and dependence on nature. It feels like a job so far removed from modern civilisation.
Any interesting/amusing anecdotes during your winemaking career?
Boela Gerber of Groot Constantia was my assistant at Stellenzicht. One morning, he answered the phone, then abruptly slammed it down, explaining that it was a customer complaint from Canada. Actually, it was the news that the 1994 Stellenzicht Syrah had just won the Lyse Clouttier Coffin Trophy for the Wine of the Show at the Selection Mondiales Montreal out of 1700 wines.
Your favourite pastimes/hobbies?
Books, animals and overland expeditions
Which wine have you drunk recently that knocked your socks off and why?
A 1962 Mouton Rothschild – same birth year as André van Rensburg – and the wine had aged almost as well as the Vergelegen winemaker!
How important is food and wine pairing?
It is important as great pairings obviously lead to an unbelievable experience. But ultimately, the company is more important.
Do you have a favourite food and wine combo?
Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc and Luderitz oysters, and rack of lamb with Vergelegen GVB Red.
Who is your winemaking hero and/or mentor and why?
For Sauvignon Blanc, the late Didier Dagenau, because he showed what can be achieved with this truly great white grape. For red wine, Marcel Guigal…since the first La Turque in the late 1980s.
Is social media changing the wine industry?
Don’t know. I stay away from it because one more idiot expressing his views is not going to charm the world of wine! My wines do their own socialising and talking.