André van Rensburg, winemaker at Somerset West property Vergelegen, usually a wine industry firebrand, has been keeping a remarkably low profile in recent times. What’s up?
For one thing, the long-running leaf-roll virus elimination programme has been keeping him busy. Begun in 2002, when 85% of the vines of the property were virus-infected, he now sits with 158ha of vineyard that are to all intents and purposes virus-free. “Out of 78 000 vines tested this year, only 26 came back positive. That’s something I’m seriously chuffed about”.
Yet Van Rensburg is not about to get complacent. There are signs that the problem might be even more complicated than initially thought – the virus going into dormancy only to re-emerge at a later stage – and he therefore believes research must be ongoing.
The goal is to improve wine quality and consistency in a sustainable way. “I want to equip my successor to make better wines than I ever did. We’re gearing up for the long-term. If Vergelegen has virus-free vineyards 40 to 50 years down the line, then it will have a serious competitive advantage.”
Since 2009, Vergelegen has been officially registered as an estate on the basis that the concept of the estate embodies the principle of terroir. “It’s something I’ve always embraced. Vergelegen wines have a very specific birthplace and this is what I aim to express.” Currently only entry-level Mill Race, Sauvignon Blanc and Vin de Florence incorporate bought-in fruit and from next year nothing will be sourced from outside.
And it’s not just about wine either. There’s 2 000ha of wilderness set aside for conservation purposes on Vergelegen, and Van Rensburg proudly displays images of a male leopard as well as two badgers captured by automatically triggered cameras earlier in the month.
All very sensible and measured, that is until the subject of Shiraz and the Swartland is brought up. He detects a “sameness” about Swartland Shiraz while he considers the other Rhône varieties that are starting to be put into use as “very peculiar”. He worries that certain sectors of the wine industry have become “incestuous” and does not mince his words when he refers to the “Eben Sadie boy band club”: his concern is that because of Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines and Sequillo enjoys such prominence, many are trying to copy his style of winemaking, but not necessarily with the same success.
Warming to his theme, he refers to the Swartland as “the outback” and argues that growing conditions are simply too hot to produce South Africa’s best wines. “Cooler sites cost money. If you haven’t got money, you move to the Swartland and then you must talk it up rather than admit that you haven’t got the wherewithal to farm in an optimal area. It doesn’t help that these producers have loaded up some of the country’s so-called leading wine writers onto the bandwagon. What happens is that youngsters entering the industry conclude that they can bullshit their way to greatness.”
The old troublemaker is back. Is there nothing good coming out of the Swartland? “Look, all I’m saying is that the wines of the Swartland producers might not be as smart as their admirers tell them they are. We need to separate admiration for the person from awe of the wine. I would much rather that critics dislike me and appreciate my wine than the other way around.”
Is Van Rensburg taking a cheap shot at the competition? Not when you appreciate the conviction with which he speaks of Vergelegen. “The average age of Vergelen soils is 40 million to 50 million years old. I’ve only been here for 13 years. In the big picture, I amount to nothing. How can I possibly be arrogant?”
For him, Vergelegen is about extreme viticulture and this is what will make the wines great. “In the lead-up to the 2010 harvest, we had winds at 129km/h for three weeks. We lost 80% of the crop but I think I made the best Sauvignon Blanc Reserve in over ten years.”
Make no mistake, Van Rensburg is ambitious with him saying “I’m extremely confident about the estate. Can we make the best wine in South Africa and among the best in the world? Without a doubt, yes”. However, his motivations go beyond merely wanting critical and popular acclaim. He is sceptical of the “reckless urgency for medals” that pervades the industry and increasingly Vergelegen will not be entering competitions. “I never want to do anything to damage the integrity of the label.”
Ultimately, you have to be impressed by the man’s commitment to Vergelegen. “I care about this property with body, heart and soul,” he says. “You remember when the Jack Nicholson character said to the girl in “As Good as it Gets”, ‘You make me want to be a better man?’ That’s how Vergelegen makes me feel.”