David Bristow: Vergelegen – possibly SA’s greatest wine property
By David Bristow, 5 June 2015
The Van der Stel family was among the fabulously rich and well connected of Amsterdam throughout the 17th century, dominating the silk trade there. In 1679 Simon was made Commander of the Cape settlement, followed by his son Willem Adriaan, the oldest of six siblings, 20 years later.
Both used company (that’s the Dutch East India Company, or VOC) resources to enrich themselves and, like his father before him (see post, on Groot Constantia here), Willem Adriaan had a great interest in botany, agriculture, exploration and the good things in life but he was undone by his extravagance and greed. The Free Burghers rose up against him and, after some political to-and-fro, he was what a multinational corporation today would call re-assigned, otherwise fired, after just a decade in the hot seat.
But before he left office in disgrace, like his father before him he built an opulent country seat. He called it Vergelegen, or “far away” in what today we know as Somerset West – a mere 30 kilometres but it took three days by wagon to reach it from the Castle in Cape Town. For this he used up almost all the company resources, also using his position as governor to grant himself and his friends all the lucrative contracts at the Cape resupply station.
Vergelegen marks the beginning of Cape Dutch vernacular architecture – and a more splendid example hardly exists – and for that alone we have much to thank the disgraced governor. Unlike his father’s country home which, historical evidence suggests, consisted of a single-storey cottage with squared gables, if any at all, and casement windows.
Today Vergelegen is perhaps even more stately and impressive than it was in Willem Adriaan’s lifetime when it was a hard-working farm in the colonial backwater. It is a showcase of cultural attributes for the gilt-edged Anglo-American corporation that owns it. Most outstanding, apart from the grand Cape baroque manor and outbuildings (known locally as the werf), is the avenue of camphor trees planted by the governor and today a national treasure.
Before it stretch generous lawns, behind a formal herb and flower garden, all surrounded by woodland. Further behind rear the formidable quartzitic-sandstone bastions of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains. The name means “Hottentot’s home” because that is what they were back in the day.
Starting around 1700 Willem Adriaan laid out half a million vines, fruit orchards, corn fields, irrigation canals, a mill and ran some 3,000 thousand head of sheep and cattle. The current owners have reinstated much of this on their model farm. For all his shenanigans, clearly he was also something of a visionary in a far, strange land.
In 1917 Randlord Sir Lionel Phillips purchased the then dilapidated property to gratify his wife, Lady Florence, who set about restoring it with great fervour and heaps of diamond and gold money (Sir Lionel was at one time chairman of the Johannesburg Chamber of Mines). On their passing the property was acquired by another industrial grandee, Charles “Punch” Barlow in 1941. The Barlow family, originally of Durban, secured the first Caterpillar and later Ford agency in South Africa. By 1990 Barloworld was well within the Top 100 on the Forbes’ 500 list.
With as much gusto and nearly as large a kitty, wife Cynthia made Vergelegen a labour of passion, eventually passing on the treasure-filled estate to farmer son Tom in 1966. Although the Barlows dabbled in wine production, when the property was acquired in 1987 by current owners, Anglo-American Corporation, no vines grew there. Something they set about remedying at once with new virus-free vines.
At that time The Corporation (there’s another one?) was trying to coax its cultural flagship, Boschendal near Franschhoek, to wine pre-eminence. When that proved ultimately fruitless, focus was shifted to Vergelegen. Around two decades ago the enfant terrible among Stellenbosch winemakers, André van Rensburg, was enlisted in the hope that he could transform grape juice into ambrosia. And so it came to pass, shazam!
Within that charmed guild André was known as “Malbek” – not because of any predilection towards a lesser varietal of Bordeaux, but because in the lingua franca it means something akin to “mad mouth” (and possibly also another popular local appellation, Grootbek, or big mouth). But whether Grootbek or Malbek, Van Rensburg put his wine where his mouth was in more ways than the obvious.
Within a short time Vergelegen wines gained respect far and wide. The ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon Vergelegen V is a particularly ambitious undertaking (the 2009 available at R1 100 a bottle) while the Vergelegen GVB White (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc) has garnered much silverware. But it is perhaps the 2005 and 2006 award of New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine that best tells the story.
Many people might be rendered speechless to hear how this loquacious winemaker sees himself, declaring in an interview: “My biggest failure is my naturally conservative nature. Maybe I should be more flamboyant in the cellar.” Much less so by those who appreciate his dedication to the objective of producing noble wines in the Bordeaux style where consistency lords over fashion.
Vergelegen might be, in a strictly historic sense, only South Africa’s second first growth winery (the first being father Simon’s estate at Groot Constantia, established in 1685). However, in terms of vinous pedigree, I would contend Vergelegen is – and to mix a Burgundian metaphor with a predominantly Bordeaux styled winery –the country’s premier grand cru estate.
The estate is open to the public, with the manor and a library established by Sir Lionel Phillips serving as period-piece showcases. At Christmas time it opens its gates and heart as the venue of a most bucolic Carols by Candlelight. Wine tastings take place in one of the most magnificent settings of the Cape winelands, the custom-built tasting centre offering vistas of the formal herb gardens, the manor and the towering Hottentots-Hollands mountains.
For comestibles there are three options, starting with Camphors. This has to be the most opulently situated restaurant in the country, occupying pride of place inside the historic manor and looking out on to the avenue of trees from which it takes its name. Next is The Stables situated in … you guessed it… a classic bistro with a modern twist. Then there is the Picnic, not an ants-on-the-blanket shambles but a white tablecloth experience set al fresco in a camphor copse.
Camphors has won numerous best-restaurant awards, while the estate has been acknowledged with “best of wine tourism” awards in the arts and culture, restaurant, architecture and landscape, sustainable wine tourism and innovative wine tourism categories. The only category of the Great Wine Capitals (GWC) Best Wine Tourism awards the estate has not won is for accommodation, which it does not offer.
Colonial governors, like the Roman rulers of old, typically have not been the proverbial Mr Nice Guys, but they did leave some fabulous legacies. If only the architects of Nkandla had introduced some innovation we might be able to excuse, even forgive them…
- David Bristow has written multiple books and magazine features on travel, nature and African culture. He also one of the Racontours.co.za guides.