Tim James: The trees and the wines of Vergelegen

By , 30 April 2024



The camphor trees at Vergelegen.

It’s irritating to admit this, but there is a whole lot more to Vergelegen than wine. The larger part of what was, other than Constantia, the greatest estate founded by the Dutch in the early years of their settlement at the foot of Africa (Morgenster and Lourensford make up the rest of the original property), it is replete with memorable history. Furthermore, quite apart from the immaculately preserved historic buildings, under the benign ownership of Anglo-American the still-huge property has become a fine treasury of indigenous flora and fauna (like leopards and the Cape fox) as well as splendid gardens. Anglo is big business, for which I have otherwise no sympathy, but is currently the target of a takeover – which, if it succeeds, could have significance for this wonderful place.

As well as fynbos, there are also a host of amazing (foreign) trees at Vergelegen – most notably the famous camphors, but oaks too. Fewer right now, especially following the huge storm that battered much of the Western Cape early in April. I visited Vergelegen little more than a week ago, and it was awful to hear the pervasive sound of chainsaws still clearing the devastation, directed by horticulturists saving what they could. Many trees had been uprooted or otherwise destroyed. The post-harvest vineyards too, their still-green leaves drawing energy to the roots, were stripped bare: they now looked awful, shredded and brown.

But the storm was not the only devastator of Vergelegen’s trees. The oaks have suffered from the polyphagous shot-hole borer beetle that has invaded South Africa in the past decade, with many already lost. The great “Royal Oak”, planted nearly 100 years ago from acorns off trees at Blenheim Palace, has now been severely, shockingly, cut back to its essential trunk and branches as part of efforts to save it. But I’m told that, rather fearing the worst, Vergelegen has asked Blenheim to collect and despatch acorns from the oaks planted there with acorns from this possibly-doomed tree. Meanwhile, the great camphors, happily, serenely survived the storm as well as shrugging off the beetle.

Luke O’Cuinneagain.

The prospect of pervasive change is only too obvious at Vergelegen. Changes ahead for its wine too, perhaps, highlighted by the arrival in time for the 2023 harvest of a new winemaker, following the long and impressive reign of André van Rensberg, who’d perforce retired. Talking to the new wine supremo, Luke O’Cuinneagain, I get the strong impression that the larger picture of Vergelegen – all that historic legacy and grandeur, the Cape fox, those trees – was significant in his decision to move from Glenelly. Plus, undeniably, “the lure of a new challenge”.

And if it’s sometimes a good idea for a winemaker to opt for change, the same might apply to a great estate, which could occasionally (though certainly not inevitably) benefit from a fresh reappraisal.

There’s only so much that Luke could let on, of course, but it’s clear that the change of winemaker is a chance to consider a lot of options. Something already committed to is the apparently superficial one of a rethink of the labels, lightening them up and reducing their severe masculinity, while sticking to the established themes. As to general questions of winemaking – in the context of great respect for what André has achieved here – Luke was, firstly, diplomatic in referring to the decision to say farewell to the eminent consultant Michel Rolland as primarily a cost-saving one. His general winemaking goal is to ensure that the wines speak strongly of their origin – and perhaps, indeed, there is something a little generic, though impressive, in the current Vergelegen red range. Another aspect of his intentions was something I asked about specifically. One of the excellences of notably the reds that Luke made at Glenelly was their dryness, with low residual sugars and alcohols that were not at all excessive, and he says he is working in a similar way in the Vergelegen cellar, using elements of stress, amongst other techniques, to achieve that effect.

Perhaps the prime motive for having me visit the estate at this stage (within, I’d guess, a renewed public relations push) was to let me taste the newly released white blend and straight sauvignon blanc from 2023, Luke’s first vintage at Vergelegen after arriving in latter 2022. (See Christian’s reviews of the wines here.) The GVB semillon-sauvignon blend might, it seems, be the last to carry that confusing and silly name ( I’ve had to check again, but it stands for Grown, Vinified and Bottled at Vergelegen – something that, after all could be expected from a property like this, and few customers knew what it stood for, anyway). This has always been a great wine, and the 2022, which I also tasted, is in that tradition, balanced and tight, with effective restrained oaking and – more than usual – a rather lovely perfumed fragrance. The 2023 is less youthfully charming, but it has a notable energy and a pleasing phenolic pithiness, and promises more layers of complexity. We’ll see. This has always been a wine that needs time to start showing its real fineness. The Sauvignon Blanc is more fruity and showy, with plenty of flavour and a similar chewy/pithy dry finish.

As to the reds, I didn’t dip into Luke’s infant firstlings, but he certainly had significant influence on the upbringing and bottling of the 2022s and even some influence on the maturing 2021s. With the serious reds we tasted back from 2022 to the 2018 – the earlier wines are, in fact, the current releases. It has to be said that the relative maturity of the current releases is less the result of policy (however nice and helpful it is for the producer to take on the cost of storing young wines for a beneficial year or two) than of slow sales. Vergelegen simply must recognise and respond to a situation in which its pretty expensive wines no longer have the éclat that accompanied photos of André van Rensburg clutching armfuls of trophies in the early years of the century. I don’t think quality has declined, but there’s a great deal more competition these days.

Price is, actually, one of the things under consideration, I gathered, especially for the two fine “estate blends” (the red and white GVBs), which might be considered uncompetitively pricey. So, watch this space.

It’s also not certain that all of the red vintages I tasted will be released. The 2019s, though, should be, as it was clearly a fine vintage for the property, after the generally more dutiful 2018s, which are good, but not quite fresh enough, showing perhaps more development than would be expected. The V 2018, however, is very good, by far the best red of the vintage. The 2019 Cab Reserve and GVB are lovely, more light-feeling, fresh and balanced, with less sweetness. The Merlot Reserve too, but this wine is generally in the shadow of the Cab, the blend, and V.

On the other hand, the 2020s could, as far as I’m concerned, disappear without much regret – by Vergelegen’s high standards they tend to be rather bland and forgettable. With 2021, we’re in a much better place, especially with the refined Cab Reserve and V. And 2022 at this early stage promises an easier charm and drinkability with some depth and seriousness too.

It’s going to be interesting to see what decisions are taken over the next few years at Vergelegen and then to see where they lead. May the oaks and the wine and the Cape fox all flourish at this splendid place.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


2 comment(s)

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    Mike Froud of Top Wine SA | 1 May 2024

    Presumably Vergelegen’s camphor forest wasn’t damaged in the storm? Always a pity, though understandable, when their unique, special picnic ‘restaurant’ has to close for the winter?

    GillesP | 30 April 2024

    In my view, the Reserve Range Cab Sauvignon and Merlot offers one of the best QPR in the market. We get release bottle of 6 to 7 years which makes the wine already very drinkable and smooth. These wines are under rated compared to their competition which release from one year old bottling at the very same price level.

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