Vergelegen grandeur

If you fancy that elite corruption is something new in these parts, consider the early history of Vergelegen, today one of the great Cape wine estates. It was even greater, in terms of size and significance in 1700, when it was granted to governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel – itself an act of dubious propriety. Willem, with the slaves, money and other resources honestly and (mostly) corruptly at his disposal, established a magnificent mixed farm, including some half a million vines.

But his wider corruption, and a struggle with a group of colonists over resources and markets, led to his downfall and then exile in 1706. The farm was broken into four, one of them the present estate bearing its name. The homested was meant to be destroyed, but fortunately that order was not properly carried out.

Vergelegen in those days was a mere incidental in the roaring mercantile capitalism of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC – perhaps the world’s first multinational company. Since 1987, after being owned for much of the century by a series of mining and industrial magnates, it has been the property of another multinational, Anglo American. The tradition of business-government links have been maintained. In 1990, for example, leaders of the ANCmet  at Vergelegen shortly after its unbanning. Many world grandees – from Bill Clinton all the way up to Elton John – have been splendidly entertained here.

And if they drank Vergelegen wines – well, lucky them. Seven wines in the estate’s large range were released recently, at dinners for some journalistic hacks and other hangers-on. One off the three occasions was held at Auberge Michel in Johannesburg where, by all accounts the dinner was much less good than it was at Vergelegen. That affair was pretty smart, by my standards – though held in the board room at the winery (wityh amazing views across the estate) rather than in the manor house – but I reckon the company was probably cosier than it would have been at an ANC caucus or state banquet.

Vergelegen White, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, has established itself over the near-decade of its existence as one of South Africa’s finest wines. A few months ago I was a bit worried about the latest vintage, 2009 – it was mute, sullen. But at last it is emerging from its coiled tightness. I’m more than happy to recommend it – but do hold it another few years (at least) if you want to get value for your R300-plus.

The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc Reserves will also improve for more than a year or two, but offer much more early pleasure than does the austere White while it is gathering up its powers, and building up its magnificence.

As for the new-release reds, I could live very happily without the Shiraz (go over the Schaapenberg hill to Waterkloof for a much more interesting version), but that is not true of either the Merlot Reserve 2007 or the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2006 which offer fine quality and value.

The Merlot is undoubtedly the best that winemaker Andre van Rensburg has made, and amongst the tiny elite of this frequently disappointing variety. At R125 per bottle, it’s hard to think, in fact, of a better value Cape red, if ripeness accompanied by elegance and restraint is what you’re after (which I venture to suggest it should be, at this level).

The Merlot will be more interesting in a year or two, but right now it’s more delightful drinking than the grand Vergelegen V at around five times the price. Whether V is actually worth the money being asked for it I have my doubts –  know what fine Bordeaux you can get for that sort of money, but it is undoubtedly a bargain compared with, say, some top-end Californian cabs). Anyway, it is a very good wine indeed, less showy but more interesting than the earliest releases were. It certainly deserves better than its likely fate of being mostly drunk by show-offs at show-off restaurants before it’s begun to reveal its best.


This is an expanded version of the column in the Mail & Guardian

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