The solid virtues of Vergenoegd (over 40 years)

There are few New World wineries that could put on a 40-vintage vertical tasting at all  – let alone one in which there was not a single real dud (or dead) wine. It’s a great tribute to Vergenoegd that their Cabernet Savignon has such longevity and can offer 20, 30 and 40 year old wines which still offer much pleasure. The oldest we tasted (we being a small group of wine journalists mainly, with Vergenoegd people; current cellarmaster John Faure leading it)  was drinking beautifully. Altogether it was a privilege to be there.

It’s a very old farm, this, one of Stellenbosch’s oldest, and has been owned by the Faure family since 1820. The still-delectable 1972 was the first Estate Cab from Vergenoegd (and one of the earliest of any, seeing that the legislation allowing for such labelling only came in 1973), but there had been three previous vintages, I believe, bottled by the KWV. In fact, from 1971 to 1974, Cabernet Sauvignon from Vergenoegd was named each year the best wine of show at the annual Cape Wine Show (the 1974 was another wine that is drinking excellently now).

The pic alongside, of Vergenoegd vineyard workers from probably the early 20th century comes from Graham Knox’s indispensible book, Estate Wine of South Africa, 1982 edition

I’ll come to some specific remarks on the wines, but the tasting raised for me some interesting general questions and issues, especially about what “quality” means.

The uniformly very good condition of the wines surprised me, in fact (I don’t think it surprised John Faure, however). Even wines from poorer vintages  were still very much alive, although of course not all were equally good – but despite vintage variation not a single one was anything like undrinkable (one or two were corked, but the second bottles redeemed them).

I’ve done a few verticals of Rubicon from Meerlust, which is Vergenoegd’s closest winery neighbour and certainly the same cannot be said for that wine. I would not stake much on any vintage from the 1980s (Rubicon’s first vintage was 1980) being still robustly alive and attractive, and very little on most from the 1990s. Granted that Meerlust was long one of the most over-rated South African wineries, it was still notable how the blend has not lasted well. Could the difference be that the Vergenoegd is pure cabernet sauvignon, rather than a blend? Probably that has something to do with it.

But the other point in comparing Vergenoegd and Meerlust is equally significant. Very few of these Vergenoegd wines seemed to me to indicate that they were ever anything like as good wines as the the best Rubicons were. They unquestionably had more longevity, but longevity by itself is not enough. Further, a fine Rubicon (the 1984, for example, which I knew from fairly early years onwards) matured and gained some complexity and interest in a way which the Vergenoegds don’t often do. Staying alive is not always the same as maturing!

Such was my impression, anyway, at the vertical tasting last week. The wines had certainly got older – but hadn’t gained greatly from tertiary development in the bottle in terms of complex flavour. Structure is another story – the tannins, and often the acidity in the earlier decades, had generally softened and integrated very handsomely.

Quality is a function of terroir, of course, at least as much as flavours and aromas, and I think this tasting showed that the terroir of Vergenoegd Estate is limited. Common to most of the wines is a kind of solidity, even stolidity; a decent big tannic structure and modest fruit expression; a medicinal-savoury note; no great finesse. It’s a good and admirable wine, generally, but not a VERY good wine. Unless of course, you value longevity particularly highly. And I thought I did – now I realise I don’t value it by itself! I think that with all its limitations in the Dalla Cia days, Meerlust Rubicon was still a better wine than Vergenoegd, though doomed to an earlier death.

If I’m around in ten or 20 years, I’d love to compare the wines being made now at both properties, since Meerlust has improved. As to what’s happening at Vergenoegd now, I’m not sure. I suspect they might be trying to please modern tastes more, with riper fruit and generally an overt expression of fruit rather than the savoury, vinous quality which has been their strength.

Pic: Vergenoegd on the morning of this memorable tasting

Of course, I’m primarily here to praise Vergenoegd rather than compare it unfavourably with others. And I do.

In my modesty, even if anyone has got this far, I can’t believe that the prospect of 40 tasting notes could be enthralling. Let me vaguely describe just my favourites. (NB: I don’t score wines these days unless specifically asked to, as I was on this occasion.) Incidentally, I’m slightly surprised to see that my range of scores does not vary greatly from decade to decade. Even the generally sad 1980s have their highlights. And certainly that silly old myth that the even-numbered years were the best in the 1970s especially doesn’t seem to me to be valid in this tasting!

Selected vintages of Vergenoegd Estate Cabernet Sauvignon:

  • 1974 Very good nose, and more fruit richness on palate and nose than 72 or 73, with tertiary notes too. Good length. Tannins show a little more – which is nice. 16+
  • 1975 Colour a bit deeper. Very satisfactory. Good grip. 16.
  • 1977 Brick colour like the others, but a good deeper coloured heart. Sweet fruit, really nice. Most of these wines less complex than old, but all very much alive. This one the sweetest fruit finish. A touch clunky rather than elegant. 16
  • 1981 Good fruit on nose, nicely balanced with good freshness. 16+
  • 1982 2nd bottle: Full, showing more tannin than others – still needing time to resolve? Good length, rich. A touch too thick for real elegance.17
  • 1984 Hint of that strange fruit [a weird, faulty quality that characterised 1983], but better. Rich, attractive. Well built, savoury, decent length. Nice tannin structure. Some sweet fruit. 16+
  • 1995 Good nose, subtle secondary fruit character. Ripe, rich palate, still showing good fruit. Very attractive, good length. At its peak. 16+
  • 1997 More elegant on nose and palate than most, tannins still firmly grippy, acid better balanced, sweetness less obvious. Decent length. 16+
  • 2003 Good balanced nose. Balanced, nice sweet fruit, still young. Bit old fashioned in sa context, but good example. Nice, drinking well already. sturdy, unshowy, unfruity, solid. 16
  • 2007 More elegant nose than others from 2000s, but big, powerful palate. Well balanced on big scale. Rather sweet finish. Good structure, tannins ripe and very firm and nicely succulent. 16+

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