The Buyer
A fine pair: Vergelegen’s André van Rensburg and Michel Rolland

A fine pair: Vergelegen’s André van Rensburg and Michel Rolland

Vergelegen’s winemaker André Van Rensburg and notorious wine consultant Michel Rolland make an odd couple. But the winery’s new Flagship blends, the first fruits of their labours, are seriously well made.

Peter Dean
19th July 2016by Peter Dean
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

South Africa’s Vergelegen winery unveils a spectacular 2015 vintage and a 100% Merlot (amongst others) at a dinner hosted by winemaker André van Rensburg and consultant Michel Rolland.

“You’re a wanker! You’re a wanker!”

André van Rensburg has got his bear-like arms around me and is playfully manhandling me. In the way that a large Afrikaner does when you have declined his offer of a pint. It may have been easier to accept this offer from the outspoken winemaker of Vergelegen but I had just tasted 15 of his latest vintages as well as had dinner which involved drinking a further five.

The phrase ‘surplus to requirements’ comes to mind.

Just some of the 15 samples at the tasting

Van Rensburg is a winemaker whose reputation as playful, forthright and quite brilliant all precede him. As does the reputation of Michel Rolland, the wine consultant who has been assisting van Rensburg in trying to up Vergelegen’s game, and is the other host of the evening – a dinner that’s billed as ‘French finesse and South African candour.’

Rolland has been working with Van Rensburg for the past three years, a natural fit wine-wise given that Vergelegen is most noted for its red and white Bordeaux blends, but personality-wise? Rolland is reknowned for pushing wineries in a specific direction.

“A lot of people don’t understand how we get on, but we actually have a lot of fun. It’s working for me,” Van Rensburg says.

The two spent time together at Harlan, where Rolland also consulted, and Van Rensburg invited him to South Africa where Rolland first blended the Vergelegen GVB white 2013 and officially started consulting on the 2014 vintage.

A major part for this somewhat surprising move is that Vereglegen is owned by a PLC and Van Rensburg has to retire at 60 – just six vintages away. In that time he wants the winery to get beyond the 95 Parker points it has achieved and possibly even get a 100 point wine, which would be a first for South Africa.

Van Rensburg discloses that Rolland works very fast, which is just as well given that he only makes it to SA once or twice a year. Over dressed Cornish crab, paired with GVB White 2012 and Chardonnay Reserve 2014, Van Rensburg explains that a blend wasn’t working and Rolland sorted it in 10 minutes by adding 6% fresh juice. “Now you know why he’s so expensive.”

Rolland chuckles as if this isn’t the first time he’s had this observation levelled at him.

“It’s easier to work for rich people than poor,” Rolland laughs, “But my 43 years experience gives me the ability to give precise blending at the right moment, that is my force.”

It’s an intuition that had Rolland call Van Rensburg and warn him that with the 2016 vintage he had to be wide awake as the whites were going to be early.

The two wine heavyweights clearly enjoy each other’s company if the ebullience at the dinner is anything to go by, and are proud of what they are achieving together. As for what Rolland brings that Vergelegen didn’t have before, Van Rensburg says that he has given greater balance and harmony to the wine – more fruit-focus and softer tannins.

So what were the highlights of the wines?

Vergelegen is one of South Africa’s most established and noted wineries. Royalty dine here. Mandela used to have key bashes here. With Bono and Annie Lennox. Its formidable wine range includes three tiers – four Premium (two red/ two white), nine Reserve (four red/ five white including one dessert and one sparkling) and three Flagship (two red/ one white).

Interestingly, in addition, Van Rensburg is unveiling a 100% Merlot Vergelegen Merlot MR 2014, that is named after Rolland and who describes it as the “Best Merlot outside Pomerol ever,” as well you might when it’s been named in your honour. Seriously, though, it was outstanding. The colour wasn’t as deep as you might expect, the nose was clean, freshly picked mulberry with a real ‘ethereal’ quality. An easy mouthfeel was elegant and had an undertow of acidity, and a persistent length.

Compared to some of the over-extracted beasts we’ve had from California this was a real pleasure.

You might not see much of this first vintage though as a misunderstanding meant that Vergelegen has only made 300 cases when they meant to produce 3000. “Our first serious blunder,” as Van Rensburg calls it.

We then tasted three vintages 2013, 2014 and 2015 of Vergelegen’s Flagship range as well as the Reserve Semillon in the same years.

The unreleased Vergelegen GVB White 2015 was simply outstanding and reflective of how good 2015 was for Vergelegen. The nose was nutty, fruity, grassy and lean, and on the palate no fattiness (60% Sauvignon Blanc/40% Semillon) with a terrific acidity, persistence and length. One to buy for sure. The soon-to-be-released 2014 was bigger and warmer on the nose, hotter and less crispy in the mouth but with a sumptuous richness, reflective of the 50/50 blend of grapes. The 2013 (Rolland’s first blend) is softer in the mouth (62% Semillon) and has an amazing balance that comes with greater age on these wines.

I have to confess to being a big fan of Vergelegen’s wines in particular the Vergelegen Reserve Semillon which ages so beautifully. The Vergelegen Reserve Semillon 2015 had a big fruity nose, was weighty in the mouth but not fatty, had clean acidity and terrific structure and like the GVB White is clearly a vintage to look out for. The 2014 wasn’t a lot different, slightly dumber, dirtier nose. The aromatics on the 2013 were much more lifted and intense, the mouthfeel more creamy but with a lean finish that rounds the wine off beautifully.

Getting the phenolics right is one of the greatest challenges, says Van Rensburg, or more specifically the balance between phenolics, sugar and fatness and knowing when to pick the grapes.

The Vergelegen GVB Red 2015 is further proof of the strength of the 2015 vintage. This barrel sample was vibrant purple, richer, creamy and syrupy on the nose. The blend 81% Cabernet Sauvignon/13% Merlot/6% Cabernet Franc is replicated exactly with the 2014 that has a more developed bacon nose and terrific balance. The 2013 (55% Cabernet Sauvignon/25% Merlot/5% Cabernet Franc/5% Petit Verdot) was much more developed and had even greater secondary characteristics coming into play. The nose was way more inviting and the wine has terrific balance and well integrated tannins.

The Vergelegen V 2015 and 14 (both 100% Cabernet Sauvignon) were big and primary and too young to enjoy fully, the 2013, on the other hand, (85% Cabernet Sauvignon/5% Merlot/6% Petit Verdot/4% Cabernet Franc) was an inviting, class blend that Van Rensburg equates to the 2012 vintage.