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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Sit Down with André Van Rensburg

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 13, 2007 4:00pm ET

My apologies for a dead blog last week, but since returning from vacation I’ve been tasting like crazy: Rhône, Chile, Argentina, Loire and South Africa. With our big year-end issues around the corner (man, this year has flown by) I need to try and get through everything I can before our editorial calendar changes to 2008. The '05 Rhônes are really special, and there's tons of great stuff coming out of the Loire these days, including the latest from Delesvaux, and the U.S. debut of Richard Leroy, so look for a host of reviews in the coming weeks.

I did get a chance to sit down today with André Van Rensburg, winemaker at South Africa’s Vergelegen Estate. Van Rensburg, 45, has been making wines since the late ‘80s, and did stints at Saxenburg, Warwick, Neethlingshof and Stellenzicht prior to taking over from Martin Meinert (who went on to start his own eponymous label) at Vergelegen in 1997.

If you ask around about Van Rensburg you’ll get a host of reactions—he’s considered by his peers to be among the country’s best winemakers, but you’ll also get a slew of stories and eye rolling. Van Rensburg has a reputation for being abrasive, opinionated and egotistical. None of that was on display today however, in my first ever meeting with him. Instead, I saw a winemaker passionate about the property he oversees and enthusiastic about the prospects for South African wine in general.

Van Rensburg’s first big hit was the Stellenzicht Syrah Stellenbosch 1994, a wine that raised a few eyebrows internationally as it set the bar at the time for South African wine. That was a decade ago though, and while Syrah has become the new darling of Cape winemakers, Van Rensburg is now ensconced in a Cabernet powerhouse as Vergelegen is located in a spot in Stellenbosch ideally suited for producing Bordeaux varieties. Van Rensburg knows that Syrah is in vogue at the moment, but he still thinks Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends will be the Cape’s strong suit in the future.

“Yes, I miss it,” says Van Rensburg of producing Syrah (Vergelegen makes just a small amount from a single 2.4-acre parcel). “But Cabernet is what works on the property."

Van Rensburg is also moving the estate's 160 acres of vines to biodynamic production, a process that will take several years. And he's knee-deep in working to preserve the estate's biodiversity, eradicating non-native vegetation and reintroducing indigenous animals back onto the farm, which totals over 8,600 acres.

As for the wine, not much of Vergelegen’s 43,000-case-per-year annual production comes to the United States, just about 5 percent. They haven’t sent many samples in for review over the years either, but when Van Rensburg hits it, he hits it pretty good. The Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch 2001 is a prime example. But there have been hiccups too: The winery’s big ticket V Stellenbosch 2001 seemed forced and overdone to me.

Nonetheless Van Rensburg is in an enviable position. He’s young enough to still have a lengthy career ahead of him, and at the same time he’s experienced enough to be a leader, so he should play a big role in South Africa’s continued emergence. Van Rensburg spent several weeks working at California’s Harlan Estate last year, including during the harvest, to see how things are done. That kind of willingness to learn is rare for a winemaker with nearly 20 vintages under his belt. And as for what he saw while at Harlan, Van Rensburg is confident South Africa can match it.

“It’s about having dedication and enough money, and there’s plenty of both [in South Africa]. It’s just a matter of breaking through,” he says.

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