South Africa: An interview with André van Rensburg

South Africa,Andre van Rensburg People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 15 October 2008

His opinions are forthright and his wines among the most celebrated in South Africa. But has Vergelegen’s André van Rensburg mellowed with age? Not one bit, discovers STEPHEN BROOK

André van Rensburg may look like a recently retired rugby player – unshaven, well worn features and an in-your-face presence – but that would be to caricature him. He has a brain and a quick wit, allied to a passionate and focused commitment to wine.

He also has strongly held – and voiced – opinions on his wines, those of his country, and anyone who seeks to denigrate either. For example, van Rensburg is baffled by the commonly voiced accusation that South African red wines smell of burnt rubber. ‘It’s not unique to South Africa. Winemakers all over the world have to deal with it, which we know how to do.’

Van Rensburg claims there are only a handful of offenders, yet the whole country has been tarred with the same brush. ‘We’re being damned for poor quality, but no one will be specific and name the offending wines.’

He is equally vocal on vineyard viruses. ‘People think of it as a particularly South African problem, which annoys me – you find virused vines the world over. At Vergelegen, we’ve now reduced infection to one vine in 4,000, which is remarkable. We need to keep restoring our vineyards to health. I’m drawing on the experience of the past 20 years to make sure we replant the right varieties in the right places with the right row orientation,’ he explains.

The long-term plan is to convert the property to organic farming and then to biodynamic viticulture. ‘I won’t be dancing naked by the light of the full moon, but we have started creating our own compost and returning animal life to the property.’

Before being hired as chief winemaker at Vergelegen in 1997, van Rensburg made wine at Saxenburg, Warwick and Neethlingshof. So what’s so special about Vergelegen? ‘It’s an amazing place surrounded by mountains, and close to the

ocean, with 1,000 microclimates to work with.’

Vergelegen’s circular winery shimmers on top of a hill, and burrows deep down inside it. It’s much admired, but van Rensburg isn’t easily impressed. ‘Being gravity-fed means it’s on three levels, so we winemakers spend much of the day running up and down stairs.

We get applause for working by gravity, and people say the wines are gentler because of minimal handling, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence for this.’ All this restructuring comes at a cost, especially since the replanting programme means half the vineyards are out of production at present, and many of those bearing fruit are very young.

Fortunately it is borne by the deep pockets of the Anglo-American mining company owner. Van Rensburg may be a brilliant winemaker, but he is no revolutionary. At Vergelegen, he has focused on international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and, more recently, Shiraz.

So which ought to be South Africa’s calling cards? ‘That’s impossible to say, because the country is too diverse. But I do believe in regionality: in Stellenbosch, it ought to be Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin and Semillon; Syrah in Franschhoek; and Chardonnay in Robertson. Elgin and Elim are great for Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Chenin. Unfortunately, Sauvignon Blanc has become a brand more than a variety; every winery needs it whether or not they can grow it themselves.

That’s a mistake. Wineries should focus on what they can do best.’ He also expresses regret – if that’s a strong enough term – at the damage done to the image of South African Sauvignon by the rogue winemaker found guilty of adding illicit flavourings to his wine.

You can be quite certain that one variety will never be produced at Vergelegen: Pinotage. Van Rensburg has always been eloquent in his disdain for a grape others regard as South Africa’s pride and joy. He once declared: ‘Don’t steal, rape, or murder – or make Pinotage.’ Does he still hold the same view. ‘Absolutely. I won’t plant or make Pinotage in your lifetime or mine.’

There is a current vogue in South Africa for hand-crafted Mediterranean-style blends, but as a large-volume producer, van Rensburg is more dependent on technology, and unapologetic about it. ‘I have no problem with using technology, but we should use it intelligently. I’m a scientific winemaker: I think about what I am doing.

‘My goal is to treat our wines and the terroir they come from with respect, and I try to avoid any techniques that diminish the perception of terroir. In my view,’ (and now he warms to a new theme), ‘Californians don’t really believe in

terroir. They believe in the taste of wine critics.

Most Napa producers harvest overripe fruit, and then water down the wines to reduce the alcohol. The wines may taste great for two to four years – but then what?’

He clearly has no interest in producing wines primarily intended to impress. ‘Creating a great South African wine should have nothing to do with tiny yields.

We must strive for balance, which doesn’t start in the cellar. Balance is intrinsic to life. I certainly want structure in a top red wine, but I don’t think you achieve this by bleeding tanks. The work should be done in the vineyard.

Those producing blockbuster wines here are trying to impress American critics. I won’t sell my soul; I’m not going out there to wine-and-dine influential journalists. If you don’t appreciate what I do, then f*** you.’

V for victory

Van Rensburg paused after the first expletive of our conversation. Yet he, too, has produced an ‘icon wine’: V, one of the first South African wines to breach $100 (£50). A bit disingenuously, he insists that this cuvée is not the estate’s top wine. ‘My top wine is my estate (Vergelegen) red, even though V is

much more expensive.

The estate red comes from 20-year-old vines, spends more than two years in new barriques and two years in bottle. They’re both Bordeaux blends. Vergelegen Red has less weight than V but better balance. Look, I’m a big fan of Bordeaux.

Until 1982, classic Bordeaux wines were never huge – they were elegant and ageworthy. That’s my goal. But in South Africa, to get the same kind of flavour, we need at least one degree more potential alcohol. So our wines are bound to be bigger. But I want my wines to have elegance, too. And how do you achieve that? Not in the winery, that’s for sure, even though I consider myself a good technician.’

So why produce V then? Van Rensburg seems to suggest that it was a deliberate assault on the lucrative US market. ‘Americans are very patriotic. They’re reluctant to accept an icon wine if it isn’t Californian. So I made V in a powerful, structured style, and it sells reasonably well.’

This comes close to saying that he produced V as a challenge, trying to beat the Californians at their own game, even though he has little respect for it. He can also be somewhat undiplomatic when it comes to other countries. ‘Chile? I don’t even need to taste the wine. You can just stick a bottle

up my arse and I can tell you where the wine’s from.’

When we finished our tasting – and a further flurry of expletives – we go on a bumpy drive around the vineyards. As we tour the Schaapenberg, the source of Vergelegen’s most sumptuous and complex Sauvignon Blanc, van Rensburg’s pride in the estate he has nurtured is evident.

‘This is such a special place. It has poor soils that give small crops; we ripen up two weeks later than most of Stellenbosch, and our elevation means the wines retain freshness; the climate is balanced, with no extremes.’

Then, he puts aside the bluster and a new romantic, Chekhovian van Rensburg emerges. ‘I like to think of a time 20 years in the future, after I’ve retired, when people will look back on the wines I made and say they were terrible, simply because the changes we’ve planned and made in the vineyard will have only then come into fruition.’ The best, he is sure, is yet to come.

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