My Sunday Times column on the rise of fashion wine made by celebrity winemakers, prompted by spectacular prices realized at the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction earlier this month, evoked an exasperated e-mail response from one of the best known winemakers in SA. Of the several points he made, the most telling was “the negative comment on objectivity and the celebrity wine model is something that you and your wine friends have created in your own minds – through your lack of understanding or is it stubbornness?”
At the heart of the issue is the simple question: what makes SA wine great? Terroir or Tekkies? The tekkies and tactics of the winemaker who decides on harvest date, style and even in the case of many winemakers employed at famous terroir estates, which grapes to buy from Lammershoek. I’m schizophrenic on the matter, putting forward competing arguments on the various platforms on which I ventilate: the aforementioned Sunday Times weekly column arguing that celebrity wine is a powerful challenge to existing brands, twice monthly on www.winenews.co.za where I compare the CWG and Nederburg Auctions, monthly in WINE magazine and of course on this blog, in-between times.
I do love celebrity cuvées and the ego warming smiles of the golden boys who make the stuff: Eben, Adi, Duncan, Chris, Marc, Craig and the other members of Bacchus’ Boy Band. But there is a downside. At the WOSA Mega-tasting held in London earlier this month, a winemaker friend shared a stand next to Eben’s importer, the plughole around which circulated the celebrity wine hacks of Blighty, counterclockwise (this being the Northern hemisphere) in a foaming froth.
One grande dame came to worship at the altar and after she’d expectorated Eben’s essence, my friend inquired whether she’d deign to taste his cuvée. “Send me a sample” was the imperious reply, somewhat undermining the whole point of a generic SA tasting.
As my friend ruefully concluded “celebrity wine writers prefer to taste celebrity wine” and no, he won’t be back in two years time. For him, the Mega-tasting was a Mega-disappointment, although he did enjoy dinner at High Timber and the Thames Terroir of Gary and Kathy Jordan (with the exception of the SA red blends, which were too alcoholic).
It is a delicious irony that the Cape Winemakers Guild should prompt me to ventilate on Vergelegen winemaker André van Rensburg, as the big man quit the Guild back in 2007. Yet with Vergelegen perhaps up for sale, the tekkies of AvR are undoubtedly one of the most valuable assets in the business. I wrote a column on his terrific Vergelegen Red 2004 for the now defunct Wine Tourism News monthly newspaper earlier this year. It would be a difficult choice between the Terroir of Vergelegen and the Tekkies of André, for me, at least.
André has a well deserved reputation as the bad boy of SA wine. In 2007 he resigned from the Cape Winemakers Guild “I’ve moved on” and refused to have his wines entered into the Tri-Nations Challenge. The Tri-Nations Challenge is adjudicated by an Aussie, a Kiwi and a Springbok, which sounds like the start of a joke to which AvR supplies the punch-line “I have no interest in participating in a competition to choose the best Australian wine.”
But his finest moment of 2007 was an interview with Stephen Brook in Decanter magazine in which he cheerfully noted of the international competition “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.” God’s gift to wine reportage undoubtedly, he is also the pioneer of elegant white blends in SA.
While the category may have spectacularly imploded last year at the annual Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Competition (the victor resigned after it transpired he lacked sufficient stock) it’s easy to forget that the winning Isliedh blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon by Duncan Savage from Cape Point Vineyards is inspired by AvR’s own interpretation of that Bordeaux recipe.
Which comes as no surprise, as Cape Point owner Sybrand van der Spuy recalls “I was an outsider who got involved in the industry back in 1996. What struck me then (and still does) is the compassion of my competitors. Ross Gower helped us with the maiden vintage and we made the wine in his Klein Constantia cellar. When our first winemaker quit in the middle of the harvest, Herman Kirschbaum from Buitenverwachting helped out afterhours and wouldn’t accept payment whilst André van Rensburg from Vergelegen showed Duncan how to make proper Sauvignon Blanc.”
Amongst all the belly laughs and side-splitters in the Decanter interview were some serious gems. Including disclosure of the AvR master plan “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.’”
AvR is also a breath of fresh air in the burnt rubber debate that sees SA winemakers rush off to London for a public flogging by British wine hacks over the perceived “burnt rubber” character of some SA reds. As he quite sensibly points out “it’s not unique to South Africa. Winemakers all over the world have to deal with it, which we know how to do.”
So how ironic that the UK’s leading organic/biodynamic farmer is one Jody Scheckter, former Formula I world champion who learnt his trade burning rubber at Kyalami. A technically precise winemaker (he dismissed one high-profile wine as faulty at Danie de Wet’s September 2008 Chardonnay Showcase which went on to receive a Platter five star commendation two months later) there is no chance of a Van Rensburg rubbery red.
Like the Vergelen Red 2004, a personal favourite of the winemaker who told Decanter “my top wine is my estate (Vergelegen) red, even though V is much more expensive”, much to the chagrin on the Vergelegen marketing department, one imagines. A successor to the awesome 2003, the tannins have moved from “suave” to “gently resistant” in wineguidespeak between vintages.
SA wine lovers will be hoping AvR does not develop in the same way as his tannins. As De Wet noted of the Vergelegen Chardonnay Reserve 07 at his Showcase “the trick is to make a wine of character.” Something that AvR does with his whole portfolio.
Twelve years into his tenure at Vergelegen, AvR is hoping for a life sentence and is even starting to talk in terms of legacy and what future generations will make of the wines he’s producing now. While the crash of 2009 has confirmed that while the past may be another country, the future is another planet entirely, one thing for certain is that Vergelegen will be one of the southern stars in that bright future.