21 July Rolland and Vergelegen

For a man who was once the enfant terrible of the Cape wine industry, Vergelegen’s Andre van Rensburg has mellowed rather well. Except for the occasional outburst involving his pet hatreds viz. Pinotage and the Swartland, he’s not made headlines for so long that his employer (Anglo American) have been able to focus on its core businesses. It now emerges that what has kept Andre van Rensburg out of harm’s way is his working partnership with Michel Rolland, the French oenologist whose worldwide consulting activities have, since 2014, included Vergelegen.

Van Rensburg has finally emerged from the cocooned stillness of the fabulous “winery-on-the-hill” to share, with unbridled enthusiasm, the results of Rolland’s input. As Hamlet might have said, “that would be scann’d.” The very idea of Andre van Rensburg entering willingly into a collaboration with a man who has been praised for “modernising” Bordeaux wines, but also excoriated for stripping them of their “classical” austerity, seems inconceivable to those who know him from his more hardline pronouncements. But here he was, wandering around Gauteng armed with BR (before Rolland) and AR (after Rolland) samples to show evidence of the transformation. The experience could only have been a little disappointing for those expecting a miracle along the lines of the wine of service at Cana. For everyone else however, the tastings were nothing short of riveting.

There’s a bit of a back story here. Michel Rolland’s influence – especially in respect of wine style – has been controversial. In the 2004 movie Mondovino – about the globalisation of wine styles – he is depicted as an enthusiastic proponent of technological interventions such as micro-oxygenation. In the dame context he has been satirised alongside influential American critic Robert Parker for driving a fashion of heavy fruit, overt oak and plush tannins – all at the expense of savouriness, longevity and long-term complexity. For producers whose vision extends beyond high ratings and the easy sales they engender, he is sometimes seen as a technician who will achieve these results, even at the expense of dumbing down great wines from long-established sites. In the world of Andre van Rensburg, where fashion is for airheads and nothing (especially wine maturation) should be set on a fast-track, a less likely collaboration would be difficult to imagine.

Instead, what has emerged is a kind of vinous love affair, where the value of what Michel Rolland has brought to Vergelegen’s fruit is palpably evident, thus freeing Van Rensburg (whose love for the property is just as obvious) to praise the work of the man who has helped to breathe new life into what was fast becoming a moribund brand. Interestingly, Van Rensburg openly acknowledges that the idea of obtaining outside advice had been something he had actively sought, and that at one stage he considered contracting with one specialist solely for the white wines, and another for the reds.

It is difficult not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. The 2015 wines – which have had the multiple benefits of a great vintage, a few years of Rolland’s input and the increasingly meaningful impact of older, virus-free vineyards – look to have come from another era. In many ways, the pre-Rolland wines are reminiscent of how fine Bordeaux reds used to look in the 1970s. The 2015s (including the GVB estate white) better resemble those from the current era. Tannins are better managed, the fruit is more forward, the harsh edges finessed away. That said, the past is not all bad, and the latest bottlings not always the most interesting. Of the wines I tasted – ranging from 2012 through to 2016 – there were several very good wines from the in-between vintages, where Rolland was primarily involved in assembling the final blend. What is evident however, is the spring in Van Rensburg’s step: he has wines to offer which he knows are irresistible, and it’s difficult not to admire his generous acknowledgement of the role played by Rolland.

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