SA Wine Legends: André van Rensburg

Vergelegen is no ordinary estate. While many farms can claim 300-years of lineage, this sprawling Somerset West estate has the ancient arbour to prove it. Africa’s oldest oak tree presides here, planted in the early 1700s. Its bark is riddled by time, overlapping like bubbly paper mâché, but its spring leaves are green and newborn. Then there are also the five famed camphor trees, gnarly sentinels outside the homestead, which are also believed to have been planted in 1700.

These historic roots were set down by then owner and Cape Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel who named it Vergelegen, meaning ‘Far Away’. Then it was far. It took three days’ journey by ox wagon to get there from Cape Town.

Its modern day era started in 1987 when the farm was bought by Anglo American Farms, a subsidiary of modern-day Anglo American. Towering trees creak over manicured lawns and gardens. Amidst them is a wine tasting centre, two restaurants, and an interpretive centre showcasing the historical treasures of this place that was once far away.

But this isn’t just a story about Vergelegen’s trees, but rather about a winemaker who also took root here 22 vintages ago. To find him I have to ascend a road running alongside the gradually steepening vineyard blocks, up to the white cellar in the sky, overlooking the dramatic vista of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

André van Rensburg invites me into his state-of-the-art multiple level, gravity flow cellar.

“I was 35 when I arrived here. I didn’t plan on staying, I thought I was going to be a caretaker, to put Vergelegen on track and perhaps after three years go on to another property. That’s how it was at the time in the South African wine industry, you moved around.”

He ushers me away from the gleaming tanks along a steel walkway into his office. 

“It’s one of the best properties in the world, not only in South Africa, the world.”

Looking back over the last two decades he says: “The potential that it had, I really wanted to make the best wines that this property was capable of; and suddenly the years added up.”

André has held true to his promise of greatness for the estate.  During his tenure he has twice won the coveted Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy for the best red blend at the International Wine and Spirits competition (in 2001 and 2003). He has also twice won the SAA Chief Executive Officer Trophy for the best overall performance by any winemaker and for the third successive year the Best Winery award at the Fairbairn Capital Wine Trophy Show.

Though born in Johannesburg, he only spent a month of his life there. His family (André is one of four children) moved to Cape Town soon after his birth, and he grew up in Durbanville. “My entire life I’ve spent in a 40 kilometre radius from Vergelegen,” he says with a wry smile.

Growing up, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. He toyed with the idea of becoming a vet or geologist.  After studying for a week at Stellenbosch University he realised neither option was for him.

Wine was ever-present in his household. “We always had wine at home, my dad firmly believed if you’re exposed to something you won’t abuse it.

“My father had a winemaking friend at the old Bottelary Co-op in Stellenbosch, so he organised a job there for me, I worked there for a year. I really enjoyed it.

“My maternal grandfather was involved with wine and brandy making for KWV, so I suppose it was somewhere in the gene pool—I never looked back.”

And so he obtained his. B.Sc. Hons Agric (Oenology), Cum Laude, at the University of Stellenbosch in 1987. After graduating he spent time at Saxenburg and was General Manager of Warwick in Muldersvlei from 1991 to 1993. After which it was on to Stellenzicht where he received numerous awards for his wines.

But it was at Vergelegen that the true genius of the man was revealed, particularly with the world-leading leaf roll virus elimination programme—a system that is now adopted across the wine regions of the globe. (Leaf roll virus shortens the lifespan of vineyards and has a negative impact on wine quality.)

The pioneering project began in 1999. That first, newly planted vineyard on the farm is now 20-years-old, making it the world’s oldest virus-free vineyard of its type. 

André teamed up with MD Don Tooth and they worked closely with Professor Gerhard Pietersen of the Plant Protection Research Institute at the University of Pretoria.

The programme was implemented in three phases: planting new vineyards, uprooting infected red wine cultivar vineyards and replanting them; and testing and treating white wine cultivars.

Maritza van Rensburg

This is where winemaking assistant and laboratory technician Maritza van Rensburg comes in. And yes, she’s married to André.

“My wife is the best thing in my life,” says André. “She started working here in 1998.

Andre and Maritza van Rensburg

“Together we have 43 years of service at Vergelegen—that should tell you something about this place.

“My cellar staff have all worked 20 years with me! I’d be lost without my foreman, Gladys; she has been by my side for 22 years.”

Another significant move was bringing in famed French wine consultant Michel Rolland. “He is a truly great blender and his input has been invaluable. Together we’ve focused on freshness, less oak, lees work, lower sulphur levels and earlier bottling.” He says they have also channeled more attention into merlot and semillon.

“You have to embrace everything,” he says reflectively, our chat winding down.

“I don’t think that singular individuals can create anything great. The greatest artists of our history always have a complex nature.

Winemaker - Andre van Rensburg

“It’s been an absolute privilege to work so close to nature, it’s heaven on earth. My time at Vergelegen has changed my religious outlook to such an extent, that I now believe in reincarnation, only in the hope that I can come back to Vergelegen.”

Who knows? Maybe he’ll come back as one of those trees.

- Malu Lambert