The drive to the cellar alone was worth the trip. The view from the top of the hill at Vergelegen was utterly breathtaking, with mountains to one side, the ocean to the other and vineyards spread at our feet.
Our arrival lowered the average age of the guests by a few decades, but we were more than matched for energy and enthusiasm. An eager bunch of people were gathered around a loud and expressive figure – our host for the evening, winemaker André van Rensburg. Clutching our glasses of Vergelegen Bubbly, we too found ourselves drawn inexorably towards him like moths to a flame.
André and viticulturist Dwayne Lottering gave us a brief history of the Vergelegen estate, and explained that the tour would be about two hours followed by dinner in the restaurant. The excitement level dropped a few notches when some of the ladies in the group spotted our transportation. Chakalanis, or trucks, are used to transport workers to and from the vineyards on a daily basis, and are generally pretty basic. But Vergelelgen – proud of its immaculate safety record – has ‘pimped’ these particular vehicles with comfortable benches and safety-belts, and we quickly grew rather fond of our faithful ride.
Under Dwayne’s tutelage we supplemented our knowledge of soil types, grape varietals and the main blends produced at Vergelegen. We also learned about the hard times, such as the ‘black’ south easter of 2009 which blew for two weeks straight, decimating the crop. A veld-fire also ravished the estate a few years ago, criss-crossing the farm a total of 3 times, and taking with it 14 hectares of fruit and a tractor, despite the best efforts of the fire helicopters.
We slowly made our way up to Schaapenberg. About 306m above sea level, this is the pride and joy of Vergelegen. Year after year it produces grapes of the highest standard, which have gone on to produce many an award-winning wine. Here we were treated to a special preview of the Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2011, not yet released. Some of our fellow tourers tried to get a few bottles out of André, but he just kept on talking about how grapes grow best when they can see the ocean.
The romance of the spot was rather shattered by a warning to check for ticks. I had to subdue the urge to pull my pants down and check in case some slippery little sucker had managed to make it up my leg. Then we were off again in our chakalanis, this time with André as our guide. André has been making wine at Vergelegen for the past 14 years, and the man is passionate with a capitol P. He knows every inch of Vergelegen and spoke with pride of the estate’s conservation project which covers the largest area of Renosterbos fynbos in the Western Cape, a project which requires the full time work of two dedicated conservationists.
It was a perfect evening to enjoy the splendours of the Helderberg. As I stared out into the night, I heard the word ‘leopard’, and was immediately wide eyed. A leopard had not, in fact, been spotted but the chances were high. A male Cape Leopard, it seems, has staked his claim on the Vergelegen grounds, having been captured a few times on the motion cameras around the farm and those of neighbouring Lourensford. According to André he is a big boy, and they have named him Sebastian. How I would love a glimpse of one of these rare shy cats… maybe next time with a less boisterous group!
It was time for another stop. Another glass of delicious goodness was handed out and some very tasty puff-pastry mouthfuls to stave off the growling tummies before a tour of the cellar. In startling contrast to the soft vistas outside, this defiantly man-made construction hosted wine tank after wine tank, 50 odd if I counted right. A cat-walk wrapped around and above the steel tanks and was lit up by soft violet light. It was eerily beautiful. As I left I noticed a display of some of the many trophies won by Vergelegen over the years. Amongst them, not one but two Chateau Pichon Longueville trophies, one of the most prestigious awards in winemaking. Very, very impressive.
There was a euphoric atmosphere in the chakalani as we headed down from the cellar in the darkness of the evening, not least because of the wine and the fresh night air. Our trip had already exceeded all expectations and we were now heading towards a well-earned candle-lit supper in the restaurant.
There are two more trips scheduled for this year, each taking a different route on the farm. I might just have to do both. Vergelegen is one of those places with which you instantly fall in love. Like a good friend, you don’t have to say goodbye, because you know you’ll see them soon again.