André, even more admired than ever

Just as well I said Vergelegen winemaker André van Rensburg had “the most outrageous sense of humour in the business” in yesterday’s Sunday Times Travel & Food as I put it to the test, mistakenly saying he’d only won the Pichon Lalande Trophy once when of course he’s won it twice: in 2001 and 2003. I’m also more than happy to agree with André that Neil Ellis and Gyles Webb are up there in most admired status.

avr André, even more admired than ever

Sunday’s story: The man who wears the Vergelegen Blundstones, those iconic Aussie winemaker boots affected by critics who rarely leave their suburban lairs, is necessarily one of the Big Beasts of SA wine. After all, the beautiful Somerset West spread is owned by Anglo American, the country’s largest corporate. So it comes as no surprise to note that the Queen of UK wine, Jancis Robinson, recently hailed Vergelegen winemaker André van Rensburg as “the most admired winemaker in South Africa.” After all, when a real Queen (QEII) visited her erstwhile dominion, it was to the rose garden at Vergelegen that she repaired.

Crowning someone “the most admired winemaker” sounds like a sequel to that sensitive classic of moody balladeer Morrissey “the youngest was the most loved.” Morrissey concludes in the chorus “there is no such thing in life as normal” and so it is with winemakers.

US magazine Wine Spectator most admires Swartland surfer Eben Sadie, judging by the 95 point score they laid on his Columella Shiraz last year – the highest rating ever accorded to an SA wine, and done blind, too. The Speccie shares its opinion with a younger generation SA winemakers amongst whom Sadie has something approaching Boy Band status.

Beyers Truter presents a strong case for admiration and adoration – he’s won the Pichon Lalande Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend in the World at the London International Wine & Spirit Competition twice against Van Rensburg’s once (sic). But perhaps more importantly, he’s also Prince of Pinotage, that indigenous cultivar Van Rensburg famously abhors.

Günter Brözel, the man who essentially invented the botrytis dessert wine style in SA, is a giant and his successor, Nederburg cellar master Razvan Macici is winning everything in sight as he silently transforms a staid National Treasure into a vibrant new force, introducing exotic cultivars into the mix and using Romanian oak barrels to spice up SA’s largest up-market brand.

Top performing cellar at the recent Trophy Wine Show (a position Vergelegen monopolized until recently) plus the recent triumph of his Shiraz at WINE magazine’s annual Shiraz Challenge, confirms he’s on a roll. Perhaps the most exciting feature of the winning wine is that it retails at R57, making a case of the stuff cheaper than a single Vergelegen flagship.

My own straw poll of a dozen friends confirms that while Van Rensburg may not be “most admired” he’s certainly one of the most controversial. A rating I’m sure the big man himself – who has the most outrageous senses of humour in the business – will enjoy.

As for my own “most admired winemaker” there are so many contenders: Johan Reyneke, the Buddha of Biodynamism; Marc Kent who put Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines André, even more admired than ever
by franschhoekwines
on the map; Anthony Hamilton Russell who smashed the glass ceiling of cultural cringe…

But my vote goes to Etienne Le Riche. This hermit of Jonkershoek is so humble, he’s almost invisible, yet this was the man who made the great Rustenberg reds of the eighties. To see just how worthy of admiration, a bottle of Le Riche Cabernet Reserve 2003 is a powerful argument, while his 2005 Bordeaux blend for R80 is one of the best deals around, provoking admiration from any cash-strapped consumer.