"I always like to think of Sauvignon Blanc as a Dolly Parton-type girl. Loud, popular and with... obvious assets," said Vergelegen winemaker, Andre, while extracting cloudy young wine from a light wood barrel. "Semillon, on the other hand. Well, she's an intelligent girl. Someone you can talk to. The kind of girl you want to take home and marry... Am I being sexist?"
Crowded around him in Verelegen's famous cellar on the hill, our group of mostly women couldn't help but laugh. Coming across someone this passionate about their job is so rare that a slight bit of sexism is nothing to bat an eyelid about. And if we did? Well, I don't even think he'd care.
In any case, this was no time to be getting in a huff about anything, as glasses of young white wine were being passed around. Extracted straight from the barrel, the cloudy liquid looked deceptively unappetizing to our untrained eyes, a misconception that was quickly cast aside by the first sip which burst onto our pallets with the fresh flavours of sunshine, mineral-rich soil and long-awaited rains.
While these amazing wines may be what made Vergelegen a household name among quaffing South Africans, the truth is that this historical estate on the outskirts of Somerset West has an incredible array of attractions... and it's just getting better by the day.
Now, if we thought Andre was passionate about his job, we were in for a total treat when horticulturalist, Richard Arm, started showing us around a few of the 312-year-old estate's 17 - yes, 17 - gardens.
Starting with his pride and joy, the brand new vegetable and herb garden located just outside the Stables Restaurant, Richard introduced us to the Vergelegen team's unique ‘layered' approach to everything they do. What does this mean? Well, basically, it comes down to acknowledging the estate's various strands of cultural heritage wherever possible. For example, in said herb garden, various lavender types represent the Dutch, English, French and Eastern influences.
This theme continues a little deeper into the property, where the reconstructed homestead boasts five massive camphor trees planted during the era of controversial Willem Adriaan van der Stel. They are the oldest living, officially documented trees on the sub-continent and were introduced to the Cape from China around 1670. In the light of their history, stature and beauty, it really is no surprise that these gorgeous gargantuan were declared a National Monument in 1942.
Apart from the camphors, Vergelegen is home to two more terrific trees worth mentioning: an old Dutch Oak that keeps thriving despite its hollow trunk, and King Alfred's Royal Oak. The latter was so pompously named due to the fact that it was planted in 1928 from one of the last acorns of King Alfred's Oak at Blenheim Palace. Appropriately, a few of its acorns were gathered for planting by King George in 1947.
While we couldn't linger for too long, I made a note of the stunning circular rose garden, containing only South African types if you please, and camphor forest picnic spot for my next visit to the estate.
While the gardens and wines may provide a good base for the Vergelegen's historical layering, the beautiful homestead really brings the idea of heritage home. First opened to the public in 1992, the large windowed, white-washed, gabled house offers a glimpse into a fascinating bygone era. Since the days of Van der Stel the building has undergone many changes, from a dilapidated mansion to a rather fashionable hub for high society dinners. Today, the homestead is a showcase of select treasures of early Cape Furniture, objects and textiles all funded by Anglo American who bought the property in 1987 and still own it today.
However, it does not only pay tribute to the influence of the Dutch East India company and British royalty, but also to more recent developments in our country's history. Various framed photos against the corridor walls show former president Nelson Mandela and other ANC members lounging in the lush garden at the first unbanned caucus meeting of the now ruling party ANC in 1990. Back then the farm had not yet been opened to the public, and with Anglo's help it provided the perfect, un-bugged location for this grave reunion.
From the mass eradication of alien vegetation to providing a home for endangered Bontebok, Vergelegen's conservation efforts are making waves in the winelands.
The estate's ambitious alien vegetation clearing project is believed to be the largest private conservation undertaking in South Africa, and aims to clear a total of 2200 hectares of non-arable land by 2015.
Apart from allowing the indigenous Fynbos more room to grow, the project has also provided the local community with 231 jobs and boosted waterflow in the Vergelgen area, as alien vegetation uses 50 to 800 times more water than Fynbos. Wetland areas are re-emerging and larger quantities of cleaner water are flowing into the Lourens River, which leads from the farm to neighbouring communities.
As for the Bontebok, they were imported to the property from the nearby Helderberg Nature Reserve by resident conservationist Gerald Wright, when he noticed that the antelope population was growing to large for the park.
A total of 13 antelope were originally captured and transferred to Vergelgen five years ago, of which 9 still belonged to the City. Today 31 Bontebok roam the property in several large camps and only 3 lives have been lost: a yearling with an enlarged heart, a ram with a ruptured liver, and a female with a high parasite load.
The Bontebok breeding pairs kept in the encampment closest to the estate's offices have become a great attraction to visitors and staff alike, and have even made some unlikely friends in the form of two Nguni cattle. The pair of bovine were hand-reared, released into the encampment and now believe themselves to be buck.
Finally, once you've explored as many hidden corners of the vast property as possible, it's time for a well-deserved feast at the brand new Stables restaurant. As with every other feature at Vergelegen, Stables is no mere fantastical creation, but finds itself grouned in tradition and history. The name, for instance, is no non-sequitor, as the building which it occupies was indeed where the owners of the estate once kept their horses.
Sections of thick wall have been replaced by large glass panels that allow the light flood through and the view to be almost tangible. 'Classic, with a modern twist' is the perfect description for the interior adopted by both the restaurant and the tasting room, as heavy wooden beams and solid walls are balanced out by light-hearted and colourful furnishings and art. A stunning horse constructed out of river driftwood by Franschhoek artist, Francois Marais, provides a themed focal point.
But, it is of course the food that makes the restaurant what it is. Under guidance of chef Garth Stroebel, and newly appointed executive chef Alicia Giliomee, the menu is contemporary with a focus on fresh and wholesome ingredients. It caters for all tastes from hearty breakfasts to a children's menu and the finest steaks, seafood and even pizza. Vegan? Not a problem! Just give them a bit of warning and they can whip you up something delectably over the top. Each dish is served up stylishly and the serving staff will be able to recommend suitable wines.
But, here's a Henry Ford-style tip, try any wine you want as long as it's the superb DNA red blend.
All in all Vergelegen seems to be raising, not only one, but a number of bars in the whimsical world of winelands tourism. But this is no surprise as its exceptionally passionate team, from MD Don Tooth through to each of the serving staff, makes sure that things are not just okay, but excellent.
In short, I can't wait to go back and explore in more depth.