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Published by Wine.co.za – 20 July 2012

The Grande Dame has a makeover, to spectacular effect

When the new Wine Tasting Centre opened at Vergelegen earlier this year, we eagerly paid it a visit. Unfortunately we caught the staff on a bad day, during a busy time, and were left unimpressed. After mentioning this to Don Tooth, Vergelegen’s Managing Director, he urged us to return for a complimentary wine tasting, and promised that our experience would be more favourable this time around.

Vergelegen has always been high on my list of favourite places to visit. The estate is exquisite, vast and romantic, with an extensive network of gardens, grounds and buildings. Vergelegen encompasses many facets, appealing to those with an interest in history, nature, horticulture, architecture, fine wine and eateries. Not returning to Vergelegen would be unthinkable to me, so we took up Don’s offer to visit the tasting centre at Vergelegen and set out to Somerset West on a wintery day.

Vergelegen (meaning ‘situated far away’) began its existence in 1685. In 1700, the land was granted to Willem Adriaan van der Stel, the new Governor of the Cape. Subsequently Vergelegen went through various transitions under owners such as Lady Florence Phillips, the Barlow family and more recently Anglo American, owners of the estate since 1987.

For more details on Vergelegen’s history, visit their website at Vergelegen – history.

On our arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Frieda Stanbridge, Vergelegen’s Wine Tasting Centre Manager. She ushered us into the modern, new-look tasting area – a light, beautifully decorated space, overlooking the recently redesigned Margaret Robert’s herb garden. The herb garden has been newly planted in an octagonal shape, with four different types of lavender incorporated into the design. The lavenders are French, English, Dutch and Eastern, in deference to Vergelegen’s diverse history and influences.

The new tasting room at Vergelegen, with Frieda Stanbridge, the Tasting Room Manager

Frieda is passionate about Vergelegen and its wines, and spent the next two hours taking us through 13 of their wines in detail, as well as providing us with fascinating information about the estate. She explained that Vergelegen was the first Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) Champion in South Africa, having set aside almost 60% of their natural land for conservation (the minimum requirement for BWI Champion status is 10%). Vergelegen has several programmes in place to protect and conserve wildlife and they are an important partner in Cape Town’s Leopard Project. Vergelegen has a diverse animal population on the estate, which includes numerous antelope species, snake weasels, silver foxes, spotted genets, leopards, honey badgers and caracal.

During the wine-tasting experience, Don Tooth and his wife Juanita joined us at our table, and Don provided us with some background on the motivations behind the changes taking place at Vergelegen. These changes include the new Tasting Centre, the Stables at Vergelegen (a family-friendly bistro-style restaurant) and the revamped Vergelegen Restaurant. The Homestead and Library have also been revamped, and there are plans for further development of the grounds.

Don explained that Vergelegen has long been a favourite destination amongst South African visitors, who are drawn to the stunning gardens and buildings. It became the place where people brought their elderly relatives for a stroll through the flowers and elegant homestead, followed by tea and cakes. The fact that Vergelegen is a multi-award-winning wine estate of world renown, with a tremendous history and vast experience in viticulture and viniculture, is something that began to fall by the wayside, in terms of visitor focus.

Don and his team have been tasked with revamping and modernising the Vergelegen experience. He explained that the demographic of Vergelegen‘s target market has changed over recent years. In many couples, both members are in a profession of some kind, and they tend to have children later in life, when their careers are well-established. When they reach the point where they have the means to indulge in entertainment and leisure activities, they are often accompanied by young children, and seek out all-inclusive family experiences. The new bistro-style restaurant ‘Stables at Vergelegen’ caters well to this market, with its approachable and affordable menu, and casual and modern ambience. The gardens it faces onto provide an environment where children can play safely whilst their parents relax over a meal. Vergelegen also has a fine dining restaurant – the Lady Phillip’s restaurant is being renovated and will open later this year as the ‘Vergelegen Restaurant’. The Camphor Forest picnic is available in summer.

Tourists, both local and international, have increasingly sophisticated tastes; they expect a modern and first-class experience in beautiful surroundings. Don explained that Vergelegen had begun to resemble an English country manor, and this was not reflective of its unique South African history, or of how the owners and management would like Vergelegen to be perceived.

There are plans afoot for the grounds and gardens as well as the interiors. Vergelegen is famous for its camphor trees, camellias and roses, amongst other features, but there was a need for a more South African feel on the estate. One of the ways in which this is being addressed is that the paddock area beyond the Stables restaurant is being developed into a massive flowerbed, which is soon to be planted with between 14 000 and 18 000 agapanthus plants, of over seven different kinds. According to the Vergelegen website, Agapanthus means ‘flower of love’ and is derived from the Greek agape meaning ‘love’ and anthos meaning ‘flower’. Additional plans for this area include a children’s adventure playground, a vine maze, arbours, pergolas and water features.

Vergelegen currently has 17 themed gardens for visitors to enjoy. The Camellia Garden, containing over 1000 camellia bushes, has been recognised as South Africa’s first International Camellia Garden of Excellence, one of only 17 such gardens in the world, and the second in the southern hemisphere. Vergelegen boasts the oldest oak tree in South Africa, an ancient White Mulberry tree and the much-photographed five giant camphor trees in front of the Homestead. Planted around 1700, these are the oldest living documented trees on the sub-continent.

For more details on the Vergelegen gardens, visit the website at Vergelegen – gardens.

We continued with our tasting experience in the professional and capable hands of Frieda. She showed us the new bottle labels which are octagonal-shaped, in reference to the famous Octagonal Garden beyond the Homestead, with the same theme repeated in the reworked herb garden.

The new octagonal motif

We tasted an extensive range of Vergelegen wines, including the playfully named ‘DNA’ which stands for Don and Andre (Andre van Rensburg is the winemaker at Vergelegen). I ruefully used the spittoon, being the designated driver for the day. The wines we tasted were:

Sauvignon Blanc, 2011
Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, 2011
Chardonnay, 2011
Chardonnay Reserve, 2010
Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, 2008
Shiraz Premium, 2008
Merlot, 2008,
Shiraz Reserve, 2007
DNA, 2006
Cabernet Franc Merlot, 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006
Vergelegen White, 2010
Vergelegen Red, 2005

For more details on these wines and for comprehensive tasting notes, visit the website at Vergelegen – wines.

It was a privilege and treat to taste so many high-quality wines, all of which were superb. My favourite was the Cabernet Sauvignon, for its luscious berry flavours, spiciness and attractive wood aromas. My companion favoured the Cabernet Franc – Merlot blend, which was smooth and elegant. Since 1999, Vergelegen has earned more than 200 awards for its wines and estate.

For more details on Vergelegen’s awards, visit the website at Vergelegen – awards.

Don encouraged us to stay on for lunch at the Stables. Like the tasting centre, the interior of the Stables reveals a beautiful, modern space – tastefully decorated and not at odds with the traditional and historic surroundings. On the menu, there are many family-friendly options such as burgers, salads and steaks. We opted for the day’s special of lamb knuckles in a red wine reduction, which I can confidently report was sublime. On Frieda’s recommendation, we paired the lamb with the Vergelegen Merlot, and they complimented each other perfectly.

The Stables at Vergelegen

After lunch, we strolled through the grounds before heading back to the tasting centre to purchase some of the exceptional Vergelegen wines.

In some instances, when an old venue is upgraded and modernised, the original is ruined. I am a highly sentimental and nostalgic person, with a great love of old things. Therefore I was pleased to find my beautiful Vergelegen as it always has been, but with some fabulous additions – modern, but beautifully integrated into the historic surroundings.

So, you can still take your elderly aunt to Vergelegen for a stroll through the Camellia Garden, followed by tea and cake, but you can also take your children, contemporaries, business associates, discerning foodies and wine-loving friends.

Kudos to the team at Vergelegen – they have performed a spectacular and impressive makeover, without losing anything that Vergelegen already had.