by Tim Dawe
Even before I arrive at Vergelegen I am overwhelmed. That’s because of its impossibly guttural Afrikaans pronunciation – with all those Gs.
I am staying at Somerset West, near Cape Town, today, on a lovely Sunday drive through the wine districts around Stellenbosch. On our return my host pulls off the road on a last-minute whim and backtracks. And now I’m facing this beautiful grande dame of South African wine estates: Vergelegen.
In Old Dutch Vergelegen means faraway place, as in a three-day, ox-cart trek to Cape Town in 1699. This 3,000ha estate is expansive, seemingly stretching all the way to the Hottentots Holland mountain range but today, via the nearby N2 motorway, Cape Town’s a 40-minute commute.
The estate is now the property of the giant mining corporation, Anglo American, however its story from an outpost of the Dutch Cape Colony goes back to the late seventeenth century. In a sense Vergelegen’s story mirrors South Africa’s historic journey.
Anglo American’s investment in a world-class wine estate may appear an odd fit until you consider the company’s global reach, and its de facto role as South Africa’s corporate nation state. The company poured funds into restoring and rebuilding Vergelegen, including refurbishing its old homestead, now used to accommodate worldly potentates away from prying eyes.
We approach a thatched, whitewashed building. A movie set? No, it’s the entrance; a most scenic ticket box. There is no hint of theme park or turnstile here. The interior, merchandise and service ooze quality and class.
There is about an hour before closing so we opt for a leisurely stroll around the historic buildings and gardens following the designated path. It bisects the large and lavish garden in the shape of an octagon (the corporate logo) straight to the homestead of traditional Cape Dutch design. Its modest size is illusory; closer up its depth more than makes up for its width.
Our path narrows and, in turning to speak, I take in the majestic face of the Hottentots Holland at the end of a winding meadow path; a magical moment in this afternoon light.
The homestead’s architecture exudes South African history. Native yellowwood and stinkwood dominate the interior. To the left, in the vast former drawing room, is an eclectic, museum-grade display of artefacts left from a bygone household. To the right, and unseen, are private rooms for Anglo American guests. The set-up states museum yet the scale whispers home.
I exit at the rear stoop to a grand vista of gardens designed around a swathe of green, aptly named the great lawn. Partially obscuring it are gigantic 300-year-old camphor trees now throwing down shafts of afternoon light. And under them, the fine-dining Vergelegen Restaurant and a bistro, Rose Terrace, a little thatched cottage straight out of a fairy-tale. Our unhurried pace slows; instinctively we find a bench to absorb the atmosphere in this extraordinary light.
While the famous rose gardens are splendid, our next stop is a memorable treat. The old winery, now a library, has been lovingly and lavishly restored. It’s enormous. There must be thousands of books, mostly of the old, leather-bound, extremely valuable, kind. One wonders how many the restorer, Sir Lionel Philips a mining squillionaire, actually opened let alone read.
Vergelegen’s beauty and serenity abounds as the history seeps in; it’s palpable in this setting.
Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Governor of the Cape Colony from 1699-1706 was a man of enthusiasm for farming and horticulture but, regrettably, not for his job as colonial administrator. He claimed 30,000ha of this far-flung land, the property of his employer, the Dutch East India Company, then used company funds to establish Vergelegen, enriching himself in the process. An authoritarian and dictatorial man, he created a monopoly for his farm produce, deeply alienating all but his cronies.
The good burghers of what is now Cape Town were so incensed with his corrupt ways and absence from official duties they complained to head office in Amsterdam and finally had him recalled, there to remain in exile, the probable victim of office politics. The legacy of his greed was passed down through the centuries in cycles of neglect and grand restoration – on the way, losing most of the landholding through forced sales.
In the early twentieth century, a boom time generated by Kimberley diamonds and Witwatersrand gold, Sir Lionel Phillips bought Vergelegen for his wife, Florence, who spent a fortune transforming the then dilapidated estate from a vineyard to a floral and cultural treasure trove. Her investment was not only in roses and garden design but in art and artists.
This unscheduled visit has proved a memorable end to the day. But what remains unseen are the red-gold vines stretching to the horizon and the state-of-the-art winery carved, Canberra-like, into the top of a hill. There is just time to taste some special vintages. Among the premium wines are Vergelegen V and my favourite, Vin de Florence. Cheers Lady P.
Along South Africa’s Garden Route there are scores of commercially packaged wineries well worth a visit. But for me, nothing compares with Vergelegen – however you pronounce it.