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Blog: Anne Krebiehl on why 'Cab is king'

Published:  28 June, 2013

Cab is King - it was with that assertion that André van Rensburg, winemaker at South Africa's prestige estate Vergelegen, invited sommeliers and journalists to taste a vertical of his flagship wine "V" and seven barrel samples of 2012 wines that could - potentially - end up in the blend for the 2012 "V".


"V" is Vergelegen's top red wine. Its Cabernet Sauvignon component, the chief part of the blend, is always sourced from the sheltered, free-draining northwest-facing Stone Pine IV Block.


The vertical consisted of the current release, the 2008 "V" - the only one in the line-up made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon - and previous vintages 2007, 2005, 2004 and 2003, all of which had varying, small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the blend.


Their winemaking is consistent: with relatively cool fermentations at just below 30°C, long post-fermentation maceration and extended ageing in 100% new French oak. The wines are powerful but no bombs, acidity saves them. Belying a New-World myth, the wines showed the vintage variation of that Stone Pine IV Block: the 2005 was the most open of the wines.


The 2003 was still very youthful, had only just started on a long trajectory of ageing and needs more time in bottle to come into its very promising own. Time in glass showed the development it is capable of.


The current 2008 release, ripe, glossy, lifted with lots of black elderberry flavours and an enticing, brooding minerality is far too young to be enjoyed now. There clearly is immense power in this fruit, made for the long term. It is also the 2008 that showed the aristocratic purity of Cabernet Sauvignon on its own - an argument for ripe Cabernet Sauvignon not needing blending partners.


Van Rensburg confessed that the 2007 "V" was "the beginning of a fairly radical change for me." The 2007 wine was strongly inspired and influenced by the 2006 vintage he worked at Harlan Estate in Napa Valley. "I saw a lot of things and I tried them out," he says. "The 2008 is a return to my own way with slight adaptations."


The step-change between the two wines is palpable but above all it shows a winemaker never content with the status quo.He is intent on making a better wine every year and works on several fronts: "The last few years we have achieved physiological ripeness for Cabernet Sauvignon at 13.5% potential ABV," he reports. The 2003-2008 "V" all ranged between 14.3% and 14.5% and, depending on blending partners, we can look forward to more restrained wines.


Van Rensburg is scathing about brettanomyces, the scourge of so many aged Bordeaux blends. To avoid any trace of it, he has started to inoculate red wines with lactic-acid bacteria as soon as the alcoholic fermentation is finished, with Merlot, he even conducts parallel alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentations. Thus he shuts down the risk of brett-infection at the time when the wine is most vulnerable. "The end goal is to produce a super-Cabernet," he states. The as of yet non-released "V" vintages of 2009, 2010 and 2011 are all based on 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but for the 2012, van Rensburg may well go back to a blend.


The rugby-mad winemaker says: "I've worked now for 16 years at Vergelegen, I don't want to develop tunnel vision, I am interested in what your input is in the blend." While he surely already has his own ideas of his favourite blending components - he insisted that he had not yet made up his mind and was curious what everyone had to say.


The components were the 2012 Rooiland Cabernet Sauvignon, a vineyard adjacent to Stone Pine: one sample was aged in the Taransaud T5 barrel: made from central French oak seasoned outside for 5 years before coopering. This was an incredibly floral, velvety and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon - and one could be tempted to bottle this beauty all on its own, it seemed complete in itself.


The second sample - the same Cabernet fruit was aged in regular new Taransaud (wood seasoned for 2-2.5 years). This showed very lively, primary fruit, lovely grip and slight smoke.


The third Cabernet Sauvignon is from a new single vineyard where vines are now 10-11 years old and have just become mature enough to be considered for the top blend. This showed exuberance of fruit and lovely acidity. Then followed a still very dense, ripe and rather closed Cabernet Franc, also from the Stone Pine Block, an incredibly vibrant Malbec from the small Dorsland site, a firm, poised Merlot with super-pure fruit and thankfully none of the tarted-up choco-mocha-flavours that fresh, oak-aged Merlot often shows. Last came a brooding, powerful, broad-shouldered Petit Verdot with animal hints of tar and meat.


This leaves van Rensburg not with a challenge of quality but of style: these assorted components would allow him to make a very elegant, rather slender but tautly-structured wine or a powerful, more masculine blend with immense force and structure - or something in between.


He has fruit, aroma, acid, tannin and body of all these wines to play with. Whatever he comes up with for 2012, it will be immensely good value in the world-stage of Cabernet Sauvignon blends - his wines retail around the £60-£70 mark - a steal considering their longevity and intrinsic power. I am already looking forward to tasting the outcome.