During his 15 years at the helm of the cellar, winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain put Stellenbosch estate Glenelly on the map. Through constant innovation and steady evolution, he shaped the newly planted 60-hectare property on the slopes of the Simonsberg into an estate acclaimed for its finely pitched Bordeaux-style blends, crafting wines that showcase the elegance and complexity of the Stellenbosch Winelands.
So, there was some surprise in wine circles when it was revealed last year that O’Cuinneagain was leaving Glenelly for the manicured surrounds of Vergelegen, the 322-year-old Somerset West estate owned by Anglo American.
With the move from a family affair to a corporate behemoth – not to mention an estate with three times hectares under a vineyard – it’s been a busy few months for this Cape Town-born winemaker. But with his first Vergelegen harvest in the cellar, YLA sat down with Luke to learn more about this bold new era for Vergelegen.
After 15 years at Glenelly, how did it feel to hand in your resignation?
It was tough to leave because I was so close to Madame [May de Lencquesaing, founder of Glenelly] and the family. It was bittersweet, but I think the property was in a great space. From a personal perspective, I was looking for a new challenge, something that would really stimulate me as a winemaker again.
In the wine industry, a role like Vergelegen only comes around once in a generation. So when it does you have to jump at it. And Vergelegen had always been one of the five estates I’d always promised I’d apply for if it came up.
How different are the two properties, in both terroir and scale?
They’re different, but there are a lot of similarities. Both estates are focused on Bordeaux varietals, but the main difference is the profile between Helderberg and Simonsberg fruit.
Vergelegen has three times the vineyards of Glenelly, but the wind has a huge effect here, so it’s probably only double the tonnage. I’ve grown up in the Cape and I thought I knew what wind was. That was until I came to Vergelegen!
Are you getting to grips with the vineyards?
It will take years before I truly understand all the nuances of the vineyards here.
It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s also incredibly stimulating. We have so many different soil types on this property, from Malmesbury shale to Cape granite, which all bring their own character. And in this amphitheatre of hills, we have a lot of different aspects, slopes, and altitudes, which contribute different elements to different parcels. So it’s a very interesting estate, and in some ways, the wind makes it an extreme site for vineyards.
How would you describe the style of Vergelegen wines, and how do you expect the portfolio to evolve?
Vergelegen wines have always been very structured wines, very dense, and made for longevity in that classic Bordeaux style.
We’ve had a lot of debate about the large portfolio of wines and it’s definitely something we’re going to be looking at. We’re making small volumes of a lot of wines, and often the nuances between them are not immediately clear to consumers.
The challenge that we face now is to get the brand connected to a new generation of wine consumers. Our market has always been very loyal, and whether it’s in the style of wines or the packaging, we have to work on keeping those consumers and their trust in Vergelegen, while bringing in a new generation to our wines. That’s the balancing act for us.
What other projects are on top of your to-do list?
There are such magnificent views on this estate, but you don’t really see any vineyards! So I’d love to plant some vines closer to the public areas, where people can get a sense of the vineyards. Perhaps a block of Muscat de Frontignan, which was the original varietal planted on the property, just to remind visitors that we’re not just a garden; we’re also a wine farm.