French influence on South African winemaking dates back to the Huguenots’ arrival in the Cape in the late 1600s, but it didn’t end there – a more recent migrant has brought a touch of Bordeaux wine “royalty” and contemporary French style to a corner of Stellenbosch.
When Madame May de Lencquesaing – owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a top-rated winery in the Pauillac appellation of Bordeaux – decided in 2003, at the age of 78, that she needed a new challenge, she bought an old fruit farm in Idas Valley, Stellenbosch, and set about building the vineyards of Glenelly Estate from scratch.
A member of one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine families, Madame had inherited Château Pichon Longueville in 1978 and not only went on to build a stellar reputation for its wine, but also became an influential figure in French winemaking and a global ambassador for Bordeaux wine. Considered the Grande Dame of Bordeaux, she is credited with opening up Asian markets to French wine and her many accolades include being named Decanter magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1994. As a judge for Bordeaux-style blends from around the world in the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC), she had been consistently impressed with the quality of South African wines, visited here often, and developed relationships with South African winemakers.
“My grandmother plans far ahead. When she brought us, seven of her grandchildren, to South Africa in 1998, we all fell in love with the country, and we knew she had something in mind,” recounts Arthur de Lencquesaing, one of the two grandsons involved in the global sales and marketing of Glenelly.
That “something in mind” was Madame’s desire to “create something rather than inherit it”, which she knew would not be possible in long-established and tradition-bound Bordeaux.
Fast-forward 13 years, with the fruit trees taken out, vineyards bearing fruit and Glenelly’s reputation established (almost all of their wines rated four stars and upwards by Platter, and a thriving export market to the UK, US and Japan) – and the estate has been reinvented once more.
After being closed to visitors for most of last year, Glenelly has re-emerged as a top-class winelands destination with an elegant new tasting room with sweeping views of the Simonsberg and vineyards, a chic bistro and a purpose-built venue to showcase Madame’s extensive glass art collection, featuring pieces from Roman times through to a prized Salvador Dali and contemporary American and South African artists.
Along with that, the estate’s logo and wine labels have had a design update, “creating a more distinctive identity that conveys the three key elements that define our wines: power, elegance and balance”, says Arthur.
The external changes needed no alteration to the quality of what’s inside the bottle, though. Winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain follows a natural spontaneous fermentation approach, preferring it for the “texture and personality” it gives to the wines.
It’s certainly a winning formula for a range of outstanding wines made to drink now and age gracefully.