Transformation. It’s a word that springs easily to mind as I drive through the gates of Glenelly Estate. A winding brick-paved road leads between rows of manicured vineyards, as the state-of-the-art hillside cellar of glass and stone watches over my arrival.
Tucked away in a corner of Idas Valley, Glenelly is an estate that seems to hide in plain sight. And yet, in the 14 years since Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing bought this historic property she has poured enormous energy into transforming what was once a humble fruit farm into one of the most beautiful estates in the Stellenbosch winelands.
Born into one of Bordeaux’s oldest winemaking families, for decades her family home was the famed Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac, Bordeaux. It was here where, after taking over from her father in 1978, she became known for crafting some of the finest wines in Bordeaux in a career spanning three decades. Little wonder that Decanter Magazine named her Woman of the Year in 1994.
But it was her first visit to South Africa in 1988, travelling with a delegation of wine producers from Bordeaux, which first piqued her interest in the local winelands.
“When I was at Pichon I always felt it important that we look outwards, to have an extended link from France to other countries that were making fantastic wines. I always looked towards South Africa as I feel it has one of the best terroirs in the world,” explains Madame May, as her staff refer to her, with obvious affection.
When she became president of the London-based International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in 1993, she instituted the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for the Best Blended Red Wine.
“South African producers have won it the most times, reaffirming my belief in the South African terroir,” she adds.
In 2003 that belief turned into reality, when she purchased the farm that would become Glenelly.
While it may have seemed natural for Madame May to head straight for the Francophile confines of Franschhoek, it was the sun-drenched hills of Stellenbosch that she fell in love with.
“I have always been passionate about properties that have slopes, and although Franschhoek does have hillsides I found great interest in the granitic soils of Stellenbosch. The different aspects I found within Stellenbosch were also a better fit with what I wanted to achieve,” she explains.
On Glenelly, it’s the amphitheatre of vineyards that is a defining feature of the property, allowing Madame May and cellarmaster Luke O'Cuinneagain to plant specific cultivars on a range of soils and slopes.
Another selling point of the property was that it was previously a fruit farm, and had never been planted with vines. Winemakers pour enormous effort and resources into ensuring their vineyards remain free of leaf roll virus, so the opportunity to plant virus-free material in virgin soil was too great an opportunity to pass up.
There was also, perhaps, a more romantic reason that the farm appealed to Madame May.
“Unlike Pichon, where we had the shackles of centuries of history, this property was a blank canvas,” explains Madame May. “And what I love about Glenelly, and South Africa, is that unlike Bordeaux, where the focus is on blends, thanks to the climate varietal wines planted here have great character and individual expression.”
That individuality is enhanced by O'Cuinneagain’s hands-off winemaking approach in the cellar.
“The wines we produce here are made as naturally as possible,” says O'Cuinneagain, who says natural fermentation allows for a purer expression of the farm’s terroir. “It all ties into the three things that we hold dear in our wines: balance, power and elegance.”
That trinity is reflected in the estate’s playful labeling, of an elegantly dressed woman riding a rhinoceros while balancing a glass of wine in hand. A clever representation of the estate’s guiding philosophy, it is also a quirky depiction of Madame’s winemaking adventures in Africa.
It’s an adventure that comes to life in the remarkable new tasting room boasting dramatic views over the vineyards. There’s a contemporary feel to the space, from the striking bar counter of granite quarried on the estate to the charming cabinet de curiosité of wine-related odds and ends to pique your interest.
A guided tasting reveals how the range of Glenelly wines has been layered to appeal to a range of prices, palates and opportunities for enjoyment. The Glass Collection range is all about single-varietal wines crafted to be enjoyed young. From the unoaked Chardonnay to the elegant Syrah and Merlot the wines are fruit-driven and expressive, and an excellent first-taste of what the estate is capable of.
A noticeable step up is the duo of Estate Reserve wines. Both the judiciously oaked Chardonnay and red blend – mainly Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – are serious wines built for cellaring.
So too the flagship Lady May, a structured Bordeaux blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon that melds silky tannins with well-integrated oak and savoury character. Previous vintages have scored five stars in the Platter’s guide, and 90+ points from the likes of Wine Advocate and Tim Atkin’s South African Report. The 2012 vintage is due for release in mid-2017.
Accolades aside, wine is made to be enjoyed in the company of great friends and good food, and “we constantly think of our wines in conjunction with food,” says O'Cuinneagain. “It’s a holistic approach to enjoying food and wine together and something that European wines do really well.”
Late-2016 saw wine and food come neatly together on the estate, with the opening of The Vine bistro beneath the new tasting room.
With glorious vineyards views from the terrace, and a modern bistro atmosphere indoors, The Vine has fast become a popular lunch spot for savvy locals and tourists. It’s little surprise that the man behind the adventurous menu is none other than acclaimed chef Christophe Dehosse, who brings just the right blend of French inspiration and local flair to the menu.
Pan-fried pork trotter with gribiche sauce will tempt Francophiles with an appetite, while the lighter plate of marinated goats cheese with confit tomatoes and pesto is perfect for warm Autumn days in the winelands. And for mains? No bistro menu would be complete without duck, and here Dehosse dishes up a masterful plate of duck breast with citrus sauce, glazed baby onions and a fresh homemade tagliolini. For the adventurous, veal sweetbreads in a port reduction with roast baby potatoes on the side is unforgettable.
So too is the third pillar of Glenelly.
While the estate is already famous for its wine, and building a growing following for its food, few visitors are familiar with the remarkable Glass Collection that lies beneath the bistro.
For decades Madame May has been an avid collector of glassware, a passion sparked by a pair of spiral-stemmed glasses that caught her eye in an antique store on the streets of the English town of Bath. Today a portion of her remarkable collection is on display for visitors to enjoy.
Aside from the obvious beauty of each piece, the parallels between glass and wine inform much of Madame May’s passion for her remarkable collection of glassware.
“There are so many similarities between glass and wine,” explains O'Cuinneagain. “Vineyards are planted in very poor soils, and glass comes from sand. Both are liquids in their basic alchemic states, and they’re both art forms in their own rights.”
That transformation, of raw materials with little intrinsic worth into something of great value and beauty, is the magic imbued in both glass and wine.
And the pieces here are certainly magical.
Of the 300-odd works on display, the 1976 ‘Cross Leibniz’ by Salvador Dali – “one of the few glass pieces by Dali,” adds O'Cuinneagain – is a highlight. So too the ‘Yellow Rooster’ by Jean Lurçat, an artist most famous for his tapestries, many of which are on display at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch.
Big names aside, there’s no shortage of artistry on display. From intricate Chinese snuff bottles to delicate Roman jugs; visitors can happily spend an hour discovering Madame May’s remarkable collection of glassware from across the centuries.
Does she have a favourite, I wonder?
“Each one is special in its own unique way,” says Madame May. “You have to respect each form of glass, and how it’s produced, for its own value and beauty.”
In her short time here, beauty is something Madame May has brought to the winelands in abundance. And while her mind remains as sharp as a whetted blade, her years are catching up with her. At the grand age of 91 she is taking a well-earned break from the day-to-day running of the estate and handing ever-greater responsibility to her grandsons and O'Cuinneagain. But, her presence here is unmistakeable.
“Vineyards and an estate have soul. They have personality, identity and style,” she explains simply. “That comes from the owner, and the people living and working on the estate. They bring that character to the estate.”
From the moment you step onto the elegant Glenelly Estate, the deft touch of Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing is plain to see. A transformation indeed.
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Lelie Street, Idas Valley, Stellenbosch