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Glenelly Wine Estate Stellenbosch
Fine wine, fine art, and a leading lady with big vision and a brave heart
Madame should know better. She understands time, and the passing of it; she knows wine and the making of it. What, then, is this French dame doing harnessing the wild waters of South Africa and getting her hands dirty with Stellenbosch terroir at 89? She's certainly not acting her age.
May de Lencquesaing is conquering a new continent on her way to 90, blending grapes and glass, mixing art, wine, romance and reality in complete defiance of age-appropriate conduct. She's even immortalised the process with a logo of a maiden riding a rhino.
Glenelly Estate in a word
That's Glenelly Estate for you. Classic. The winery holds fast to a lofty, timeless sense of elegance and reverence, and by walking in the wine farm’s foothills, it’s easy to get a handle on the property’s venerable state of being.
From the stately gates up the slopes past the beautifully restored manor house to a Frank Lloyd Wright-style working space, Glenelly Estate cuts a fine profile of a young wine farm cultured with wisdom.
True to Madame’s French heritage, everything about the operation is based on refined taste. Some South African vino is still considered heavy and bold. In contrast, Glenelly Estate wines have French finesse. May gained many years of winemaking experience in Bordeaux, France, and she’s teamed up with local experts committed to bottling modernity.
Luke O’Cuinneagain, the winemaker at Glenelly Estate, mentions a very specific focus to make "fresh and elegant wines. Unlike most, we don’t just whack them in wood, and let the wood lead the wine," he smiles.
We're in the main tasting room overlooking the slumbering Stellenbosch Winelands, sipping and taking tasting notes. The Glass Collection Merlot 2009 tastes like a "black forest gâteau", while the Glass Collection Shiraz 2009 has "strains of violet, white pepper and cracked spice", which gives the wine an unusually smooth and fresh texture. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 has herbal tones, akin to the smell of fynbos on "Table Mountain first thing in the morning". Each of the wines has a very different texture and taste, and each cultivar is clearly defined.
The flagship wine and newest wine in the Glenelly range is Lady May, a fine Cabernet Sauvignon (aged for 24 months in new French oak barrels) that was awarded 4.5 stars in the 2013 Platter’s Wine Guide. The sculpture by French artist Maxim Real del Sarte of a 23-year-old May de Lencquesaing that you see on the linen-like label was a wedding gift. "This wine is proof that good wine keeps you young," May states on the back of the bottle.
Designing with nature
Knowing there's a better way to blend old and new is key at Glenelly Estate wine. Combining hands-on and state-of-the-art methods, the winemakers mix contemporary technology and timeless practices, sometimes importing techniques that O’Cuinneagain learned during his time abroad working at some of the best wineries in France. For example, ripe vine stems are used in the fermentation process to impart freshness to the Glass Collection Syrah: "Rather than spice, you get violet and jasmine coming through," explains Luke. “It’s poetry, pure and simple.”
Glenelly Estate lies in Ida’s Valley, en route from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek, on the beginning of the Helshoogte Pass. The vineyards are stitched into heritage site land, and the architecture of the main cellar building is distinctly cutting edge. The design allows a tiered workflow that uses gravity to reduce energy consumption – it’s a veritable waterfall of wine. The barrel cellar's unique feature is 15km of embedded pipework inside the concrete, running cold water to regulate core temperature, saving 70% on energy costs and usage. Water is recycled throughout the estate, and fynbos borders encourage natural balance between the birds and the bees (and the wasps and the ants) in the vineyards.
Nature has a sense of humour, which Viticulture Consultant Johan Pienaar and Production Manager Heinrich Louw share. They know that Merlot grapes like to have their feet wet and that vines on the east slopes handle summer better with a slow tan. There's an art to fine winemaking, after all.
Madame May’s art of taste
And, unsurprisingly, Madame's tastes go beyond fine wine into fine art. She once had the biggest glass collection in Europe, and now her eclectic, museum-status glassware collection is displayed throughout the winery and includes a piece 300 years older than Jesus (we’ve also heard that pieces from Salvador Dali are on the way). The cellar and tasting areas show canvas, antique furniture and sculpture cabinets. A vintage wine library as beautiful to behold as it is to appreciate will be used in the future to supply vino for rare vertical tastings (the same wine over a number of vintages), a sampling session that demonstrates a wine's development over time.
It's true. Madame is a jet-setting senior citizen, an author and an award winner, a wine estate owner and a whirlwind. No wonder she needs a rhino to bear her brilliance. After a dramatic childhood that included smuggling food to the persecuted during Nazi occupation, she took up winemaking in her fifties and now spends her time on different continents, proving her post-modern point: borders are in your mind (and good wine is around the corner).
Enjoying a wine tasting at this Stellenbosch estate costs just R15p/p (fee is waived if purchasing wine). Cellar and wine estate tours are possible, but a booking is required.
Keen to stay overnight in the Winelands? Check out our overview of accommodation in Stellenbosch.
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