A bordelaise at the Cape

It was an impressive gesture of faith in the possibilities of Cape wine when the former owner of a grand estate in Bordeaux acquired land in Stellenbosch and set about establishing vineyards and a cellar. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing had sold Château Pichon-Longueville in 1997; she bought Glenelly in 2003 – and in 2010 celebrated her 85th birthday there.

A few other important bordelais figures have been involved in South Africa since 1994. It was important for all of them, of course, to respect the difference of local conditions for grape-growing. What distinguished Mme de L’s project from the outset was a determination to also invoke qualities central to Bordeaux’s great claims: refinement, modesty and elegance (despite those qualities nowdays often being strained in Bordeaux itself).

Some other have played on the differences and forgotten those qualities. When the eminent consultant and maker of good Bordeaux Michel Rolland worked here for some years,(for Anthonij Rupert wines for example), he did no favours by focusing on the extreme ripeness possible under the southern African skies. Another project with strong Bordeaux influence, Anwilka, happily seems have turned in 2009 to structure and finesse, recognising that easy gratification and charm are not enough for a serious wine.

Is Glenelly’s orientation to a less showy style due to the influence of “Madame”, as her local team refer to her? Presumably. But it also reflects the aesthetic of winemaker Luke O’Cuinnegain.

The Bordeaux tradtion for red wine is a blend based on cabernet sauvignon and/or merlot, with cabernet franc and petit verdot significant contributors (and occasionally some malbec). The Grand Vin de Glenelly 2008 (R125), declares independence from the classic model by supplementing these rather with shiraz. It’s a good, well-priced wine, both elegant and rich without sacrificing freshness.

The top wine, Lady May, is more tradtional, from cabernet sauvignon plus a little petit verdot. It’s that much more serious, with more new but unobtrusive oak barrelling and firmer tannic structure, promising greater complexity as it matures. Although both 2008 and 2009 (around R250) are ripe, sweet-fruited and even rather alcoholic (approaching 15%) this doesn’t show as at all excessive, most thanks to a harmony based on a strong and bone-dry structure – fairly rare in South Africa.

Supplementing these reds there’s now a Grand Vin Chardonnay 2010 (R120), quietly refined and still youthful, and promising to become a serious Cape contender.

Glenelly now also makes a range of rather plusher and easier-going wines – and easier-priced at around R70. These are grouped as the Glass Collection – featuring, on beautiful labels, pieces from the owner’s collection of glassware (some of which is on display in the charmingly French-style tasting room on the estate.) My own favourite of these is the Shiraz – the Chardonay runs it close – but none should disappoint.

As to wines from Mme de Lencquesaing’s home-region – well, everyone knows that top-end Bordeaux is preposterously over-priced. Unbeatable quality and value can be found at the middle and lower-middle levels, however, as many examples at local specialist wine-shops show. More widely available, and a bargain, is Château Liversan 2007, at around R100 from Woolworths. Try it to experience some of the characteristics of classic Bordeaux: dry, with savoury finesse rather than over-insistent fruit, offering deeper, more contemplative pleasure than do a depressing number of tutti-frutti, over-oaked, over-priced homegrown examples – Glenelly Lady May not among them.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 2-8 March 2012

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