There’s no mistaking the fact that Amaljit Singh has in just a few years established a significant presence in the slightly picturesque and very tourist-ridden village of Franschhoek and the surrounding mountain-dominated winelands. Just look at the lions.
The word singh means lion in Sanskrit. Translated into Afrikaans it becomes leeu, in which form it fits into the name of Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines, the business partnership between Singh and the Swartland Mullineux which marked the Indian businessman’s first capital investment in the Cape winelands (while some of us are still rather puzzled about the nature of the family alluded to in the venture’s name), and into the Leeu Collection of hospitality ventures.
Translated into bronze sculptures and plaster reliefs, the Singh lions prowl and pose heraldically around Franschhoek, their stylised tails curved grandly over their backs. There aren’t (yet?) quite as many lions here as there are in Venice, but Venice did have a head start. I encountered some of them last week in a friendly way, while visiting with viticulturist Rosa Kruger, one of Singh’s trump cards, who brought him others in the shape of Chris and Andrea Mullineux.
Rapidly I became aware of another brilliant local signing of his – the great landscape gardener Franchesca (that’s how she spells it) Watson. The gardens at Leeu House, the luxury hotel in the middle of town, alongside Le Quartier Francais which Singh also owns, are simply beautiful and meticulously maintained – I swear the hedges and lawns must be trimmed and the paths swept every few hours. While the lions guard the entrance against impecunious riff-raff like me, the swathe of green grass in the front has two more bronze symbols, these facing each other across the breadth of the immaculate lawn: a rather nice sculpture of Ghandi, and a dodgier one of Mandela apparently offering Ghandiji a chair to sit on. The grass squares on the other side of the road, in Heritage Square which Singh also owns, are as green but disappointingly artificial – although his new Indian restaurant, Marigold, promises (as one expects) to be “authentic”.
Watson had larger, grander scope for her talent a little farther out of town, at another part of the Leeu Collection. Leeu Estates is a composite of the three adjoining wine farms that Singh acquired, and where he has now built in the space of just a few years another hotel, restaurant and spa complex, all looking remarkably well settled, helped by the fully grown trees that Watson brought in at no doubt substantial but, in the scale of things, irrelevant expense. A 2015 article in Forbes Asia, while the complex was being established, stated that the “total investment in the development is $35 million”. Going by that, it’s not hard to speculate that Singh must have lavished at least a billion rand on investments in the Swartland and, especially, Franschhoek, in the years since he first visited South Africa – bringing his soccer-mad son to the World Cup in 2010. (When I reported the announcement of the partnership in 2013, I quoted Analjit Singh saying prophetically to me: “This is just the beginning of the journey.”)
Leeu Estates has a lot of vineyards, of course, a few of which look to be potentially promising, and a winery under the direction of the Mullineux pair. While Mullineux wines are of course already famous, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what the Leeu range will offer. Given the rigorously tight lips of Chris and Andrea I know little about the project, but I think some have already been made and we can look forward to their release … sometime.
There’s also a splendid tasting room on Leeu Estates – at present offering, of course, only Mullineux wines, carefully, elegantly and expertly presented (it’s best to book, as crowds are not allowed and the doors are closed when the chairs and the well-informed presenters of the wines are all occupied). Rosa and I, when we called in for me to have a look, were pressed to try something, so we sampled the current Mullineux Syrah 2014: a fine wine, but this vintage just a touch too ripe and soft for my taste.
And so to lunch at the recently opened Dining Room at the hotel. It was an excellent “small plate” affair with strong influences from the spicier cuisines of the world. We shared three: Crunchy daikon rice paper rolls, green beans and Asian sabayon (R75); Moroccan-spiced fregola, tomatoes, mint and crunchy chickpeas (R75); and West Coast lamb bitterballen, baba ganoush and roasted date yoghurt (R140); and then desserts which were perhaps even more delicious and interesting. The wine list is Mullineux-heavy, and with large mark-ups on current vintages – the red single-terroir syrah 2014s go for R2400 a bottle.
While we wait to see what’s going to happen at Quartier Francais’s Tasting Room following the departure of chef Margot Janse at the end of April, it’s good to see the Leeu Collection contributing to the renaissance of fine dining in Franschhoek – while maintaining the town’s tradition of expensive luxury accommodation. And, of course, I’m eager to try the Leeu wines to come: will they be of Franschhoek origin, I wonder – even in part? I asked one of the lions, but it just stared back at me, holding its secrets as well as does Andrea Mullineux.