Madame de Lencquesaing brings her charm and wisdom to SA

Monday, 5 April, 2004
Tessa de Kock for Nederburg
'Show your soil and the elements in your wines and respect the message that each vintage brings'
Her skin ‘hates the sun’ says May Eliane de Lencquesaing, the keynote speaker at last week’s Auction of Rare Cape Wines at Nederburg. Attributing its sensitivity to her ancestry that includes English and Irish blood, she never emerges outdoors unless fully shielded. Whether that is the reason for her youthful appearance or her indefatigability that has her working ‘day and night and week-ends also’, is hard to determine. Whatever it is, she looks vastly younger than her reputed age.

The owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, one of the most prominent estates in the Médoc, and past president of the International Wine & Spirit Competition, who has been extensively acclaimed in her own country as well as by the international wine fraternity, travels regularly to the Cape, and has been doing so for 16 years. But the frequency has been stepped up to once a month since her acquisition of the 126 ha Glenelly farm that ‘shares the Simonsberg Mountain with Rustenberg’.

She comes either with her son Hugh, who will have responsibility for the new farm, her Vietnamese-born viticulturist and oenologist Thomas Dô-Chin-Nam, or her financial manager. ‘Always there are two of us.’

Glenelly, which has been planted to prunes and pears, is her first acquisition outside France. She had considered the United States, having lived there for five years, and is sad that two potential deals fell through. But if she were to make an investment there it would be in Washington State. She would never consider California. ‘Why in California do they plant in the Napa Valley? I don’t like wines made in hot climates. They give you big fruit but not enough complexity.’

She looked to the Cape because of its ideal climate and was drawn to ‘the beautiful history of more than 300 years of wine, some up and some down but a very long time’. She was also assured by the growing economic and political stability and the evidence of constantly improving wines. In the nine years since the inception of the International Wine & Spirit Competition trophy for the best blended red that bears the name of her famous château, it has been won four times by South Africa.

‘It is also easy to travel here. I leave at night, sleep on the plane and am ready to start in the morning because there is no jet lag.’

Stellenbosch was her first choice. ‘I wanted to be where there is history. That is very important to me. I love history and archeology and I love to look back. But forward also, of course. I started looking in Stellenbosch two years ago but had to wait to find the right property. Mostly they were already planted to vines but not the right way, and I would have had to uproot them all. That would have been a terrible waste of money. So I preferred to look for a farm without vineyards.’

She announced her find early this year and has retained the staff on the farm, including the manager, Heinrich Louw, who studied viticulture and had always dreamed of managing a wine farm.

‘Because I am respectful of history, I will keep the name Glenelly for the wines we make here but perhaps for our top wine, a Bordeaux blend, we will call it Lalande du Cap. My grandson, Nicolas has suggested that. We cannot use De Lencquesaing. Even in France they cannot pronounce it right because it is a Belgian name.’

As she speaks, Louw and his team are clearing the land and preparing the vineyards, the first of which will be planted in July. She is planning a total of 45 ha cultivated to reds, with the first 20 ha to 25 ha planted this winter and the balance next year, depending on the availability of plant material. These will comprise Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and possibly Pinotage (for its uniqueness) and the team is still deciding on Cabernet Franc.

The intention is to allocate a further 15 ha to whites and maybe another 10 ha to olives. A cellar will come later.

As it will take at least eight years before the first wines grown on Glenelly are released, she is also considering buying in grapes initially in order to produce wines earlier.

Mindful of the growing surplus to which more and more wine producing countries are contributing, she urges South Africa to develop its competitive edge at the top end of the market, making wines structured to age. ‘Just as Bordeaux is associated with the highest quality, so should the Cape be. The potential to age is the signature of great wines.

‘Of course the industry needs also to create brands. They help to build awareness but you must keep on showing the world you can make beautiful wines. Just be yourselves and don’t copy any other country. Plant on the slopes, match the plant with the terroir and concentrate on a few varieties at a time. Too many farms have too many different grape varieties. You cannot perfect what you make in that way.

‘Show your soil and the elements in your wines and respect the message that each vintage brings.

‘And be careful of not too much oak. You must drink the wine not the wood. Just like in a symphony, you do not want the wind instruments to overwhelm the strings. There must be balance.’

Advice she follows, despite being a workaholic. ‘If I’m not working, I’m reading or walking or shopping for antiques or working on my glass collection.’

Mme De Lencquesaing has over 780 glass sculptures that have been catalogued by the Louvre.