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Part 5 of the Stellenbosch Series: A French Adventure on African Soil: Glenelly Estate

For our fifth installment in the series on Stellenbosch, South Africa, we move back to the southern slopes of Simonsberg Mountain and the wines of Glenelly.  This farm is actually very close to another we previously highlighted, Thelema Mountain Vineyards. Cellar1_low(you can read about that here).  Glenelly is one of the farms that spurred our interest in doing this series of in-depth reviews on the area, as we had tried their wines at the Newport Wine and Food Festival last year and were very impressed.  Their Lady May Cabernet made our Top Ten Red List from the event (see that here) and really reinforced our positive impression of South African wines.  This current experience has certainly confirmed that impression.

A French adventure on African soil

Located on the southern slopes of the Simonsberg, Glenelly is owned by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, a fixture in Bordeaux and former owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a classified Second Growth in Pauillac.   Struck by the tremendous potential of South Africa’s terroir and the beauty of the country, Madame de Lencquesaing decided to embark on a French adventure on African soil. She purchased Glenelly in 2003, and subsequently planted 66 of the property’s 128 hectares to vineyards. The first estate-grown fruit came on line in 2007, and Glenelly’s state-of-the-art winery building was completed in 2009. The wines are fermented naturally and made with as little intervention as possible, seeking to achieve the perfect balance of French style and South African terroir.

Glenelly’s location is Stellenbosch is shown below.

 Glenelly Picture

 

It can be interesting to draw parallels between the wine region of South Africa and the wine region of Bordeaux, especially since this winery is owned by a leader in the Bordeaux wine industry for so many years.

Both are located in a temperate region. As with the Medoc of Bordeaux, the Cape vineyards are located between two bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean, it thus enjoys a microclimate conducive to good grape ripening. These vineyards are planted on mountain slopes such as in Stellenbosch, sometimes in valleys like Franschoek or on plateaux as in Paarl.  The local variations caused by this topology may be comparable to those that exist in Bordeaux between the regions of St Emilion, Pomerol, Graves and the Medoc.  Temperatures here are, however, more Mediterranean.

This estate location was handpicked by Mme de Lencquesaing in every way.  In her words “I looked for a farm – free of viruses and with a great terroir – poor and well-drained soil types such as the decomposed granite we have on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountains, not forgetting about ample dams to ensure sufficient water supply and slope variations to expose and optimise full maturity for each variety to be planted.  Glenelly was perfect – the full arena and I immediately fell in love with the farm.”  Clearly this is not an accidental, coincidental or just convenient location.  This is THE location.

Vineyards16_lowAfter conducting exhaustive studies of Glenelly’s terroir, Mme de Lencquesaing planted the 316 acre property to 148 acres of red varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) and 15 acres of Chardonnay. Glenelly’s soils are primarily decomposed granite with a deep clay base. While most Stellenbosch vineyards are planted on western facing slopes, Glenelly is blessed with a range of aspects and sun exposures, including a high percentage of cooler eastern-facing slopes.

The parcels of Cabernet Franc are newly planted, but they are on one of their best slopes and they hope for great things, perhaps a ‘right bank’ blend with Merlot as in Pomerol or parts of Saint Emilion.  After trying several other South African Cabernet Francs we hope they make a 100% version, or close to it – a Cab Franc dominated wine such as Chateau Cheval Blanc.

Winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain joined Glenelly in 2007 — the year the first estate fruit came on line — after five years at neighboring Rustenberg Estate. Luke has also worked abroad at such prestigious wineries as Screaming Eagle and Château Angelus. Maverick winemaker Adi Badenhorst, also formerly of Rustenberg, serves as a consultant.

In 2009, construction was completed on Glenelly’s winery building, a state-of-the-art facility anchored in a hillside and operatingWinery3_low completely on gravity flow principles. The modern, four-level structure – developed with extreme sensitivity to the environment – was hailed by Platter’s South African Wine Guide as a “victory for environmentalism.”  You can appreciate that when looking at the building, as it seems like a natural outcropping of the hillside and melts into the land surrounding it.

Glenelly’s wines are fermented naturally and made with as little intervention as possible, seeking to achieve the perfect balance of French style and South African terroir.  They do actively work the wines during fermentation and aging, with pump-overs and racking.  It’s a balance here.

From the entry level “Glass Collection” — inspired by Mme de Lencquesaing’s antique glass collection — to the “Grand Vin de Glenelly” signature red blend and the flagship Bordeaux-inspired “Lady May” Cabernet, Glenelly crafts inspiring wines that possess quality, complexity and elegance while remaining a true expression of their vintage and terroir.

Here are some fast facts on the farm:

ESTABLISHED: 2003

OWNERSHIP:May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, Bordeaux doyenne and former owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande

WINEMAKER: Luke O’Cuinneagain, with Adi Badenhorst as consultant

LOCATION: Southern slopes of the Simonsberg mountain in Stellenbosch

SOIL TYPE: Oakleaf (Decomposed granite with a deep clay base)

SIZE OF ESTATE: 316 acres, with 163 acres under vine

WINES IMPORTED:

Glass Collection Chardonnay,

Glass Collection Cabernet

Grand Vin de Chardonnay

Grand Vin de Glenelly (Red Blend)

Glenelly Lady May (Red Blend – Cabernet Sauvignon)

The Wines

We have four of Glenelly’s wines for this review, two reds and two whites.  While distributed in Rhode Island you’ll once again have to search around to find them.  Glenelly is distributed in the US by Cape Classics, and you can check out their website here: http://www.capeclassics.com/.  They have a wide portfolio of South African wines.IMG_1057 - Copy

Mme de Lencquesaing was extremely gracious in taking the time to answer some questions about what she is trying to accomplish with the viticulture at Glenelly.  Clearly her history is traditional French, with her flagship estates in Bordeaux and deep understanding of the terroir of French wine styles from the Left Bank to the Rhone, and everything in between.  Those appear to make up the foundation of the wine making approach, tempered and molded by what the unique terroir of the soils and micro-climate of the vineyards at Glenelly can provide.  They are still finding out what the best might be.  That’s exciting, because the current wines are pretty excellent already.  We think it’s best to hear a little directly from Mme as to where Glenelly is going.  When asked about the French tradition underpinning their wines Mme replied:

“I would not say that we specifically set a mandate to make wines in the French style.  What we wanted to achieve was to start by making wines which displayed a lot of elegance, finesse and freshness. We were not looking for wines which were heavy. With my background, and that of my Winemaker, we naturally gravitated towards those styles. One of the important side notes to this is the fact that with not having a history of planting vineyards on Glenelly, the past years have been a journey of discovery to see the quality of the fruit and style which the various blocks deliver. A philosophy which both I and Luke share is that the wine must express both the circumstances of the site as well as that of the vintage. It is one of the fundamentals which we believe is critical in winemaking. So it is this combination which may have lead us to more French style wines.”

About the Chardonnays, in which we had compared the Glenelly Glass Cardonnay to a Chablis:

“I love the fact that Chardonnay can display such varied styles. I agree about the Chablis (especially when the wine gets a little age).  It is magnificent. I don’t think this style of Chardonnay gets given enough credit, the freshness and flavor profile is fantastic. The Grand Vin is more serious and makes me think in the line of a Meursault.  Again, aging adds great value to the wine. The key I feel is the freshness which it displays, yet, it still has wonderful texture and elegance. This is a great food wine.  All great wines need to have the correct balance so that they can be paired with various foods and work in harmony. ”

And with regard to the Grand Vin red:

“The Grand Vin red displays tones from the left bank.  It pays homage back to the classic style claret which was produced in the 1700 when the Bordelais used to Hermitage their wines by adding some Syrah in to the blend which they got from the northern Rhone or Morocco or Algeria. A modern example of this is Chateau Palmer. They are producing the Palmer Historical which has some Syrah blended with their traditional blend. What we have found with the Blend is that it requires aging for a longer period so that the Syrah is less dominant and that the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot can come to the fore and express themselves – this is why it is a bit old as a vintage.”

Here are our tasting notes on the Glenelly wines we opened.  We have previously tried the Lady May Cabernet Sauvignon as well, and that is a very excellent wine. You can read our review of it by clicking here.

2012 Glenelly Glass Collection Chardonnay  the Chardonnays are relatively recent additions, and they produce two.  This one is not oaked, and comes from vineyards with more eastern facing slopes, allowing for somewhat cooler temperatures and moreIMG_1059 even, slower ripening of the fruit.  Grapes are all handpicked and hand sorted.  Some grapes were  whole bunch pressed, with the remainder lightly crushed prior to pressing.   Fermented in stainless using wild yeast, the wine was left on the lees in tank for six months.  Here’s what we think:

This wine is very light straw with a definite green tinge.  There’s melon and grapefruit on the nose.  It’s quite rich actually, and at first sip you might immediately (and incorrectly) think oak because it is not just a crisp, fruity unoaked chard, but it has weight and texture.  There’s something else going on here, and that’s the six months on the lees talking.  The acid keeps it fresh, and almost tart.  There’s more citrus on the end.  Good length rounds out a clean finish.  This is quite complex.  $19.99 suggested retail. 

2012 Glenelly Grand Vin Chardonnay –  here’s the other Chardonnay, and this one does see oak.  The wine comes from the same general vineyard areas as the Glass version above.  Here, however, all the grapes were whole bunch pressed and transferred to 500 liter French oak barrels.  It was naturally fermented and aged in barrel for 10 months.  It also spent seven months on the IMG_1058lees.  Good things should be expected given that combination of techniques, or at least something very interesting.  Notes follow:

This is a beautiful golden color, bright and brilliant.  There is oak here, and the creaminess from all that time on the lees.  It’s got a rich texture.  There is a noticeable minerality in this wine.  Fruits include apple and pear.  There is a citrus hint as well.  At the end you get more vanilla.  Wait until you finish your first glass and then take a big whiff and the vanilla comes screaming out at you.  This is pretty darn good.  I really liked it.  The Cotes du Beaune’s got nothing on this wine.  Suggested retail of $27.99.  Definitely something the white Burgundy lover should try.

2011 Glenelly Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignonin 2011 warm, dry conditions resulted in very high quality fruit.  Berry size was smaller than usual, resulting in intense, concentrated flavor.  After crushing natural fermentation occurred in IMG_1060stainless tanks, and then the wine was left on the skins for three weeks.  After a gentle pressing the wine was transferred to French oak, and was aged 12 months in barrel.  This wine has been clarified (using egg whites).   What did we think?

This is deep ruby red, with a nose of dark fruit, currants, smoky oak and herbal notes.  It’s just shy of full bodied, with deep, dark fruits on the palate.  The oak is not prominent.  There is good length to this, and the tannins are dusty but firm, framing the fruit nicely.  It’s really very good, and that impression continued to grow the longer we sipped.  With a suggested retail price of $19.99, this is a great wine to bring to a dinner party.  It’s something different, and something good.  We are buying more of this.  Value List wine for sure.

2008 Glenelly Grand Vin de Glenellythis is a blend of 40% Shiraz, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot and 7% Merlot.  Here the grapes were lightly crushed into stainless and then left for a three day cold soak.  Natural fermentation followed, IMG_1061and then the wine stayed on the skins for an additional three weeks.  After a gentle pressing it went to French oak barrels, one third new, one third in their second season and the remainder in their third.  It stayed in oak for 18 months.  Our thoughts:

This wine is very dark purple red with a big nose dominated by savory aromas.  Can you say BACON!  Underneath are the dark fruits.  The palate is full bodied and luscious, with deep, rich flavors highlighted by dark fruits and meaty tones.  There as well was coffee ice cream.  Go figure.  It’s pretty great, very long and features fine tannins.  Beautiful wine.  Recommended price of $27.99, and a great bottle of wine at that price.  This is Value List material.

Across the board the wines of Glenelly are very high quality, and good values as well.  The French influence is clearly evident. Winery10_lowWhile the blending of Rhone and Bordeaux varietals in the Grand Vin is a bit heretical, at least for France, many winemakers around the world are combining those grapes.  And as Mme de Lencquesaing points out above, Chateau Palmer is doing it right now.  Things change.  Still, what drives someone at the top of the French wine world to move to another hemisphere, plant new vineyards and start over?

I think it was the chance to do something new, the challenge of doing something new and the possibilities she saw in Stellenbosch.

As she says:

“As we are learning about our specific Terroir, new avenues will slowly open up.  In the future – maybe new varietals or blends might appear from the estate. At this stage, we are focused on what we have, and studying the uniqueness of Glenelly.  (I refer to both the East facing slopes as well as the ancient soils which are of granitic origin.)

My philosophy about the style of wines I wish to produce?  Of course I want our wines to be South African.  The terroir and the climate is different form Bordeaux and the wines must have a character of their own.

What I keep in mind from my previous Bordeaux infused experience is to produce wines which are elegant, well balanced, with Tank_Room1_lowcontrolled alcohol content while also having potential for aging so to enable one and all to build a collection of old vintages as we do in Bordeaux – why not?”

So what has been most important to her, what comes next (we can only imagine a new vineyard and winery sometime after she becomes a centenarian!)?  What does she want for her legacy?

“I will be turning 90 in a few months and have been in charge of our family business for almost 40 years – worked all my life.  The advantage?  Meeting all kind of people (young and old) from different countries keeps you young.  Always learning and discovering something new – problems to solve and challenges to conquer.

But I think the time is right to pass on the decisions and discoveries to the younger generation.  From now on – they are taking over with their own experience and their own views.

So, for my 10 grandchildren, my 6 great grandchildren and all in the wine industry, I would like to leave a legacy of love & courage – to continue to create, to share, to respect and to educate, so that the art of wine making would impact greatly on a better quality of life for all involved and all who enjoy.”

This estate is about a woman who embraces a challenge, and who clearly thinks aging is an abstract concept for those too slow to keep up.  It’s also all about great wine, and crafting a style with traditional characteristics manifested in a uniquely South African way.  We would love to meet Mme de Lencquesaing, chat a bit over lunch and then stroll her vineyards.  Stellenbosch is fortunate to have Lady May.

To read the next installment on the wines of DeMorgenzon, click here.

To see the previous installment on Raats Family Wines click here.

A votre sante!

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