“A mountain of tedious pretention” is not the comment of a dyspeptic wine critic on the attempts of the Simonsberg ward of Stellenbosch to promote itself as the heart of fine winemaking in SA (which it is), but rather a French review of Federico Fellini’s La città delle donne (City of Women) at the 33rd Cannes Film Festival in 1980, immortalized in Wikipedia.
In spite of being named after Governor of the Cape Simon van der Stel (urban legend insists it looks like a rather fat Si lying on his back after a couple of bottles of Tassenberg) the Simonsberg is Ground Zero for the feminine imperative in SA winemaking as it is home to a trio of Amazons: May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, Norma Ratcliffe and Anne Cointreau. One of the pioneers of SA wine, Ansela van de Caab, farmed on the Simonsberg and made wine at Muratie at the end of the 17th century. But naming the mountain after Simon’s wife Constance wouldn’t have worked as it would have caused confusion with that other bastion of female winemaking – the Constantia Valley – and complaints from Catherina Ustings (rumoured mistress of Si) at Steenberg. Although it would have been fun watching today’s crop of Stellenbosch marketers try to deal with producers located on a Conberg.
The internationally best known Simonsberg She is May, octogenarian former châtelaine of super second growth Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, somewhat more prosaically referred to as madam hier langsaan (madam next door) by the volk (farm labourers) of Ida’s Valley. May cashed in at the top of the last economic cycle, selling a majority interest in her Bordeaux estates to the Rouzaud family of Louis Roederer fame, purveyors of Cristal bubbly to gangs of rap artistes.
May bought a 123ha farm (310ha according to Wine Spectator magazine, confusing their hectares with acres) Glenelly in 2003, next door to South African wine royalty, Simon Barlow at Rustenberg. Although Glenelly may sound like a single malt whisky, the mountainous nature of the terrain makes the establishment of a golf links most unlikely, as does 60ha (57ha according to the Platter sighted wine guide) of immaculate vineyards laid out by Pichon enologist Thomas Do-Chi-Nam “after a precise terroir study”. Besides, May looked more polo-style plutocrat then golf grandee as she sat on the first floor stoep (verandah) of her all-singing, all-dancing cellar on her first open day, the day after Bastille Day, when the Good Value Guru and I stopped by.
The brash, bold winery (“contemporary” according to the French Chamber of Commerce website) was designed by a team of four architects: two Swiss, one French and one local. Which may sound like the start of a joke but the chunky concept matches the mountains in a Le Corbusier-kind of way while the acres of glass windows provide excellent vignettes onto Ida’s Valley cowering below the behemoth. “Wait until the trees grow” apologized May “we’re in winter now.”
Three vintages of a red blend Glenelly Hill were shown to the steady stream of lookie-loos who had accepted Madame’s public invitation to get up close and personal with her winery: ’03, ’04 and ’06 all made from bought-in grapes at controversial Johannesburg financial mogul Dave King’s Quoin Rock cellar further along the Simonsberg.
Our favourite was the ’06 while a cellar tour revealed several stainless steel tanks full of ’09 with barrels of ’08 maturing quietly on level -2. Next to a set from the movie Cocoon – May’s blue lit back-to-the-future private cellar – racks of Ch. Pichon on the left, local stocks (Beyerskloof a favourite) on the right. Our pourer related that ’08 will be the first vintage produced from grapes grown exclusively on the farm. Expect a variation on a traditional Bordeaux theme of Cabernet and Merlot as there was Shiraz in the ’04 and even Pinotage in ’03. Winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain reports he is especially convinced by Petit Verdot and has persuaded Madame to release a small quantity (2000 bottles) separately.
An industrial stainless steel lift servicing three floors gives the winery the feel of a high-tech hospital, although a profusion of local art by 25-year old Cape Town artist Vicky Sanders does chirp up the fearsomely functional cellar nearly as much as the designer blue chemise worn by winemaker Cool-Hand Luke, which matches his laser blue eyes, to a T. Not all the art is local: medieval French tapestries, glass sculptures, colour-field blobs and colourful cartoons of hometown Bordeaux give the facility an eclectic air.
May’s art collection continues the popular tradition of Tasting Room as Trojan Horse for farts (Fine Art). The fart galleries of Woodstock (Linda Goodman owned by latter day Lorenzo the Magnificent Jonathan Beare, Brendan Bell-Roberts, Michael Stevenson et. al) are hopelessly too grob for monied art lovers and the wine served at their openings is usually dire dora indeed. But then May herself does look like Peggy Guggenheim in red, albeit with a more elegant nose.
On the local scene, the best known lady of wine is the pioneer of Warwick, Canadian-born Norma, who celebrated a quarter of a century making the stuff at the Vineyard Hotel in Claremont earlier this year. The venue was most appropriate as the hotel started out as the country home of Lady Anne Barnard, one of the heroic pioneer ladies of the Cape.
Her 18th century vineyard has been revived along the stream at the bottom of the hotel’s lush lawns and made the venue doubly suitable. As an aside, I was surprised to note that LAB was a pioneer of interior design. The wonderful Aesthete’s Lament blog reports that “Lady Anne Barnard … and her sister [Lady Margaret Fordyce, later Lady Lamb] broke all the rules when they actually started their own ‘business’ [out of their shared Adam-style house at 21 Berkeley Square, London]. Short of money and with a natural talent for interior decoration, they took to buying or renting houses, doing them up, and letting them furnished for a considerable profit. One or two people had the bravery to see that this was an excellent idea, but others took the view of the lady who complained that ’she wished to God those two very agreeable women would leave off being upholsterers and begin to be women of fashion [again].’”
Norma was MC’d by her son Warwick MD Mike who held up a bottle of her maiden vintage noting “the only thing wrong with this wine is that we misspelled the name.” But then I can never remember whether her surname is Ratcliff or Ratcliffe and always have to check. The wine in question was La Femme Bleu, a 1984 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.
Norma has always been in the vanguard of wine fashion and the spelling mistake, like printing errors on stamps, makes her wine and its label all the more collectable. Of course if they’d called it La Femme en Bleu, the bleu wouldn’t have needed a trailing “e” as Picasso noted when he painted La Femme en Bleu au Beret a century ago. His great rival Matisse did a Femme Bleue although there’s much more than an “e” difference between the two paintings.
Norma’s first vintage was actually a decade earlier. “In 1974 we copied Rustenberg and made a Cinsault/Cabernet blend. The wine was stunning but we decided to go the Bordeaux route and the 1984 Femme Bleu was aged in 100% new French oak at the exorbitant price of R184 a barrel.” When I asked my neighbour Adi Badenhorst, former winemaker at Rustenberg, what I should re-plant on Lemoenfontein (my Paardeberg conflict of interest – not!) quick as a flash he answered “Cinsault”.
Colour coded ladies were much on the mind of another artist, Denton Welch, in Maiden Voyage (Reader’s Union, 1945). Recalling the Shanghai nightclubs of his youth a century ago, he remembered “a middle-aged woman dressed all in green. On the table in front of her stood a glass of crème de menthe and she held a green cigarette between her lips.” He commented on her to his beefy dancing partner, who replied “Isn’t she killing! I’ve seen her here in red velvet, sipping cherry brandy and smoking a rose-coloured cigarette. Tonight she’s all in green. She always has everything to match.” “What does she drink when she wants to go blue?” “I don’t know, unless it’s methylated spirits!”
Norma follows in the illustrious footsteps of another Simonsberg She: Ansela. A freed slave, Ansela was wife to 17th century Prussian immigrant Lourens Campher who was granted een zeker stuk land genaamd De Driesprong gelegen onder de Stellenbosch in 1699 by governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel, son of Si. Today De Driesprong is called Muratie, a corruption of murasie or ruin, referring to Ansela’s original single room house, an annex to a stable and chicken run and one of the oldest buildings in Stellenbosch. “The horses had the best accommodation” explains present incumbent Muratie matriarch Annatjie Melck, “as they were the most important.”
The most recent bee in Annatjie’s bonnet is restoring Ansela’s original homestead. The plan calls for the preservation of the cobbled floor, fireplace and wooden ceiling with the odd Persian carpet added for a splash of luxury and colour. Original mud brickwork to be exposed and the external integrity of the structure faithfully preserved. Restoring the historic house of Ansela after three centuries is architectural karma and another memorial for a unique lady who is commemorated in the estate’s flagship blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
SA takes its women winemakers so seriously, there is even a Landbouweekblad SA Woman Winemaker of the Year Competition. The 2009 verylongnamedcompetition award went to Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker at Stellakaya who operates from a winery at Bosman’s Crossing in the shadow of the Simonsberg.
First prize in the competition is “a pamper package from the Lanzerac Wellness Centre and Spa to the value of R1000” which may just be enough to send feminist blood pressure off the scale, but then the winner also does receive “an all expenses paid trip to the winemaking region of Bordeaux, valued at R30 000.”
If Ntsiki times it well, she can visit May at Pichon with a side trip up to champagne, to Gosset, one of the oldest houses, owned by the family of Anne whose day job is running her Morgenhof estate on the Simonsberg. Morgenhof is a fairytale venue for weddings while its Fantail range of value-for-money wines are some of the best deals in town.
Of paticular interest from a family point of view but also makes one realise how far wine making goes back in the Cape’s history.
Please can you tell me if the photograph of Simonsberg mountain is copyyright as I would like to paint it in watercolour.
hey luke! haven’t seen you since school days. glad to see you’re in the wine biz. good luck with the wedding in december too. =]