Madame May de Lencquesaing (left) and Wade Bales (right)
Madame May de Lencquesaing (left) and Wade Bales (right)
Image: Supplied

In an age in which brands and celebrities rise and fall faster than the ocean’s tide, what does it take to become truly timeless? There are a precious few who stay relevant precisely because they seem to care so little for relevance. Madame May de Lencquesaing is one such character - steadfastly holding onto the ancient traditions and values she was born into.

As a member of one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine families, whose place in the wine industry dates back to 1783, May had not only visited South Africa several times, but recognised the great potential to grow world-class wines here. In her own words:

“Since my childhood in the heart of Bordeaux’ finest vineyards till today, I have traveled the world and discovered the amazing diversity of terroirs. On my first visit to Stellenbosch I knew that this was where I wanted to fulfill my dream of starting a new adventure outside of France.”

And so, the energetic 78-year-old, bought Glenelly Estate in 2003, replanted the former fruit farm to pristine vineyards, built a state-of-the-art winery, a museum for her precious glass collection, a school for the children on the farm, and began producing wines to rival the best in the world.

To celebrate the unveiling of the farms Flagship, the Lady May 2012, I was invited to a grape tasting in the vineyard with viticulturist Heinrich Louw, followed by a vertical tasting of the Lady May in the barrel cellar conducted by the articulate Luke O’Cuinneagain who has been Glenelly’s winemaker for 10 years and was responsible for the first wine released in 2008. 

A Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend, this latest vintage lives up to its predecessor's high standards – scoring 95 points in Tim Atkins authoritative report. But tasting the wine itself would prove to pale in comparison to meeting its unforgettable namesake.

Glenelly Lady May 2012
Glenelly Lady May 2012
Image: Supplied

On our way to lunch at The Vine Bistro, Madame May de Lencquesaing suddenly appeared and the bustling room fell quiet. Having heard and read about Madame May, nothing could have prepared me for meeting her in person.

A sage with wisdom well beyond her 93 years, she somehow manages to also exude the passion and energy of a women 25 years her junior. Sharing with us her love of glass, she spoke of the common connection between wine and glass being the soil… Whilst glass is made from sand and can be transformed into beautiful art, the same can be said of great wine which originates from often the poorest of soils. Referring to the great glassmaking masters as old friends, it was clear that strong, abiding relationships have played a central role in her life. 

Now in her tenth decade, with ten grandchildren and ten great grandchildren to match, she remains a considerable force of nature.

I would like to believe her next 10 years will prove more impactful on South African wine than her extraordinary achievements of the last decade.

Wade Bales is the Founder of Wade Bales Fine Wines & Spirits: wadebales.co.za

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