Lunch with Luke O’Cuinneagain of Glenelly Estate
2014 was a busy year that wouldn’t let up, even as it was drawing to a close. Hence my disappointment that I couldn’t get to Glenelly in Stellenbosch to meet winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain before I headed out of the office for the summer break – for being with winemakers on their home turf is always the highlight of my month. Luckily, Luke, who has roots in Constantia vineyards, offered to meet me for the year’s last winemaker’s lunch at the new Carne restaurant in Constantia. Why Luke? Besides the fact that we are featuring the Glenelly Glass Collection Syrah 2011 in this month’s selection, Luke is a winemaker who brings together the best of international experience and influences with local know-how, starting with Glenelly, which is owned by May de Lencquesaing, who was the French owner of a famous Pauillac Grand Cru Classé property in Bordeaux.
Luke is one of a number of old Rondebosch boys who have become well-known winemakers (others include Duncan Savage of Cape Point, Peter Allan Finlayson, Carl van der Merwe of De Morgenzon and David Van Niekerk of High Constantia). Luke came into wine accidentally. After registering at Stellenbosch University to study Veterinary Science, he worked at Constantia Uitsig on weekends and holidays, and the enthusiasm and encouragement from then winemaker Andre Badenhorst convinced him to switch to oenology and viticulture. A lucky break and good timing created a gap to assist Andre’s son Adi at Rustenberg. It was Adi who insisted that Luke travel internationally, which fortuitously led to a stint at cult Napa Valley winery Screaming Eagle, as well as other harvests in Bordeaux. His experience and perseverance led to his securing the role of winemaker at Glenelly in 2007. Part of his initiation involved Madame de Lencquesaing opening up a bottle of wine she wanted him to aspire to and use as a reference when making wines for Glenelly. Expecting a bottle of Bordeaux from one of the great vintages of 1947 or 1961, he was blown away when she opened a Lafite Rothschild 1873.
The challenge of this high benchmark forced Luke to raise his game, which based on his track record, he is well on his way to achieving. The recently opened Carne was a great choice for Luke to show off his Shiraz, but before we got to it, we tasted the Grand Vin Chardonnay 2013 he’d brought along, which showed beautiful balance, retaining freshness while at the same time reflecting the richness from barrel fermentation. It lubricated our conversation until the main course of rib eye and sirloin was served, along with the delicious Shiraz.
What makes Glenelly’s terroir so special? Luke says the answer is threefold. First, the soil is extremely old and weathered. Second, a large aspect of the estate is east facing, which means it gets the gentler morning sun. Lastly, no vines were previously planted on the estate, so the proprietors could plant what they wanted where they wanted, and were able to work with clean virus-free soil.
We could have spoken for hours but with the year quickly ticking by, it was time to wish each other a happy festive season. I left, knowing that another great Cape property is in solid hands.
LUKE IN A NUTSHELL
What do you enjoy most about winemaking and why?
The work is not sterile; there is always something different. And, it allows your creative side to be expressed. The phrase ‘winemaking is both a science and an art form’ may be cliché, but it is true. This is rarely achieved in the workplace.
Any interesting/amusing anecdotes during your winemaking career?
When I worked at Rustenburg, I often transported barrels from the one cellar near Somerset West to the Rustenburg main cellar by stacking five barrels on the roof racks of my Toyota Conquest. One day I placed a pipe from the barrel down into the car and pretended to drink. It caused quite a stir at the traffic lights.
Your winemaking philosophy?
Keep everything simple. Let the wine, environment and soil express themselves. Balance is key. Remember that wine is a living entity, which is why I don’t like the term wine ‘industry’. It implies that wine is manufactured.
The Glenelly philosophy?
Natural wines with elegance, length, individuality, balance, age-ability and expression of origin.
How do you feel about the SA wine industry’s present standing & future on the international market and why?
We should have greater recognition. People forget that we have been producing wines in the Cape before the Medoc was planted in Bordeaux. I think the fact that there are limited old vintage South African wines cellared correctly has held the sector back.
Your favourite white and red wines – to make and why?
Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – I enjoy drinking them and they are challenging to make.