On Sunday the grande dame of the world of wine celebrated her 95th birthday. The fact that May-Eliane de Lencquesaing’s anniversary took place in Stellenbosch is only partly due to the pandemic. Her connection with the Cape goes back to the mid-19th century when her English great-great-grandfather, en route to London from the Philippines, stopped off in Table Bay. Her autobiography, now nearing completion, is structured on this symmetry: though her life in wine began in Bordeaux, Glenelly, her estate in Stellenbosch, has become its destination.
Her father and uncle owned or had shares in several of the Medoc’s most prestigious estates, including Chateaux Pichon Lalande, (which she inherited), Ducru Beaucaillou, Palmer, Siran, Dauzac and Coufran. Unfortunately her youth coincided with the worst possible time to own wine properties in France. Quoting a saying from that era she once ruefully remarked, “the more chateaux you own, the poorer you are.”
None of the buildings had electricity. Vineyard work was entirely manual and much of it was done by the family since there was little money to pay for labour. There was no grand dining: breakfast was bread without butter and most meals were farm produce – potatoes, parsnips and carrots – differently rendered.
The great Bordeaux vintages of the 1920s were 1928 and 1929. They traded at half of what had been paid for the more ordinary 1926s because the world was already in the throes of the Great Depression. First Growths sold to the trade for a little over R0-50 per bottle (calculated at today’s hugely devalued Rand exchange rate). For most of the 1930s, a catastrophic decade which produced only two drinkable vintages, the wines were sold for a pittance. The best harvest between 1930 and the end of the war was 1934. Despite an improvement in the economic outlook, it sold for a quarter the price of the 1926s.
Her teenage years were spent in Nazi-occupied Bordeaux. Her family had hidden two families of Italian Jews at Chateau Palmer, and then suddenly the Germans occupied the chateau. She was directly involved in supplying them with food and was present when her father and uncle finally facilitated their escape via the port of Bayonne to Argentina.
After the war she married Hervé de Lencquesaing, a military man who rose to the rank of general. She traveled to wherever he was posted, only returning to Bordeaux in 1978 when she inherited a by-then insolvent Chateau Pichon Lalande. The first decade of ownership was particularly difficult: she had to buy out the creditors and rebuild the reputation of the property. For years there was no money for any luxuries – not even central heating. The Bordeaux trade was chauvinistic, and at times misogynistic. Everything possible was done to undermine her efforts.
By the second half of the 1980s she had brought Pichon to the level of a “Supersecond.” “Madame La Generale,” 1994 Decanter Woman of the Year, became the most visible face of the Union des Grands Crus. Hubert de Bouard, who inherited Chateau Angelus in St Emilion and raised it to the status of Premier Grand Cru Classé “A”, told me that her work ethic served as his inspiration.
She visited South Africa at my invitation in the mid-1990s and fell in love with the then “new” South Africa. In 2003 she acquired Glenelly, a fruit farm in Ida’s Valley next door to Rustenberg. A few years later she sold Pichon and began to concentrate her efforts on the next chapter of her already long life: the creation from scratch of a new estate, one she wanted to see become a New World statement in the classical tradition into which she had been born. Her grandson Nicolas recently settled with his family on the estate and is involved in the day-to-day running of the business. However, she still directs its affairs, chairing its management and board meetings with the same vision and attention to detail which transformed Pichon into a Bordeaux icon.