Robben Island vines an allegory of fortitude and rebirth
This month marks what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. For wine maker Philip Jonker, it’s also an opportunity to share the story of a special wine he made for the former president six years ago.
"My wife, Lindelize, and I went to Robben Island for the tour and we saw the vines," he recalls. "They looked old; not from the 18th or 19th century but perhaps 50 or 60 years ago. I realised that everything else — the garden, the fruit trees — was dead. The only things living were the vines. One of them was dead and if nobody was going to look after the rest, they would die as well. And I thought that for future generations we had to look after them."
At that moment the dream was born there but little did he know that it would take seven years before he would untangle all the red tape to get involved. And even when he had the go-ahead, there were more challenges ahead.
"We tried to find out the specific white varietal but couldn’t get a good answer," Jonker says.
"Initially there was no crop because the vines were never pruned. So when we started restoring them, we cut into and removed a lot of old wood. And then they started bearing fruit again. The first year produced 94 bunches, which we thought was significant because of the year 1994. In the second year it was 200 or 300 bunches."
Jonker used the 2012 vintage to make a base wine for cap classique, which he wanted to call The Manuscript because those vines were where Mandela hid his handwritten manuscript for Long Walk to Freedom. But he wasn’t happy with the results and never pursued that idea. Instead, he made 17 bottles of a fortified wine called The Parable.
"We’d long thought of making something for Mr Mandela but he was already old and frail and not interacting with the public anymore," he says. "He was at his home in Qunu and we were worried that we might run out of time. But we managed to give him a bottle for his 94th birthday in a wooden box with a lid made from original Robben Island prison fencing. Another bottle went to [academic and anti-apartheid activist] Prof Jakes Gerwel, one bottle was sent to [Barack] Obama … and the rest we still have."
Although Mandela was never a man fond of wine, when he did drink it he preferred it sweet. This influenced Jonker’s decision to make a fortified wine, which he believes Mandela enjoyed before he passed away the following year.
Nevertheless, he considers it a privilege to have been given the opportunity to honour an icon in this way and is proud to remain custodian of the Robben Island vines, which are pruned (but not always harvested) every year.
"That was part of the whole story of that wine," he says. "It’s rooted in a shoal bed of black mussel shells with no irrigation and no one looking after it, so they must be deeply rooted because they still grow vigorously. It’s surrounded by oceanic winds and even when Cape Town doesn’t get rain, it survives. To me that was a great parallel or allegory of the struggle, with the vines still producing a crop after being neglected for many years."
The Parable isn’t the only wine Jonker makes with a fascinating story behind it. In Bonnivale, a small town in the Western Cape, he produces two cap classiques at Weltevrede, the estate his great-grandfather named in 1912 because he was "well-satisfied" with the land.
Entheos, a blend of 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir made every year, is the Greek word for full of God and the root of the word enthusiasm, making it the perfect bubbly to enjoy when you kick off your shoes at the end of the day.
And The Ring, a blanc de blanc (100% chardonnay) made in selected vintages, is named after the proposal to his wife of almost 22 years under an old oak tree in the Karoo.
"The story’s on the back label so we get lots of people telling us they read it aloud on their wedding day," he says.
"Once I was at a wine show in Europe and a guy came up to me and said he knew me. He turned to his friend and told him that I was the guy who made the wine for his wedding and popped the first cork under an old oak tree in a canoe. I laughed and wanted to correct him but I didn’t want to spoil the picture."