Historic wine made from Robben Island vines
Winemaking team Lewis Basjan, Sam Davids, Sam Basjan, Francois van der Merwe and Arnoldus Pietersen
Weltevrede Wine Estate had the honour of making a very significant wine for the 94th birthday of Mr Nelson Mandela. Seven years ago the dream was born when seven ancient vines were discovered in the prison garden on Robben Island. These vines grow where Mr Mandela buried his handwritten manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom in the prison garden.
Vineyard with Madiba's cell in the background
The Weltevrede Aansporingstrust, an empowerment trust of winegrowers who for generations have worked the vines and made wine on Weltevrede Estate outside Bonnievale, volunteered to be the custodians of the Robben Island vines. It was no easy task involving many early morning trips to the island, hard labour, coping with difficult weather, rough seas and ravenous birds that devoured two vintages. After three years of restoring the vineyard vintage 2012 eventually yielded a crop. The historic wine is made and the first bottle is presented as a gift to Mr Mandela for his 94th Birthday.
After more than 350 years of winemaking in South Africa, possibly one of the most remarkable wine stories of this country has not been told yet: A wine is made to tell the story of Robben Island and history is told again like a parable, an allegory; about the discovery of forgotten vines, their struggle and perseverance, a tale of relentless hope, patience, and the resulting fruit, the first wine made from the vines of Robben Island.
Jan Blaauw with first Robben Island crop
The Weltevrede Aansporingstrust
About 200 kilometers east of Cape Town, close to the village of Bonnievale, generations of families on Weltevrede Wine Estate have worked together amongst vines since 1912. In 1998 Weltevrede Wine Estate took the lead in the Robertson Valley to initiate an empowerment project, the Weltevrede Aansporingstrust which resulted in the employees of Weltevrede owning a vineyard of Pinot Noir and sharing the profits thereof. This empowerment of a different generation in a different place is a direct result of the inspirational lives of big hearted people like Mr. Nelson Mandela and others who spent years on Robben island in order to create such opportunities.
The Account of the Discovery
(from the viewpoint of the members of the Weltevrede Aansporingstrust):
During 2005 we visited Robben Island. In the Courtyard of Section B we were told of how Mr. Nelson Mandela buried the manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom in the prison garden.
“Where those vines are, right there, he buried it,” the prison guide said.
We walked over to the corner where the vines were. “Do they ever bear fruit?” we asked.
“The grapes never ripen, because no one looks after them,” was the reply.
The vines looked sick and neglected. They were old, historic and precious, but forgotten.
After crossing the sea back to Cape Town and during the two hour drive back to the vineyards of Weltevrede we discussed, “What a pity to see those historic vines like that. Imagine if we could look after them, to prune and care for them and to nurse them back to health. Who knows, maybe they will recover and then wine could even be made from them. The first wine from Robben Island. What an honour that would be.”
For years the idea remained a dormant dream until Professor Jakes Gerwel, chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and his wife, Mrs. Phoebe Gerwel, visited Weltevrede during 2008. The dream of the Robben Island vines was shared with them and they then spoke to Mr. Ahmed Kathrada. A subsequent reconnaissance trip to the island led to the discovery of seven old vines.
Robben Island is a geological outcrop of rock covered with limestone and broken shell fragments. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on all sides and ten kilometers from the coastline, this island is a barren landscape, scoured by the ocean winds of the Cape of Storms.
2009, 2010, 2011 - Long Walk to Recovery
Ernest Mfundisi repairing the Robben Island vineyard
For three years the members of the Weltevrede Aansporingstrust journeyed to the island and back on a regular basis to prune the vines, repair the trellising, manage the foliage and protect the resulting grapes. Challenges of bad weather and rough seas had to be overcome and two crops were completely devoured by the island birds. But the history of the place and the metaphor of the vines kept inspiring us to hold on to this dream.
The vintage of 2012 and the gift to Mr Mandela
At last, in the significant year of 2012 we harvested the first crop of Robben Island. 182kg of grapes were carried on board of the ferry to be shipped to mainland and then taken to the winery of Weltevrede. Immediately the grapes were counted, documented, analysed and cooled down where after the winemaking process started.
Two wines were made at Weltevrede: a sweet dessert wine, called The Parable, and a Méthode Cap Classique Brut in magnums, called The Manuscript.
Although the vines of Robben Island may only yield a few bottles of wine these may well serve to tell the world the story of our country’s healing through hardships and sacrifice of great figures. The first bottle of The Parable is presented by the Weltevrede Aansporingstrust to Mr Nelson Mandela for his 94th birthday. The Manuscript is still in the making and will be sold on international charity auctions.
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