The best travel discoveries are often unplanned and it seems the same often holds true of wine experiences. We discovered Le Lude wine farm in Franschoek by sheer luck. We had an interview lined up with Tim Hoek of Haute Cabrière and after professing our love of sparkling wine, he insisted we make a stop at Le Lude before we left the region. A quick call to his winemaker friend Paul Gerber and we were about to discover a little piece of France right in South Africa.
Le Lude sits on a beautiful property that houses the winery, tasting room, restaurant, the owners’ home, a guesthouse, vegetable garden, and a pond. The grounds are immaculate with vineyards on both sides of a long driveway lined with trees, all set amongst the backdrop of the Franschoek mountains. We stepped into the tasting room and were instantly transported to a wine lounge in France complete with classic dining chairs and tables, comfortable leather couches, wooden parquet flooring, velvet drapes, and two large chandeliers.
Connected to the tasting room is Orangerie restaurant which is designed in perfect complement with its black and white checked floor, white tables with white wicker chairs, and large open windows overlooking the estate. As an Edith Piaf torch ballad played in the background, we were handed two glasses of their Brut Sparkling Wine and invited to explore the grounds at our leisure before we met with Paul.
Just beyond the tasting room and restaurant is the magnificent home of the owners Nic and Ferda Barrow. Nic is an attorney who has owned and run several hotel and property developments and Ferda studied and taught accounting while developing her passion for cooking. It is her handiwork behind the vegetable garden at Le Lude where fresh, seasonal ingredients are grown for Orangerie. The winery truly is a family affair with both of their daughters also being heavily involved. Olga is an interior designer who is responsible for the gorgeous décor and Nicoline is the resident Executive Chef. But don’t think nepotism has given way to quality. Nicolene earned her culinary chops training in Europe, including a stint at Le Gavroche in London, and is a member of the exclusive international gastronomic society La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.
We continued our exploration of the estate and headed to the pond where the appropriately named Lily Pond House stands. The 2-bedroom guesthouse is perfectly situated far enough from the main building to ensure privacy, but close enough in walking distance should you run low on sparkling wines. We wandered back to the winery and toured the winemaking space before settling down in the tasting room for our interview.
Given our appointment was made just an hour prior, winemaker Paul Gerber could not have been more accommodating or friendly. His warmth made us feel instantly welcome and we quickly delved deep into conversation about what was happening at the winery. Le Lude is relatively young with its first harvest taking place in 2012 and they produce just 10,000 cases of wine per year. Eventually they’ll probably max out at about 16,000 cases which is purposeful as they want to remain a boutique winery. Le Lude makes exclusively sparkling wine which is done in the Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) style. This is the same as Méthode Champenoise, meaning the wine requires a second fermentation in the bottle.
Paul found his way into wine via an unusual route although his passion for wine was ignited early in life by his father who used to take wine courses and was involved in a tasting club, “It initially was always something that was in the background but flavours and food have always interested me.” He originally became a math teacher but felt that he’d gone as far as he could go with that profession. When Paul discovered sparkling wine, he was hooked. He returned to the University of Stellenbosch to get his degree in Oenology and Viticulture and specialized in the process behind making sparkling wine. The chemistry component brought out his inner mathematician and now he’s a self-described “Alchemist of Bubbles”. His passion for this style of wine is palpable as he relates to us how he still visits Champagne annually to ensure he’s staying current on what’s happening in the place that inspires him daily.
Despite the influence of Champagne, Paul believes in being true to South Africa’s terroir first, “I’m looking for subtle elegance in the wine. In South Africa we have the sun and the fruit and you should taste it. That’s typically what South African wines should be—it doesn’t mean the wine can’t be elegant but you should taste a riper flavour profile. When you arrive in Champagne you have more of that yeastiness, lime, and salinity. Here you have some of that, but you have bigger, fuller, lemon cream kind of flavours, which speaks to what the terroir gives us here.”
He adds that the human element of Terroir is often underestimated with respect to the impact or interpretation of it. “Terroir is so complex particularly if you consider our individual philosophies and how each person thinks. If the three of us walked outside right now to look at a piece of land, we’re each going to see different things through our individual filters.”
Part way through the interview, Paul introduces us to his Assistant Winemaker Emma Bruwer. Her winemaking roots come by her honestly as she grew up on a wine farm. Her father owns Springfield Winery, one of the top producers of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa. Emma originally intended to become a Veterinarian, but her studies at the University of Stellenbosch made her realize that winemaking came far more naturally to her and is where her true passion lies.
Paul and Emma make a formidable team and together they continue to tell us about the wines at Le Lude. The Brut wines are generally a ratio of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Almost the reverse is true for the Rosé, with a higher ratio of Pinot Noir, just enough to “carry it” as Paul says. The red wine component is done in a Beaujolais style, meaning a nice cool ferment and only enough contact with the skins to extract colour.
As Paul describes the struggle with less acidity in a warm climate, he tries to describe the balance between silkiness and character. “The wine should have enough vigor to get your attention but once you start to think about it, that expression must be moving on, almost like an ethereal experience.” Without skipping a beat, Emma leans in and sums up this sentiment perfectly by stating, “the wine needs purpose in the palate.”
Le Lude holds the distinction of being the first winery in South Africa to produce the artisanal Agrafe bottle fermented sparkling wine. Agrafe (Tirage Liège) is the same process as MCC except the wine is in contact with the cork for a longer period of time largely for the purpose of adding aroma and texture to the wine. The tradition in Champagne is to bottle ferment under metal cap, disgorge (remove the spent yeasts), and then put a fresh cork in. Agrafe means ‘staple’ in French and you can instantly spot these wines as they use a large staple to hold the cork in rather than the crown cap used for other Sparkling Wines. The Agrafe method means the wine’s entire elevage is under cork, which allows for a bit more air transfer causing more character development in the resulting finished wine.
Paul points out that Sparkling Wine is very process driven and with that comes its own unique challenge, “it’s a wine where every small detail is magnified more than it would be for still wine. When you’re making still wine, you’re effectively making a batch of wine. But when you make sparkling wine in the traditional method you are making each bottle of wine. If someone puts in too much dosage, it’s not going into the batch, it’s going into the bottle.” Paul and Emma have certainly met the challenges with terrific results.
As wine drinkers with a fondness for Sparkling Wine, discovering Le Lude was a definite highlight for us on our first trip to the region. To find the level of quality at their pricing (see tasting notes below) is beyond rare. So much so we firmly believe Le Lude is under-charging for their wine. Quality and value aside, a big part of the enjoyment of drinking wine for us is the ambience. Outside of Champagne itself, we certainly can’t think of a better place to enjoy a wine from Le Lude than at their wine estate in Franschoek.
Le Lude NV Brut
A blend of 56% Pinot Noir and 44% Chardonnay. The wine was aged for 36 months in bottle before being disgorged and then spent another 6 months under cork before release into the market. A lovely dry sparkler that showed honey suckle, green apple and hints of toast. We even picked up something tropical, almost like plantain. Very robust mousse, this is an ideal aperitif, lively and refreshing.
Le Lude NV Rose
Light pink in colour. We get fresh strawberry and cherry with spice notes on the finish. There is good texture to this wine. Made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay into the MCC sparkling wine and then a blend of 6% Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir still wine was added to the sparkling to give its colour and add richness. Dry and zesty this has real class.
2012 Le Lude Reserve
Another step up is the 2012 vintage wine. Here the blend is focused on specially selected tanks that express their best terroir. It showed pretty notes of lemon and citrus. The palate is rich and textured and on the back end there is plenty of autolytic notes together with tastes of bruised apple. Very complex.
2012 Le Lude Reserve Agrafe – Tirage Liege
A blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir. Its entire life in bottle was under cork, no metal cap after the secondary fermentation. A wonderfully complex wine that featured apple and pear notes together with brioche, hints of honey and hazel nuts. Very dry with a wonderful combination of texture and body combined with bright, zesty acidity. Very complex. Probably the best sparkling wine that we have tasted made outside of Champagne.
Bowling Green Avenue (Lambrechts Rd) Franschhoek 7690
Tasting room & Orangerie Restaurant: +27 21 1003464