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The Legend of Lanzerac

The Legend of Lanzerac

This story first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.

? 10-minute read

Heavy with generations of memory, the grand old lady of Stellenbosch has a fascinating story to tell.

‘Where I had my first honeymoon… lived there in my youth… a haunt for 70s soul moments… it was a wineland pioneer … best cheese lunches ever’, are just some of the nostalgia-laden responses elicited by a Facebook post of Lanzerac Hotel earlier this year, from generations of devotees.

But a fire that broke out in the restaurant on May 28, 2017, nearly reduced this legend to a pile of ash. As it was, extensive damage to the reception, restaurant, bar, kitchen and offices caused only temporary closure of the hotel for a year. Upgrading had already been underway, but the fire took restoration of this heritage property to another level – with much reflection on what had been before.

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The history of Lanzerac includes all kinds of renovations

The renovations have given the Lanzerac a fresh new face that has also helped to preserve its past.

Looking Back

While on a visit to witness the repair work, just prior to the hotel’s reopening on 1 July this year, I did some reflecting too and recalled writing a story on Lanzerac. Back home, in an old, metal filing cabinet, sure enough there was a yellowing file of notes, fading photocopies, a crackly cassette tape of an interview with one-time owner David Rawdon, and a thank you letter from him dated 1993.

A few years earlier, David had sold Lanzerac to Pam Golding Properties for the princely sum of R5 million. It was subsequently bought by retail magnate Christo Wiese and was being managed by Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald of Halcyon Hotels.

Ensconced at the time in his new investment, the Marine Hotel in Hermanus, the twinkle-eyed David (a legend himself in the hospitality industry as the ‘Laird’ of Matjiesfontein, the famous Karoo hotel), showed me the four, huge ledgers in which he had carefully pasted and dated cuttings of every news item that had been written about his beloved Lanzerac, including a signed letter from Robert Kennedy, a guest back in 1966, as well as David’s typed announcement to his staff stating his reasons and sadness at selling, ‘… with conflicting feelings because Lanzerac has been my home for 31 years and open as an hotel for 30 of them’. Each staff member received a 13th cheque.

But the Lanzerac legend pre-dates Rawdon by several centuries. So sit back and share the journey…

The history of Lanzerac Wine Estate is a long and winding one

The elegantly gabled Manor House circa 1830.

The first vines were planted on Lanzerac farmland towards the end of the 18th century by Isaac Schrijver, a sergeant in the Dutch East India Company, who named the farm Schoongezicht, meaning wonderful view. Picturesque a setting it may have been, in the shadow of the Jonkershoek mountains and with newly planted vines, but the adventurous Schrijver went off to seek his fortune in copper prospecting.

His wife Anna Hoeks, daughter-in-law Maria Elizabeth Hasselaar and great-granddaughter Anna Groenewald extended the farm, and the winery flourished. It’s thought that the present-day dining room was once the cellar.

The farm changed hands a number of times, finally falling to a distant relative, Coenraad Johannes Albertyn, who sold it in 1830 to Coenraad Fick. Fick set himself up as the first lord of the manor, building among others the iconic white, gabled homestead that stands today.

Another flurry of deed transferral followed Fick’s death until along came the redoubtable Mrs English. Born in 1846 in Somerset East, Elizabeth Katherine or ‘Kitty’ Devenish fell in love with and married British diamond merchant Frederick Alexander English and the two of them lived happily in England until Frederick’s death in 1909. In 1914, presumably not a little homesick, Mrs English returned to South Africa by ship, and in 1922 bought Schoongezicht for 18 000 pounds.

The history of Lanzerac includes many owners

Painted portraits of Le Général Lanzerac, Mrs English and Professor Perold.

What’s in a Name?

Apparently to avoid confusion with the name of a neighbouring farm, she changed it to Lanzerac. Now here’s where the imagination has free reign – because Lanzerac is actually a corruption of Lanrezac, the name of a World War I French general. It’s been both mooted and disputed that Kitty and the general were romantically involved – so let’s just say she admired his courage. It’s also not clear why she switched Lanrezac to Lanzerac, perhaps a typo, poetic licence, or maybe it was just easier to say.

But Lanzerac it became, and Kitty or ‘Kitta’ went on to spend a further 50 000 pounds on improvements, fill the manor house with antiques, and plant 21 new grape varietals and modernise the cellars, producing the first wines under the Lanzerac label.

When she died in 1929, voyeurs flocked to the auction to glimpse her treasures, but there were no buyers and the estate stood empty and unused from the time of her death until 1934.

Making a Name for Itself

In her will, Mrs English demanded that Lanzerac Farm be offered to the four sons of her late brother, but none were able to purchase it and it was finally sold at a fraction of its value to Jacobus Tribelhorn – the builder who had extended the Manor House for Mrs English. Later it was taken over by winemaker Angus Buchanan, whose wines went on to become award-winners, establishing Lanzerac as a leader in the field.

The history of Lanzerac includes its reputation for good wine

Owner and winemaker Angus Buchanan helped to put Lanzerac on the map internationally with its award-winning wines.

But if we’re talking awards, David Rawdon, Buchanan’s nephew, took the biscuit. When he and his brother Graham bought Lanzerac the homestead in 1958 for R36 000, he turned every last stable, cowshed and hoekie into a bar, lounge or bedroom and, with the innate style he inherited from his mother, Marie ‘The Duchess’ Rawdon, filled them with antiques and four posters, transforming the homestead into a hotel that was repeatedly voted among the best in the world.

It was truly a passion project and his goal was to ensure that everyone who visited felt equally passionate. And they did. Rawdon’s Lanzerac was a pioneer in stylish winelands hospitality, a blueprint for so much that has followed since. In fact, so intoxicatingly welcoming was the hospitality, most especially in the warm wooded bar, that for many a Matie student from the university down the road in Stellenbosch, it became a second alma mater.

One student, who bunked lectures to work at the hotel reception, recalls the mad after-hours staff parties. She also fondly remembers Klaasie the blind switchboard operator, who knew everyone by their voice. A Mrs McGregor single-handedly made all the pudding and, with some shame, on the pretext of there being someone to meet him, she called Wilbur Smith away from the dinner table to sign her copy of When the Lion Feeds.

It should not be forgotten that, before the days of hotel schools, the kitchens in this haven of hedonism were also a training ground for chefs, among them the well-known Michael Olivier. The food, those memorable bread and cheese lunches in particular, attracted many visitors, and fresh-baked deli food and five-star cuisine remain a feature of Lanzerac restaurants.

Lanzerac’s wines were a legend themselves – not least because it was in this very place that the celebrated Pinotage (a unique South African red grape first developed in 1925 by Professor Abraham Izak Perold, by crossing pinot noir with hermitage varietals), had its origins. Even the rosé that used to come in the skittle or tear-shaped bottle known to generations of devotees, has been replaced by the more refined Lanzerac Pinotage Rosé, with its notes of rose petals, crushed strawberries and red currants.

And of course, what you can find from the Lanzerac wine stable are Mrs English and Le Général. Named after the feisty one-time owner, Mrs English is a Chardonnay, and Le Général a full-bodied, Cabernet-based blend.

The Ghosts of Owners Passed

There are some who believe there is a ghost in the Manor House. But back in 1993, when I spoke to David, for whom this had been home for many years, he had this to say, “When I was reading in the library with my spaniel, the door would open slowly, then close. The dog’s hackles would rise. It happened again and again. A friend of Angus Buchanan claimed once to have seen an old lady with a Dutch kappie in the mirror in Mrs English’s bedroom but, eventually, whatever or whoever it was just went away. I don’t know why.”

A Noteworthy Guestlist

In the heydays of the 60s and 70s, regular guests or ‘swallows’ from Europe included such foreign celebrities as Uri Geller, Jean Shrimpton, Dame Cicely Courtneidge, the UK’s Princess Alice and, closer to home, Laurens van der Post and Rhodesia’s Ian Smith. Among his fond memories of the many, many swallows, Rawdon recalled comedienne Joyce Grenfell, who would alarm the staff by removing her glass eye and placing it in a tumbler as she lay by the pool.

The history of Lanzerac and its picturesque setting

Lanzerac Hotel, still glowing after all these years.

Moving into the Modern Era

Since 2012, when the property was bought by a UK consortium, under the direction of designer Con van der Colff, Lanzerac had been given a complete facelift, and the addition of a first-class spa. The combination of historical and contemporary style with the ultimate in creature comfort would certainly have put a smile on Mrs English’s face, and is more than a match for the spectacular natural setting.

The fire that broke out last year, while sending panic through the wedding guests in residence at the time, was put out before reaching the Manor House, mercifully damaging only one wing. A side effect, however, was that many years of layered renovation was burnt away, exposing the original structure. And so, working with the National Heritage Council and with a University of Stellenbosch consultant, it’s been possible in some areas to return it to the way it was.

So, as we walked around the site, side-stepping paint spatter and trundling wheelbarrows, a stressed-looking masterbuilder ushered us off the still-fragile slate tiles and, given how much history is being handled here, I could understand his angst.

Summing up the legend of Lanzerac – both then and now – a regular guest of the 60s, Sunday Times columnist Molly Reinhardt said, ‘Lanzerac isn’t a hotel, it’s a way of life. They leave you to your own devices and if you haven’t got any devices, it’s not for you.’

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Words Nancy Richards

Photography John-Clive and Supplied

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