Singing nuns at Weltevrede
A group of Ugandan nuns came to Weltevrede in South Africa and made wine fit for the saints
When the Catholic Church declared St Clare of Assisi the patron saint of television in 1958, it must have been with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. Today's TV runs on celebrity and bling, while St Clare was a follower of St Francis, who rejected all material possessions. She founded an order of nuns in 1212, the Poor Clares, and today there are 20000 scattered around with a community at Nyamitanga Monastery in Mbarara, near Lake Bunyonyi (meaning lake of many small birds) in the south-western corner of Uganda, close to Rwanda.
Nyamitanga was founded in the 1970s by French missionaries who brought along their own vines to make sacramental wine. Located on the Equator at an altitude of 2000m, the region is called the Switzerland of Africa and apples are cultivated.
With an average temperature of 18°C, grapes thrive and two harvests a year are possible for the 800 or so subsistence farmers who have planted vines.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni visited Nyamitanga in 2005 and the sisters expressed a desire to improve their wine-making experience. The president offered his support and a call went out via e-mail. But there was only one response, from Weltevrede Estate in Bonnievale.
"You are welcome," answered winemaker Philip Jonker. "If you take the trouble to get all the way from Mbarara to Weltevrede, I will teach you to make wine." And so it came to pass that, in January 2006, the phone rang: "The sisters from Uganda have arrived."
The nuns were model students and after they left, Jonker sent 100 red muscat and 400 shiraz vines to Uganda. The muscat died but the shiraz flourished.
While the sisters were at Weltevrede, they helped make a shiraz from selected grapes for a special wine Jonker made to honour his father, Lourens, a former chairman of KWV.
The nuns returned to Weltevrede in 2009 for the launch of the wine and Lourens' 70th birthday party. He judged it "the best wine I have tasted in my life".
The first bottles were given to the nuns, who took them back to Uganda.
This Easter, Jonker and his wife Lindelize visited the sisters in Mbarara as there was trouble with the shiraz vines - they'd stopped bearing fruit. Jonker recommended vigorous pruning and hopes he's restarted the project.
The trip had a profound effect on Jonker. As he remembers: "We'd wake up at six o'clock in the morning with the beautiful pure harmonization of voices as the nuns sang Halleluiah. It is nothing like the typical European Catholic sounds, as they sang in Ankole, with a rhythm endemic of Africa, and the instruments used were African drums and a local harp-like string instrument made of wood and the skin of Ankole cattle.
"They were singing and praying morning, noon and night. Their faces shone with joy and peace and at the end of the visit I had a hard time convincing Lindelize to return with me."
To continue the project, Weltevrede is offering magnums of the Lourens Jonker shiraz 2006 that the nuns helped make at R750 per 1.5l bottle. All profits go towards the Poor Clares of Nyamitanga.