Wine growers from Weltevrede Wine Estate in the Robertson Valley, South Africa, have made their first wines from vines grown on Robben Island by heroes of the anti-Apartheid struggle. Joanne Gibson tells a story of dignity restored and a dream realized

Almost from the beginning of my sentence on Robben Island, I asked the authorities for permission to start a small garden in the courtyard," reveals Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom, the book he secretly started writing in 1974 while incarcerated in the maximum-security prison established 7 miles (11km) from Cape Town, across icy, shark-infested Table Bay.

Arrested in 1963 as co-founder and leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the then-banned African National Congress (ANC), Mandela spent almost two decades of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island. Named after the inhabitant robben, meaning "seals" in Dutch, the flat, rocky outcrop was a convict station even before Jan van Riebeeck colonized the Cape for the Dutch East India Company in 1652. By 1654, islanders had built a kiln to crush and burn the island's copious seashells, producing lime to plaster and whitewash many of the Cape Dutch farmsteads still standing today.

Needless to say, it was several years of hard manual labor in the limestone quarry before Mandela got permission to start his garden in the Section B courtyard. "Eventually they relented and we were able to cut out a small garden on a narrow patch of earth against the far wall."

Windswept and dry, with annual rainfall a mere 12in (300mm), the "terroir" was not promising: "The courtyard had been constructed over a landfill, and in order to start my garden I had to excavate a great many rocks to allow the plants room to grow [...]. The authorities supplied me with seeds. I initially sowed tomatoes, chillies, and onions, hardy plants that did not require rich earth of constant care. The early harvests were poor, but they soon improved."

The significance of this garden cannot be overestimated. It was here that Mandela buried the original handwritten manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom -- and in it, he writes: "To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom."

After Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982, fellow struggle hero Elias Motsoaledi took full responsibility for the garden. "From pips he planted what became a flourishing grape arbor," claims Robben Island author Charlene Smith.

A historic rediscovery This "grape arbor" immediately caught the eye of Weltevrede winemaker Philip Jonker when he did the Robben Island tour with his wife, Lindelize, in 2005. "I walked over to the huge, sprawling old vines, which hadn't borne fruit in years, and had this itch to prune them. They were historic and precious but forgotten. Learning that vines had also been planted in the hospital courtyard and outside solitary confinement, I started thinking about the political leaders who had cared for them and eaten their grapes, and a dream was born."

Jonker's dream was to nurse the vines back to health and to make wine from them -- with the proceeds of any sales to be split three ways between the Robben Island Ex-Political Prisoners' Forum, a nonprofit organization whose objective is the welfare of former political prisoners; the Weltevrede Edge of Life Fund, which is dedicated to restoring the self-worth of marginalized individuals in rural areas; and the Weltevrede Aansporingstrust (literally "incentive trust") for families who have worked on Weltevrede for generations. On behalf of the Aansporingstrust, Jonker applied to become custodian of the vines. "But Robben Island is so loaded with political history that it was not an easy decision for the decisionmakers to make."

Eventually, he invited Jakes Gerwel, chairman of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, to visit Weltevrede. "Once I'd proved that we were not in this for our own profit, he spoke to Ahmed Kathrada [chairman of the Robben Island Museum Council], and we were given the go-ahead."

In 2008, Jonker and members of the Aansporingstrust nervously made a reconnaissance trip to the island to establish exactly how many vines there were -- seven in all -- and to give them their first pruning in years. "The vineyard workers couldn't believe that they were alive, actually thriving, on their own rootstocks in this bed of broken shells, ravaged by the winds of the Cape of Storms. The vines in the courtyards were slightly sheltered, but even the more exposed one outside solitary confinement was okay."

From then on, members of the Aansporingstrust took turns visiting the island, pruning the vines, repairing the trellising, managing the foliage, and eventually trying to protect the grapes. "Many of them had never been to Cape Town, had never even seen the sea. Obviously they all knew the history of Robben Island, but now they were making history themselves."

Nelson Mandela pictured during a return visit to his cell on Robben Island. He wrote in his autobiography that tending his garden offered a “small taste of freedom”

Nelson Mandela pictured during a return visit to his cell on Robben Island. He wrote in his autobiography that tending his garden offered a "small taste of freedom"

The vines bore their first fruit in 2010 -- "sooner than we expected," says Jonker, who counted 94 bunches. "But not one berry was left by those ravenous vitamin-deprived seabirds. We had to start all over again." He had nets made in time for the 2011 harvest. "At first they worked well and I counted 228 bunches, but eventually the birds found a way in again."

Finally, in 2012, the old vines successfully yielded a "huge" crop of grapes -- 401lb (182kg). "It was a good vintage throughout the industry," says Jonker, also remarking on the year's historic significance. "It's exactly 100 years since the founding of the ANC in 1912 [...] the same year that my greatgrandfather established Weltevrede."

Losing a few bunches to incredulous security guards as they docked at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Jonker and his team transported the grapes some 125 miles (200km) to the cellar in Robertson. "We couldn't say for sure what variety or varieties they were; more important was whether they had the high natural acidity we required to make the two wine styles envisaged: a fortified dessert wine named The Parable (with Mr Mandela known to like a sip or two of sweet wine with his meals) and a celebratory Méthode Cap Classique Brut named The Manuscript (intended for aging). We were very happy with the technical analysis."

It will be some time before the magnums of The Manuscript Chapter 1 complete their secondary fermentation, but shortly after Mr Mandela's 94th birthday on July 18, a 37.5cl bottle of The Parable Chapter 1 was personally delivered to him by Jakes Gerwel, who duly emailed Jonker: "I handed over to Mr Mandela the first bottle of Parable, the sweet wine from the grapes of Robben Island that you cared for and nurtured so beautifully. His eyes lit up, and that old smile washed over his face when he was told the story of your journey to produce this wine. And he said: 'Jakes, please say thank you very much to them.'"

Professor Gerwel has since received his own bottle of the wine, as has Ahmed Kathrada, with a fourth having been sent to US President Barack Obama. "The remaining 13 half-bottles are being protected like diamonds and will be sold at international charity auctions," says Jonker, who last tasted the wine before bottling. "The nose displays aromas of honey, blossom, and a slight spiciness. The taste is medium-sweet combined with a mint-like freshness."

There is already tremendous interest in the wines, which seem set to become collector's items. "All of us will look back on our careers and say this was a highlight," says Jonker. "In collaboration with the Robben Island Museum, we commit ourselves to managing the precious vines for years to come, and to telling this story of hope to future generations.'