In terms of South Africa’s wine region classification system, Elgin is currently a ‘ward’, but is likely to soon become a wine ‘district’. And of the country’s wine regions, it’s the only one with natural boundaries – in this case, three mountain ranges and the sea. Geographically speaking, Elgin is a bowl surrounded by mountains, with the valley floor at 300 m, and the highest vineyards are 900 m. If harvest date is used as a measure of climate, this is the coolest wine region in South Africa.
Elgin is famous for its orchards, and apples are still the main crop here, with 60% of South Africa’s apples coming from the region. The first orchards were planted in Elgin by Sir Antonie Viljoen in the early years of the 20th century, on his enormous Oak Valley estate. Viljoen was also the first to plant vineyards here. However, wine production stopped in the 1940s, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that vines were to return to Elgin.
The modern era of Elgin wine began in 1985, with the planting of an experimental vineyard at Oak Valley. The following year, the first commercial vineyards were planted by Paul Cluver, and the first wine released from the region was the 1990 Paul Cluver Riesling.
‘It’s amazing how this valley has developed over the last 10 years,’ says Paul Cluver Jr. ‘When interest in South African wines exploded in the 1990s, various players began to recognize the potential of the valley,’ says Cluver. ‘All these big names from traditional wine growing areas began investing in this valley,’ he says, naming Thelema, Tokara, Rust en Vrede, Vergelegen, Simonsig and Nederberg. ‘The average age of an Elgin brand today is 3 years.’
Cluver is one of South Africa’s few Riesling specialists, making three different styles: dry, ‘kabinett’ and noble late harvest. There are fewer than 200 hectares of Riesling in the whole country, though. ‘We almost pulled Riesling out,’ says Cluver. ‘It was hard to sell in South Africa.’ As well as exceptional Riesling, Cluver are also making superb Sauvignon Blanc and an impressive Gewürztraminer. For reds, the focus is on Pinot Noir, although it wasn’t always. ‘We had a dream of producing a Bordeaux blend from our property,’ says Cluver. ‘Paul Pontallier visited and at the end of the tasting he said that the red wine is the Pinot Noir, and so this changed our focus, back in 2002.’
Another Elgin pioneer is Andrew Gunn, whose property is Iona. In 1997, having made his money from a medical suture company, Gunn bought a run-down apple farm in the Elgin region. Now it’s one of South Africa’s leading producers of Sauvignon Blanc, although 15 hectares of apple trees still remain alongside the vineyards. It’s at an altitude of 420 metres, with a view of the sea, which is just 3 km away.
Gunn didn’t plant blind; he knew what he was doing in selecting this site. Initially, he put temperature loggers around the farm, and found that the climate here was significantly cooler than expected over the three months that the loggers were recording data. He was able to compare his farm data with those from the Elgin weather station. Because there was a consistent relationship over his three month trial, he was then able to extrapolate his data out over the whole growing season. The exciting results showed that this site was cooler than equivalent places in Europe where Sauvignon Blanc was grown. If the grapes could ripen, then the results could be quite exciting. Peak summer temperatures here are usually 24–25 °C, and if they experience three days over 30 °C, then it’s unusual.
Gunn’s uncle was a professor of geomorphology, and he came out in 1997 to do a survey of the site. It showed that the farm had post-glacial alluvial soils: it was an old river valley. The first harvest was in 2001: by South African standards, it was a late one, straddling the end of March and beginning of April. Gunn found that he was getting good fruit set and a long ripening period, which seemed ideal.
Sauvignon Blanc is the main focus, and 65% of Iona’s plantings are accounted for by this variety. Gunn also owns another farm down in the valley, with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier planted. He never has to acidify. The main farm has 29 hectares of vines, while the property in the valley is 11 hectares, making a total of 40.
Elgin is quite a new region. When Andrew Gunn started out, Paul Cluver was the only producer in the region. Oak Valley was third. ‘We believe it is the up and coming wine region,’ says Gunn. ‘Shortly after I started planting I called a meeting of farmers to share experience. We formed the Elgin Wine Guild, with a view to promote quality.’
And what of Oak Valley, another of the Elgin pioneers? Although they planted their first experimental vineyards in 1985, their first serious vineyards weren’t planted until a few years later. It’s an 1800 hectare farm, with most of the area devoted to fruit production. On the farm there are 48 hectares of vineyards. Oak Valley make superb Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir is also really good.
Then there are newcomers, such as Elgin Ridge, owned by Brits Brian and Marion Smith. They moved there in 2007 after selling their Kingston-based IT business. They’d always wanted to do a vineyard project but it took them a while to decide where to do it. Initially they had thought about making sparkling wine in the south of England, but the land was just too expensive. Then they considered France, but found that the wine industry was in turmoil and most of the properties on the market were there because the people were struggling to sell their wine, and they were expensive to boot.
So they turned to South Africa, and a property in Elgin that ticked all the boxes. Marion had first visited Cape Town in 2002, and liked it so much she came home having brought a holiday flat. Brian visited in 2003 and while he was staying there tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that he liked so much (the debut vintage of Iona), he went to visit the owner, Andrew Gunn. They became friends.
The combination of affordable land, and knowing people there led to the purchase of an abandoned 10 hectare apple farm in 2007. ‘It turns out that we have wonderful soils,’ says Marion. ‘This was more luck than judgement,’ Brian adds. ‘It is great that we were able to plant from scratch.’
They have so far planted 4.5 hectares, with 3.5 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and half a hectare each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They are organically certified, and as of this year Marion – who looks after the vineyard – has decided to go biodynamic, a decision prompted by a visit from Monty Waldin. They have just bought two Dexter cows, to complement their ducks. ‘The dogs and cats don’t know what to make of them,’ says Brian.
Production is 15 000 bottles this year, rising to 20 000 next year. The goal is to peak at 40 000.
Another newcomer, albeit only geographically, is Catherine Marshall Wines. Established for a while but previously based in Stellenbosch, Cathy moved into her Elgin winery in 2011, and is making top quality Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc with grapes purchased from Elgin growers.
The real strength of Elgin seems to be its ability to produce top quality wines from a range of varieties. Riesling is superb; so is Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay is superb; so is Pinot Noir. It seems to be hard to pigeonhole this fascinating cool-climate region, and with increasing experience of the terroirs here as well as advancing vine age, it seems the best is yet to come.
Jamie Goode is a UK based award-winning journalist and blogger who is crazy about wine, read more of his articles on http://www.wineanorak.com