We catch up with owner Brian Smith for some harvest 2021 reflections.
Pictured: Brian Smith, vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa, and Marion Smith
Harvest 2021 – what are your predictions?
Below average yields, but not as low as 2020, due to windy conditions during flowering. Cool season with above average rainfall resulting in small but high quality bunches. Harvest approximately 7 to 10 days later than usual.
Organic fruit looking resplendent on the vine.
What have been the challenges?
Wet and windy weather with the threat of mildew – many of our neighbours have been affected although we have mostly avoided the fungus.
Walking through the jewel box that is a vineyard, watching all that promise of the growing season come to fruition. This is Block 11, semillon, is looking the best it ever has.
Plans for the grapes?
This is the second harvest of our Cabernet Franc and we should increase from only 273 bottles in 2020 to about 600 bottles in 2021. I made most of the vintages including 2016 and I will be returning to making the wine.
Block 12, chardonnay – looking good, we’ll be picking next week
What happens in the cellar when it comes to biodynamics?
All ferments are natural with no added commercial yeast, sugar or acid. In addition we do not use settling or colour extracting enzymes or yeast nutrients. Bentonite, a natural clay, is used to protein stabilise the wine just before bottling.
This time last year… our concrete eggs landed, we’re looking forward to using them all over again for #Harvest2021
Elgin region as a whole – what has the growing season been like and the current harvest?
In general Elgin has been cool and a little wetter than average resulting in reduced yields but still maintaining high quality.
Block 5.1 Pinot Noir – this year looks very special – picking in about 10 days time. Note the bird protection!
To be a certified biodynamic wine producer is a long and arduous path to follow. Few in South African have done it, Elgin Ridge Wine Estate has. Owned by Brian and Marion Smith. In the cool [in terms of climate and fashion] and beautiful Elgin Valley. Breezes from the cool Atlantic ensure the right climate for Pinot Noir, ameliorating the summer heat and allowing for a long hang time to reach perfect ripeness. Brian and Marion, with their winemaker Kosie van der Merwe produce a small but exceeding fine range of wines.
Organic wine farm
Ever more popular in South Africa, Pinot Noir is a perfect reflection of the soils and climate in which it is grown and a fingerprint of each vintage. Being a certified Biodynamic and organic wine farm allows the winemaking team to produce excellent fruit which requires minimal intervention in the cellar. The only ingredient in this wine that is not from the vineyard, is the added 62 ppm total SO2 after natural malolactic fermentation.
I was keen to find out about the oak regime for the Elgin Ridge 282 Pinot Noir 2016, and Kosie gave me way more than I wanted. He made the wine from three different Pinot Noir clones. Here is what he said.
“The 282 Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 comes from 4 vineyards, consisting of 3 clones: 777, 667 and 115. The three clones were vinified separately.”
Cows contribute to our biodynamic farming in several ways; during winter they graze in the vineyards, thus keeping the weeds under control; and more importantly fertilising the soil with their manure, giving energy to the soil naturally.
Elgin Ridge has a growing heard of 70 Dexter cows; including 14 calves born at Elgin Ridge so far this year. Dexter are a natural miniature breed from Ireland.
We have planted 7 HA of pastures this year, and use a rotating grazing system with portable electric fencing; this way our cows graze in our nutrient-rich pastures ensuring they eat when they want, in the best pastures available, as mother nature intended. We treat our cows kindly, allowing them to roam, and never over milk them. This leads to happy Dexters that produce beautiful marbled beef.
When our non breeding bulls are ready, we supply Andy Fenner at Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants, see ffmm.co.za with our Dexter beef for his selected customers.
Each season our vines burst into life looking healthier and healthier, The vineyards which produce our organic wines have not been sprayed with any chemical since 2007, Which might be why our wines receive such rave reviews.
We are often asked, how can we farm organically when many organic vineyard owners get very low yields, but at Elgin Ridge, we are blessed, achieving really good yields. So take a look at what happens at Elgin Ridge behind the scenes to make our wonderful wines.
At Elgin Ridge we never use chemical to control pests, we use ducks instead
We never use insecticides, as each vine has a band of fluffy material to stop insects crawling up the vine
We make and use biodynamic preparations from our own cow dung and make our all our own compost from cellar waste and any organic material on the farm.
A big work load, farming organically, is weeding each row of vines by hand, having visited Burgundy last year, and seen how horses are used to plough the weeds back into the soil, we now have Maddox on the farm, Maddox a gentle, enormous, Percheron, loves ploughing. He only needed two training sessions and he was ready for work.
Had a great lunch at the Glass House, Kewon Monday, with Brian Smith, a now-biodynamic winegrower in Elgin, South Africa. I first met Brian and his wife Marion at the same restaurant just over a year ago (so my blog tells me), and they’ve now got to the point where they have their first Pinot Noir bottled. Plans are afoot to produce a Chardonnay-based MCC (sparkling wine), but this won’t be ready for a while.
It’s interesting that Brian and Marion have adopted biodynamics so enthusiastically, to the point that they are now certified fully. Marion has been the driver behind this: Brian says that initially he’d have been quite happy to spray chemicals everywhere, but now he has converted too. They now have a Percheron horse that he’s very proud of, as well as 11 cows and some sheep. ‘The Percheron is the most beautiful horse,’ says Brian. ‘It’s 16 1/2 hand, and weighs 1100 kg.’
‘The tough thing is to get organic certification. Once you get this you are part of the way there,’ says Brian. ‘The soil on the farm was tested for chemicals to give the vines the best start.’ He adds, ‘when you think of all the horrible things farmers used to use, it’s a wonder that the land is living at all.’
Brian and Marion are gaining confidence. For example, with the Sauvignon, the 2012 is the first where they felt able to do 100% natural ferment. In the previous vintages they did the small tanks natural, and the large inoculated, for safety reasons. Now they leave the wine on lees until December (the harvest is early March). In 2012 Brian says he made 90% of the wine (with help from Niels Verberg); in 2013 he made 100%.
Elgin Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Elgin, South Africa
Lovely aromatics: expressive, bright, beautiful fruit – white peach, pear, citrus with subtle green notes. The palate is so well balanced with ripe fruit and lovely weight and precision. There’s real presence here, a proper Sauvignon [92/100]
Brian says that he planted Pinot Noir because he’s ‘a red wine drinker trapped on a white wine farm.’ The 2012, first release, won’t be out for a while, but it’s looking very promising.
Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2012 Elgin, South Africa
Natural ferment (done on the spur of the moment when the destemmed grapes were in the tank), 10 months in oak (20% new, the rest very old). This is South Africa’s only organic Pinot. There’s a bit of spice from the new oak but the dominant theme is the lovely pure, focused red cherry and berry fruit. Amazing finesse and purity. Still primary with potential for development [92/100]
There’s something reassuring knowing that a business isn’t just a faceless corporation, but has a human face behind it. I find it doubly reassuring when an individual has such faith in their product that they’ll put their name to it.
In the case of West Regent street restaurant Chardon d’Or, owner and chef Brian Maule has the confidence to stick his name above the door. It’s a confidence that’s completely justified.
I visited last Friday night, the day after Maule, who trained under culinary masters the Roux brothers, took home Chef of the Year at the CIS Awards, an auspicious omen for my review.
Walking in to Chardon d’Or we were immediately greeted by the maitre de who ushered my friend and I to our window table. From there I could survey the entire room, an airy and open space, tastefully decorated and with bluesy jazz playing softly in the background. It made for easy listening as I selected a bottle.
The restaurant enjoys a reputation for fine wines, and holds regular tasting nights. Perusing the extensive wine menu it was clear to see this reputation is well merited. I chose a bottle of South African sauvignon blanc, Elgin Ridge 282 (£36) which was the finest I’ve had.
Reading the menu I was faced with the only unpleasant part of the evening-choosing just one starter and main. While waiting on our starters a foie gras amuse bouche whet our appetites nicely and promised excellence to come.
To kick things off I chose the pan friend crevetts with chorizo, red pepper compote, and sauce aioli (£10.50). Presented so beautifully I felt a tad guilty about eating it, the unusual combination of king prawns and chorizo was an absolute winner.
My friend chose the goats cheese which was served with a beetroot salad, walnuts and caramelised apple (£8.95) and she reported that it was “divine”.
Next up I chose the roast cod fillet with broccoli puree and grilled leeks, topped with a black olive tapenade (£24). This was an absolute triumph, the fish cooked to perfection and frankly I could’ve happily eaten a whole bowl of the tapenade alone (a puree of olives, anchovies, capers and olive oil). Now I’m not a fussy eater but I’ve never been a broccoli fan; It’s testament to Maule’s training that he could actually make me want more of them, and the grilled leeks where exceptional.
My companion opted for the breast of duck with spinach and tips of asparagus (£23.50). I got a sliver of this myself and it was top notch, the meat succulent and juicy. My friend said her only regret at ordering it was my poor japery of diving under the table when I asked what she ordered.
To round things off I had the homemade ice cream and sorbets selection (£8.95) , with vanilla, pistachio, watermelon and orange the order of the day, all delicious.
My friend thought she ordered the oranges marinated in grenadine, and orange curd with macaroons (£8.50) but what arrived was in fact an artwork-an incredibly tasty artwork admittedly.
A very nice touch is the fact that Maule came out and talked to the table who were finished, sharing a few words with all.
I love that philosophy that because it’s his name on the door, it’s him in the kitchen and on the floor.
He told me that not a single dish leaves the kitchen without his approval and from the excellence on display Friday evening, it’s clear that this diligence has paid off.
This article originally appeared on www.wine.co.za and has been read 1393 times
When asked why he was mulching with egg shells, my fathers’ favourite saying was this: “everything goes back to nature”. This might be a little too simplistic a view of organic farming, but true in this context.
What you put back into the ground, you get back out and he wanted to place as much goodness back into the soil as possible. We used mulch with ground egg shells, ash from the fire, grass, leaves and food waste. The point of the legendary compost heap at the bottom of the garden wasn’t just to provide entertainment for us as children and the odd assortment of vegetables that grew from the occasional seeds which found their way onto the heap – it was to provide an incredible natural source of nutrients, earthworms and structure to the soil of our garden.
The menagerie of geese, ducks and chickens we kept would be on egg duty, snail patrol and for the occasional sport of chasing the cat and small child (me) around the garden. Weeds were simply pulled out using child labour (me again) instead of using weed killer.
Snails (if they weren’t eaten by the ducks, chickens or geese) met their untimely demise in a tin of brine – the same with other insects. Spiders that managed to find their way into our home were gently invited out by my father, inside a glass bottle. The point of my whimsical meanderings was that we tried to make sure that we would rarely use chemicals in our garden to provide what we termed ‘easy gardening’.
Now ‘easy gardening’ and wine-making have a great deal in common, except on a grander scale because there is a commercial and financial gain to be made. It isn’t growing a crop of tomatoes to sell at the village market it is large scale business involving greater production levels, processing, supply chain and financial risk. Chemicals have to be used to keep pests at bay, soil has to be treated to provide as much nutritional value as possible for the vines, the yield per hectare has to be able make financial sense where your commodity is sold per ton and spoilage greatly reduces that gain. The cosmetic factor of having animals, birds, bees and butterflies, is by the way side on a large-scale commercial farm and certainly not as important as the financial gain of the product. Or is it?
The answer is simple if you look at what my father used to say: “what you place into the ground, you get back out”. Now much the same with can be said regarding the use of harmful chemicals: if you put these into the soil, ultimately your soil becomes tainted with undesirable contents, the soil could become barren – in constant need of additional nutrients and attention – and eventually the soil stops providing the rich nutritious food it once did. The birds, butterflies and insects all push off for pastures better, not just greener.
According to WOSA, a total of 101 016 hectares of vines are planted in the Cape wine lands and other regions, farmed by more than 3600 farmers. Give or take a couple of numbers as the year progresses. However out the 101 016 000 hectares, only 0.8% (approx 125 hectares) was ‘Certified Organic’ as of 2010 according to Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011.
Surely I ask, with the increasing consumer demand for traceability, ethical and holistic practices in food production and in turn healthier eating and drinking, why only so few fully registered? The answer rests in the effort and desire for farms to become organic.
Josef Lazarus of Lazanou Organic Vineyards’ superb quote in the Spring edition of Winestyle 2011, “I find it quite amusing that organic producers have to be certified to farm in the most natural way possible”, sums up the frustration some farmers feel at the process of becoming organic. The time, effort and cost sometimes are simply far too great for some producers.
There are also a great many producers who are adhering to organic practices but the volume of paperwork is outstandingly large. The other side of the coin is that many farms claim to be organic, riding on the wave of ‘organic production’ but hide behind the excuse of ‘too busy to do the paperwork to get certified’. In reality, these farms use chemicals that are banned from certified organic viticulture.
On a recent visit to the Elgin Valley, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting Elgin Ridge – the only Certified Organic vineyard in the Elgin Valley. Four hectares of Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and Pinot noir are grown on the sloping property overlooking the valley. Acclaimed viticulturist Kevin Watt was on board from the start of planting to provide advice and valuable knowledge to owners Marion and Brian Smith.
Elgin Ridge has international accreditation like the majority of South African organic grape and wine producers. Under EU regulations, the vines have had to produce grapes grown in organic conditions for at least three years. Products that are only certified as organic can be used on the vines and soil, for example guano from Namibia and Seagrow.
Owner Marion Smith explained why she wanted to farm organically: “Having sold our successful IT business in London we decided it was time to pursue a dream we had always nurtured: to make outstanding wines in small quantities that reflected our passion. We searched most of the wine growing regions in Europe, but eventually concluded the Elgin Valley in South Africa was the ideal place to realise this dream. The small farm we purchased was run down but showed great potential, and we planted our first vines in 2007. The objective from the beginning was to be organic, and as the farm had been fallow for many years, suited this objective perfectly.
At Elgin Ridge, our focus is on farming the land organically, in a way that is sustainable and ensures the wines truly represent the land itself. With quality grapes, there is less to do in the cellar, and our winemaking philosophy of ‘minimal intervention’ – carried out by winemaker, Niels Verburg – allows a natural approach throughout, from vine to bottle.
Our vines are on land 282 metres above sea level that was and still is completely untouched by chemicals. We recycle our farm vegetation and make our own compost to ensure our vines are truly natural, aided only with approved organic materials. We like to celebrate our grapes as they are, so leave the responsibility of pest control to some smaller but equally important members of the team: our beloved ducks. These are hatched on our farm and trained to eat pests daily.”
Dorper sheep, Peking ducks and chickens are used to keep the vineyard in check. Snails get eaten by the ducks and chickens, the sheep mow the grass in the vineyards and apple orchard.
The ducks and chickens also provide a source of free range eggs which are for sale (along with Marions’ delicious homemade chutney), in the tasting room adorned with the original prints by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman. (More of his prints and work can be viewed at www.ralphsteadman.com)
The two wines available are the 282 Sauvignon Blanc 2011 and 282 Chardonnay 2010 which both reflect the wine making style of Niels Verburg: “minimal intervention” and the quality of the vineyard: “a good vineyard will produce good wine”.
The Sauvignon Blanc 2011 was classic crisp Golden Delicious apple tartness, pear and grapefruit with undertones of green herby characters. Big juicy fruit flavours with green melon on the palate.
The Chardonnay 2010 (unwooded) is light and quaffable with notes of nectarines, white peaches and pears, fruit blossom and a little spice on the nose and palate. This is the maiden vintage of Chardonnay produced on the farm, so I am looking forward to seeing how it will develop on 2011 and 2012.
Sold and served only through restaurants and from the Elgin Ridge Tasting Room, these wines are gracing the wine lists and top sommelier recommendations in South Africa and the UK. From the Taj Hotel, Test Kitchen, Sotana in Cape Town to Marcus Wareing at The Berkely, The Glasshouse Restaurant, and Searcys in London.
I really enjoyed both wines and also the story behind Marion and Brians’ desire to farm originally. I left the farm with a smile on my face, arms laden Marions’ apple and cranberry chutney and with freshly laid duck and chicken eggs tucked in their boxes for the journey back to Cape Town. I also felt good knowing I was supporting a producer that was doing good by the earth and adhering to the formula: good soil = good vines = good wines.
This article first appeared on Pauline’s blog and has been republished here with her permission.