Claire Hu finds out what the fuss is about Elgin wines.
Apples, rather than grapes, have been traditionally associated with Elgin, but that has all started to change in the past decade.
Cradled between sea and mountains, this beautiful valley has been attracting both established and first-time winemakers who are seeing the fruits of their vine-planting labours. The lovely wines starting to come out of Elgin, particularly aromatic whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, as well as Pinot Noir and Syrah, are rapidly giving it a reputation for quality.
So what's so special about Elgin? I was shown around the area by the charming Thomas Webb from Thelema, which makes wine from the region under the Sutherland label, and I also participated in an Elgin tasting in Joburg, organised by Juliet Cullinan.
Firstly, you may have heard 'experts' banging on about how great a cool climate is for wine. Elgin really is cooler than neighbouring wine regions, thanks to high-altitude, moderate sea breezes and a chilly blanket of mist that rolls in over the Hottentots Holland mountains.
So why is that good for wine? Generally speaking, the longer and more slowly grapes can ripen on the vine, the more time they have to develop complex flavours. This is a challenge in South Africa, where the hot sun means grapes can turn unpleasantly sunburnt and jammy if left too long on the vine. The cooler climate in Elgin means that harvest time can be up to a month later than in Stellenbosch, for example. The resulting wines are becoming known for being more European in style, meaning they are fresh and fruity, elegant, with a good dollop of refreshing acidity.
That's the theory at least. I certainly found Elgin wines in general to be lighter, less alcoholic than average and subtler compared to wines from hotter regions. The downside was those wines that tasted unpleasantly vegetal (imagine chewing on grass) without much tannic structure (like a hollow drum).
Those producers I spoke to who had decided to take the risk of planting vineyards when it was a vinous backwater are now Elgin converts. Chris Watermeyer, vineyard manager at Sutherland, says: 'The wines here are full of fruit and flavour and intensity, but they don't have the same weight as those produced in hotter areas.' Mike Kreft, who owns Belfield, the smallest commercial vineyard in Elgin, used to manage Lourensford but set up on his own in Elgin in 2000. Unusually for the area, he produces only reds, which have been winning plaudits from the critics. 'When I came to see this place it was very run down and only had a few straggly apple trees,' he recalls. 'But everyone I spoke to was very excited about Elgin. It gives you softer, more elegant and fruity wines.'
Likewise, when young couple Joris and Natalie van Almenkerk were looking around for an area to start producing wine, they were lured to Elgin. Their first vintage of Almenkerk wines was in 2009 and their Sauvignon Blanc has been winning them awards.
As well as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Elgin is starting to produce wonderful Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling and Syrah. Here's my favourite dozen:
Elgin Vintners Viognier 2010
Waxy, with aromas of white blossom and subtle, deep flavours of citrus and fresh peaches. A great food wine.
Elgin Vintners Chardonnay 2010
Lovely minerality, a very classy wine with almond, lemon peel and integrated oak notes.
Sutherland Viognier/Roussanne 2009
White stone fruit notes, with a savoury character and dry finish. Similar to a white from south-west France, which would make a great accompaniment to spicy food.
Sutherland Riesling 2008
Alluring aromas of minerality, peach and citrus. Balanced and yummy with a long lemony finish.
Iona Chardonnay 2009
Lovely elegant wine. A fresh and fruity nose, lemony and creamy in the mouth.
Paul Cluver Chardonnay 2009
Wild yeast is used in this Burgundian-style chardonnay, with integrated citrus and oak notes. Well-made with a smooth texture.
Ross Gower Rhine Riesling 2009
Lashings of fresh lime, minerality and a hint of the Riesling petroleum note. Chunky and intense in the mouth.
Sutherland Syrah 2008
Gorgeous. Subtle, light and elegant with delicious red berry and blackberry aromas, zesty acidity, some herbal notes and a velvety texture.
Belfield Magnifica Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Lovely mocha and blackberry notes, a gorgeously soft texture. Very delicate and moreish, will age well.
Neil Ellis Aenigma 2007
An elegant, good-value Bordeaux blend. Bursting with lovely red berry fruit character.
Sutherland Pinot Noir 2009
A delicate, light and pretty wine with really bright fruit notes of raspberry and wild strawberry. Delicious.
Iona Syrah 2007
Raw coffee beans on the nose, lovely plum, sweet spice notes. An elegant wine.