Exceptional Elgin

Invited to taste the 2012 vintages from Spioenkop in Elgin tomorrow, I had to decline as I’m off to Portugal on a vinotourism beano. Spioenkop leapt onto my radar screen last year during blind tastings of terroir wines from the Elgin appellation with Anibal Coutinho. With the UK spying on SA diplomats, the Spioenkop launch is well timed. Our opinions:

IMG 47562 300x225 Exceptional Elgin

In a nutshell

 Bachhus annexes former apple orchards
 Elegant whites
 Best Riesling in the winelands

Back Label: Elegant in Elgin

The life of a wine writer is not all beer and skittles. Sometimes there’s real danger and mud. An invitation for oxtail at Adi Badenhorst’s Kalmoesfontein operation on the suddenly fashionable Paardeberg preceded by an impromptu cellar tour, saw me loose a pair of elegant Woolies moccasins in a vicious quicksand. Adi’s son Samuel Sunnyskies gurgled at my misfortune and jumped in, immune in his Pep Stores sheepskin-lined Wellies. Sunnyskies was about to be supplemented as Adi’s wife Cornelia was in the family way.

What to call the next Badenhorst has not been decided but the middle name is fixed: Kalander (weevil). It could be worse: Adi has acquired a new gogga book with options like Oogpister, a pugnacious ground beetle and Blaartrektor, a blister beetle. Choosing names is vital for Badenhorst Family Vineyards as with family members as shareholders, huge pressure may be brought to bear to name wines Sannie and Japie and Adi needs options to counter Vaal Japie and a whole bar full of inappropriate jokes.

Over in Elgin, sheepskin lined Wellies are best sourced from the farmer’s Co-op in Grabouw and they all look the same. On De Rust farm, writing your name on the sheepskin inside with a black Koki pen doesn’t help as everyone is called Paul Cluver. The chairman of the Elgin Valley Wine Guild is Paul Cluver IV and dad is Paul Cluver III so presumably 4 and 3 do the trick. I thought they can’t be very good winemakers if they can’t pick their own using their sense of smell. But then very few winemakers can pick their own wines blind, so why should it be different with Wellies?

Elgin is that kind of appellation, the kind where owners of farms larger than Switzerland claim their boots with a Koki pen. But then the appellation has a profile lower than the tyres of Jensen Button’s Formula I. And the analogy is apt as the N2 highway is the main feature of the appellation. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no there, there, in Elgin. Just a strip of farms set back from the national road down which fly hoards of tourists and old Cape money, en route to hedonism’s hotspot, Hermanus.

Yet this is the appellation for seriously idiosyncratic wines. The aforementioned Cluvers make a classic Riesling and the 2004 vintage is just about the most complete SA Riesling I’ve ever tasted. Jo’Burg mining supply mogul Max Hahn owns Elgin Orchards and his 30ha vineyard produces cool climate Syrah grapes that last year won Alsatian winemaker Julien Schaal a Coup de Coeur award from a judging panel assembled by French newspaper Le Figaro to rate wines made by French winemakers outside France.

The main prize went to Rhône superstar Michel Chapoutier who makes stunning Syrah at Mount Benson in South Australia while Julien picked up a special prize for his Elgin effort.

While Elgin may lack a Mount Benson, it does have a Mount Bullet on which the Downes of Shannon Vineyards make a mean Merlot you’ve never heard of. So rather than race past faster than a speeding bullet, taking a detour via Arumdale, Belfield and Bloemendahl (to start with the first two letters of the alphabet) can pay huge and unexpected dividends.

Brian Smith from Elgin Ridge is our Elgin wineheart.

Neil: Will the first Elgin icon wine be white or red?

Brian: All the indications point to white, but I always find it difficult to
put whites as icons unless it’s a Montrachet, Yquem or a JJ Prum Riesling!
I’m still going for white as I think Chardonnay will do/is doing well in
Elgin. I have tasted a 10 year old Elgin Chardonnay which fooled me into
identifying it as a good Burgundy.

Neil: Does Elgin have a USP when it comes to wine?

Brian: I could say cool climate or terroir but they are not really USP’s. I
think the Elgin USP is the people. We are a small number of family owned
vineyards (no large corporates), all of whom are dedicated to promoting
Elgin as an area capable of producing world class wines. Visitors are
greeted by owners and winemakers rather than tasting room staff and we are
passionate about our wines.

Neil: How important is wine tourism for business?

Brian: Very Important! It is essential that we expose our wines not only to
international visitors but also to South Africans living outside the wine
growing regions. The wine industry is probably one of the most competitive
in the world and we are up against not only the traditional European and
Australasian wine producers but also the ‘not so sleeping’ Chile and Argentina
and new emerging giants such as China and India. We must welcome visitors to
South Africa and seduce them with this beautiful country including our
wonderful cuisine and fine wines. We need them to buy SA wines when they are
back home and for them to return to SA for their next holiday.

Neil: Your favourite wines style(s)?

Brian: This could be a long answer. France – red and white Burgundy – fruity
and pure when young, complex and structured when older plus Loire – Chenin
Blanc – dry, sweet or sparkling and one of the world’s great grape varieties and
Sauvignon Blanc – Balanced minerality with fine but restrained fruit –
Cabernet Franc – wonderful floral nose and fine fruit, drink slightly chilled. Germany – Riesling – dry, off dry, sweet – if it’s good who cares!

Italy – Red wines from Mount Etna – pure fruit, fine minerality and can rival
Burgundy. South Africa – Syrah/Shiraz & Rhône blends especially Swartland –
deep, brooding with fine fruit and ageing potential. Finally, anything good
and different from anywhere.

Best Cellar: Almenkerk

Lacking ancient churches with crusader tombstones to rub and stained glass windows to ogle, the new wine appellations of SA are building cellars in an impressive secular religious style. Like Almenkerk in Elgin, an überbling temple to Bacchus. Joris van Almenkerk is a Belgian lawyer, bright as a pin, turned winemaker whose St. Paul moment came working a harvest in Rawsonville “where no one speaks any English at all. I realized I could not go back to my cubicle in Brussels so I enrolled in the winemaking course at the University of Stellenbosch.” And bought 100ha of Elgin apple and pear orchards 14 Km from the sea.

“We pulled up 32 ha of apples and pears (too much as we’re now replanting some) and planted 15 ha of vines.” As part of his studies, Joris visited 68 cellars around SA, stealing design with his eyes. “Morgenster was the most successful one” he remarks and his stainless steel tanks laid out either side of a large central aisle pay small scale homage to Giulio Bertrand’s Somerset West winery. Although the fireman’s pole which connects his first floor office to the main body of the cellar is his own invention.

A maiden vintage Sauvignon Blanc from four year old vines was rated four stars by the ubiquitous sighted wine guide, giving the lie to that unfortunate observation by a venerable taster and part-time blogger on that organ earlier this year that over 88% of new producers are “mediocre.” Or perhaps this fresh, green and mineral style Sauvignon Blanc has now become so widespread in Elgin that mediocrity scores four out of five. Good news for SA consumers as 3000 tons of Elgin Sauvignon Blanc fruit is about to enter the market thanks to a tsunami of new plantings.

Joris’ wine is as fine and ethereal as its author and gazing across the valley towards Iona and the sea you get a sense of the spiritual dimension that caused the ancients to erect standing stones to mark the passage of the seasons and events in the heavens. Almenkerk is a standing stone to Sauvignon de nos jours.

A Toasty MCC

South Hill MCC 2008 sweet and simple with some toasty richness

A Champion Chenin Blanc

♥♥♥♥♥ Vrede en Lust Artisan 2011 Quince jam, citrus zest and spice. Huge concentration of flavour. A winner.
A Terroir Trinity of White Blends
♥♥♥♥♥ Vrede en Lust Barrique 2011 Complex, flinty nose with exotic perfume. Spicy dried stone fruit palate. Reeks of finesse and elegance.
♥♥♥♥ Elgin Vintners The Century 2011 Lemon pie and green peas. Good mouthfeel, rich and creamy.
Vrede en Lust White Mischief 2011 Round texture, medium palate, sweet fruit pastries with a pithy finish.

Top Ten Terroir Sauvignon Blancs

♥♥♥♥♥ Spioenkop “1900” 2011 Fresh floral nose and spicy broad palate starring lemon pith and limes. Lovely and long.
♥♥♥♥♥ Oak Valley 2011 Grassy citrus with a lingering finish and a creamy palate. A Sauvignon Blanc for Catherine Deneuve.
♥♥♥♥ Thelema Sutherland 2011 Asparagus and green peppers with some tropical notes. Persistent.
♥♥♥♥ Spioenkop 2011 Vegetal nose but sweetly fruited palate. A huge wine with layers of minerality.
♥♥♥♥ Elgin Ridge 2011 White peaches and candied lemons give an intense and fat flavour profile and super palate richness.
♥♥♥ Paul Cluver 2011 Green beans and mixed veg. A rich palate with a touch of gooseberry fool.
♥♥♥ Vrede en Lust Casey’s Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Lemons, veg and some tropical fruit. Long finish.
Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Peak 2012 Candied citrus fruit and flinty minerality, tangy. Grippy texture.
Elgin Vintners 2010 Good balance between asparagus and tropical with some palate richness.
Corder 2011 white peaches and candied, tropical fruit with a sweet finish.

A Superb Sweet Sauvignon Blanc

♥♥♥♥ Highlands Road Sauvignon Blanc NLH 2011 Quince marmalade and honey.

Eight Captivating Chardonnays

♥♥♥♥♥ Lothian Vineyards 2011 Toasty and rich, vanilla and lanolin. Limes, dried pears and apple pie. Cream and smooth.
♥♥♥♥♥ Almenkerk 2011 Citrus perfume, extremely fresh and delicate palate. Full of finesse.
♥♥♥♥♥ Oak Valley 2011 Super fine, lingering limes. Minty oak, citrus zest and apple pie. Spectacular.
♥♥♥ Paul Cluver 2010 Big wood, big intensity. Tangy minerals with some Riesling-like petrol notes. Round and gentle texture.
♥♥♥ Neil Ellis 2011 Lemon pie and woody spices. Good commercial.
Winter’s Drift 2011 Ripe white peaches with good acids and smooth texture. A food wine.
Thelema Sutherland 2010 Matchsticks on the nose above a full palate in the French style.
Elgin Ridge 2011 White fruit cheesecake with tangy citrus, tropical notes and a long finish.

A Quartet of Terroir Rieslings

♥♥♥♥♥ Paul Cluver Riesling NLH 2011 Quince marmalade and citrus peel. Terrific acid/sugar balance. Creamy, tropical and floral. World class.
♥♥♥♥ Thelema Sutherland 2009 Mineral notes and petrol, apple and fresh citrus.
♥♥♥ Paul Cluver 2010 Spritzy almost vinho verde style well suited to shellfish and crustaceans.
♥♥♥ Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2011 Baked apples, honey, citrus and high acids. Lingers.

A Gewurztraminer for Galangal

♥♥♥ Paul Cluver 2011 Benchmark for Simply Asia. Steel, apples and roses.

A Trio of Red Blends

♥♥♥♥♥ Thelema Sutherland 2009 Ripe bell peppers, tobacco and leather with almost medicinal complexity and long savoury finish.
♥♥♥ Neil Ellis red blend 2009 Ripe stone fruit and spicy pepper. Good use of wood. Lively fruit, clean and zippy.
Elgin Vintners blend 2007 Complex nose, intense berry flavours. Dried fruit and some raisins.

Six Super Shiraz

♥♥♥♥ Thelema Sutherland 2009 Toasty, minty oak with sweet plummy fruit and unctuous melted chocolate.
♥♥♥ Arumdale 2007 Spicy peppers and sweet fruits. Deep and dark with serious yet silky tannins.
♥♥♥ Almenkerk sh 2010 Terroir of chocolate and chili. Red fruit and big oak tannins.
♥♥♥ Elgin Vintners 2008 Tobacco Rhône-style with peach peel and red fruits.
Neil Ellis 2010 Toast and chocolate and sweet candied fruits.
Winter’s Drift 2011 Sour cherries, cool climate style. Minty with serious tannins.

A duet of Cabernet Sauvignons

♥♥♥ Elgin Vintners 2007 Fresh, intense with good balance of fruit with spicy, minty oak.
South Hill 2010 Elegant and fresh young tannins. Cool climate Cabernet with bell pepper flavours.

A duo of Marvellous Merlots

♥♥♥♥♥ Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet 2010 Pétrus of the Overberg. World class. Ripe, spicy fruit turned up to the max. Big and booming with silky long finish.
♥♥♥♥ Elgin Vintners 2009 Spicy savoury with a silky texture. A true treat.

A Quintet of Pinot Noirs

♥♥♥♥♥ Shannon Vineyards Rockview Ridge 2011 Lively fruit, sweet strawberry and raspberry, creamy oak.
♥♥♥♥ Highlands Road 2010 Ripe cherry cheesecake with a dusting of spice. Superb.
♥♥♥♥ Oak Valley 2011 Classic Burgunday style: cherries and green bananas. Elegant and creamy.
Catherine Marshall 2010 Sweet cherry fruit and spicy toast.
Winter’s Drift 2011 Cherries and red berries, clean and fresh.