Elgin Takes on The World
I’ve just returned from a trip to South Africa, visiting the winelands of the Western Cape as well as attending Cape Wine, the South African wine industry’s showcase. This was my sixth fact-finding trip to South Africa since the turn of the millennium, and I can honestly say – hand on heart – that it was the most invigorating visit yet. The palpable sense of excitement that was hinted at on my last visit in 2013 has blossomed in 2015. It was almost as if the clean, crisp air of the Cape winelands in spring crackled with electricity: so many startlingly good wines, so many winemakers exuding quiet confidence, and round every corner new things to be discovered and new stories to be told.
The Swartland Effect
For the past decade one could be forgiven for thinking that Swartland was the be-all and end-all of modern South African wine. The explosion of interest in Swartland was down to the sheer quality of the wines being produced there, but also to the attitude of its handful of pioneer winemakers. That handful has now swelled to a small battalion; it seems like new names appear almost every other week. But the ethos of the Swartland revolutionaries has not changed: celebrating the Cape’s most ancient vineyards and giving them the respect they deserve, farming as organically as possible on the best terroirs, and making wines with minimal intervention.
All of that still lies at the heart of the Swartland philosophy, but if the ‘Swartland effect’ has been good for consumers, it has been even more significant for the entire South African wine industry. Many of those principles are being carried forward by an ever-growing band of winemakers across the Cape. Many of these are also of a new generation – the post-apartheid 20- and 30-somethings – who have grown up in a very different South Africa. But that’s not to say that the Cape’s most venerable estates in Paarl, Stellenbosch and other established regions have stood back or resisted change: once again, enthusiasm for change and improvement is everywhere.
Back to Basics
A return to fundamental principles and to artisan thinking is being echoed in wine regions across the world at present, but in the Cape I felt it so acutely: there is a desire to prove that South Africa has the grapes, soils and climate to make great wines in a global context – and winemakers who are intent on realising the promise of the past 20 years of rapid development. This is the first of a series of features from my visit which will build into a comprehensive report on South Africa 2015.
Chardonnay’s Promised Land?
I vividly remember my first visit to the Elgin Valley back in 2002. Then there were only a couple of wine estates in this apple-farming region 70 kilometres south east of Cape Town. But already many producers from more established regions of the Cape were sourcing fruit from there, recognising that this genuinely cooler-climate zone could produce something special for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and aromatic grape varieties like Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.
Today there are around 20 estates and, whilst the traditional crop of this region – apples – still dominates, more and more vineyards dot its rolling slopes. The secret is that cool climate. Elgin sits on an elevated plateau, accessible only via four mountain passes. Like an upturned saucer, the altitude rises between 260m and 500m above sea level. Lying between five and 20 kilometres from the ocean, its average temperature in peak of summer (February) is only 19.7C, falling to 16C in March as harvest approaches. There is a lot of cloud cover, and south-easterly winds create a cooling effect, with night time temperatures allowing grapes to retain acidity.
Elgin Takes on the World
In September 2015, the wine growers of Elgin staged a fascinating event to demonstrate the quality of Chardonnay being produced in the Valley. An expert seminar was led by Master of Wine Richard Kershaw, who also makes wine at his eponymous estate, one of the most respected in Elgin. In the seminar we would taste 12 world Chardonnays ‘blind’, without knowing the order of serving, origins or prices, only that six would come from Elgin and six from other Chardonnay hotspots. But first, Richard explained some of the aspects that he thinks make Elgin so special.
His first point was to reiterate the genuine cool-climate credentials of Elgin (so many world regions claim to be ‘cool’, but it is often a highly relative term). “It is,” said Richard, “by any measure the coolest wine region in South Africa.” One key measure is ‘growing degree days’, a summation of the productive hours of heat each day times the length of the growing season. Elgin experiences 1,500 degree days on average as opposed to 1,950 in Stellenbosch or 2,150 in Paarl for example.
But cool climate is also concerned with things like total rainfall, summer rainfall and evaporation levels. Evaporation is extremely low in Elgin, so there is very little need for irrigation: “dew points are reached earlier,” explained Richard, “so grapes stay damper for longer, keeping their temperature lower.” Right: Elgin in winter, photo courtesy WOSA.
Elgin’s soils are mostly Bokkeveld shale, with some Table Mountain sandstone (pebbles and sand) around the circumference of the valley. Currently there are 850 hectares under vine, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Pinot Noir, 11% Chardonnay and 9% Shiraz being the most prominent varieties (though 80% of agriculture is still devoted to apples).For winemakers Richard said Chardonnay is “an adored grape, because you can do so much with it: different techniques, different vinifications, make it reductively or with an oxidised character.” He acknowledges that South Africa’s clones of Chardonnay were not always up to speed, but the drive is on now to make world class wines. “In cooler climates like Elgin,” he says, “grape clusters stay connected to the roots for longer, meaning better development of flavour and retention of acidity.”
The harvest for Chardonnay tends to be up to two weeks later in Elgin than in most Cape regions – “harvesting in Autumn, not Summer,” says Richard. Scientifically, that means compounds called Terpenes and Norisoprenoids develop earlier, triggered by coming winter, that added layers of complexity to aroma and flavour. Slow ripening means grapes are picked at quite low sugar levels, usually resulting in wines of just 12.5% or 13% alcohol in bottle. Acid adjustment not usually necessary.Finally, Richard came onto the subject of oak which, with cool climate Chardonnay in particular, he says “must be a sparring partner with the fruit, not an opponent.” With a reminder that 2014 was “possibly the best Chardonnay vintage in Elgin of all time,” we moved on to the blind tasting.
The blind tasting
The first thing to say is that the notes below are exactly as written during the blind tasting and, as you will see, for the most part my conclusions on the origins of the wines were surprisingly accurate. Surprising because Chardonnay is capable of being moulded into various styles by the winemaker, and the differences between wines from different origins is not always as obvious as you might think. I think my performance in identifying the wines was down to a couple of factors: yes, I was on pretty good form, but also, the samples chosen were good representatives of the ‘classic’ styles of their regions. Most importantly, the six Elgin wines hidden amongst the 12 were really quite distinctive. I think this has to do with the sheer clarity – the luminosity – of their fruit and their acidity. It was certainly a superb showing for Elgin Chardonnay, and an utterly convincing demonstration of quality.