Beautiful Elgin graduates to top wine-producing area and visitor-friendly route with growing number of restaurants
THE OWNERS of Oak Valley Estate might have been the first to build a winery in the vicinity of Grabouw around 100 years ago, but it was Paul Cluver Snr who really got the Elgin winelands going when he planted his first vineyards in the mid-1980s and began bottling on his farm from the late 1990s. It’s been many years since the old cellar building at Oak Valley was last used for making wine – the Rawbone-Viljoens’ reds and whites are now made at the Paul Cluver winery on the De Rust Estate, as are the wines of other top producers including Frenchman Julien Schaal who grows Chardonnay in Elgin and Shiraz in the Hemel-en-Aarde area of the Walker Bay district encompassing Bot River and Hermanus.
Schaal used to lean on the Newton Johnsons in the Hemel-en-Aarde before switching to Paul Cluver, and there are numerous other examples of Elgin farmers who choose to either contract out to cellarmasters on other farms or rent cellar space in Elgin or Walker Bay rather than incur the cost of building their own winery. Elgin is also a place that a growing number of winemakers based outside the district want a piece of… That so many whose brands are associated more with Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek or elsewhere have bought land in Elgin or are renting a row or three of vines somewhere in ‘the basin’ speaks volumes of how it is taking off as a source of grapes for some of the country’s best wines.
Encircled by the Groenberg, Houwhoek, Kogelberg and Hottentots Holland mountains, vintners in the Elgin valley might have seemed slow to realise the potential that Distell/Nederburg and Paul Cluver began to (re)explore back in the ’80s. But naturally, it takes time to inspect the spots most suitable for planting vineyards, time for the vines to come into production and more time for them to mature to the point that the grapes can make for fine wines showing complexity and class. Five years ago you could almost count the number of consistently good wines from Elgin on one hand: Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Oak Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc and red blend, and Paul Cluver’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling Noble Late Harvest. Ten years ago, Paul Cluver and Iona were the only Elgin wine brands of note.
Today you need two hands just to list the top producers, let alone the various top wines (see below), and the premier league cellars outside the district who source grapes from Elgin to make some of their wines have grown in number to include Thelema (Sutherland), Tokara, Flagstone and Boschendal. Until quite recently, if you drove into Elgin to do a bit of wine-tasting there’d be very few properties open to the public without making an appointment, and finding a place to lunch was a big ask. Today there are some 43 growers, 24 brands and 17 tasting rooms on the Elgin Wine Route, nine of which can be visited without having to phone in advance. And good lunch options include the tables of Fresh @ Paul Cluver, The Pool Room at Oak Valley, the Platform 1 Eatery at Winters Drift and Gordon’s Country Kitchen (chef Gordon Manuel having previously been based at South Hill Vineyards).
Primarily, the valley has built its good wine reputation on the back of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Two of the standout exceptions to the rule include the Pinotage from Spioenkop and the Merlot from Shannon Vineyards.
The Pinotage is very elegant, delicate even, and we’re waiting impatiently for Belgian winemaker Koen Roose to release a version made 100% from Elgin fruit as opposed to the 1900 blend which originates partly in Stellenbosch.
And as for the Downes family’s Mount Bullet Merlot, well, what can you say… The winemaking begins in a vineyard just above the Palmiet River in Elgin and ends in the Hemel-en-Aarde cellar of the Newton Johnson family. Impressive year after year after year. One of those wines that you remember with a smile long after the bottle is empty.
And what to look forward to in 2014, other than the next vintage? For starters, the opening of a new home for Elgin Vintners at Ridgelands, which will also be the name of the new flagships from a producer whose wines have been crafted by various leading cellarmasters over the years.
PICK OF THE TOP ELGIN WINES
Elgin Vintners Chardonnay
Elgin Vintners Pinot Noir
Elgin Vintners Viognier
Highlands Road Sine Cera (white blend)
Iona Pinot Noir
Iona Sauvignon Blanc
Julien Schaal Chardonnay
Oak Valley Chardonnay
Oak Valley Pinot Noir
Paul Cluver Chardonnay
Paul Cluver Pinot Noir
Paul Cluver Riesling
Paul Cluver Riesling Noble Late Harvest
Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc
Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir
Shannon Mount Bullet Merlot
Shannon Rockview Ridge Pinot Noir
Shannon Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc
Spioenkop 1900 Pinotage
Spioenkop Sauvignon Blanc
Winters Drift Chardonnay
For more about the top Elgin wine producers, click on the links above. Click here for the latest reviews and all the prices