There are wine brands that I grow into trusting. Others delicately instil trust through providing impressionable bits of joy and genius. Then, one or three grab me by the throat and force me to trust them through their sheer power of conviction and unbridled brilliance.
Neil Ellis and his wines belong in the latter category, and when push comes to shove and someone decides to take a fair look at the South African wine industry’s most successful brands over the past three decades, Neil’s going to stand up, right on top.
Placing your name on a brand, as Neil has been doing since 1984, is a bit like going for broke at the poker table. Or to put it in farmer terms, putting your balls on the line. Because it’s your name on the bottle, and if it doesn’t work, there ain’t no place to hide and there’s no other thing to do but to get out of Dodge. Pronto.
This is Neil Ellis, however, and things have gone right. The winery owns a few vineyards, like Groenekloof in Darling, but because it all happens in the vineyard, Ellis has built the model in South Africa of managing and sourcing the fruit to match a style of wine-making.
These days, he says it’s the Kid Warren Ellis who’s the real maestro. Warren, goes Neil, has a special ability to look at a vineyard and right then and there determine the style of wine it is going to give.
Far too heavy for me to comprehend, but I’ll happily take the results as I have yet to meet a Neil Ellis wine that has not lived up to the expectation imparted by the initial assertive trust.
The Groenekloof exploits have pretty much led the Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc fame, but recently I met Amica Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes growing up Jonkershoek way. Vintage 2015, and a Sauvignon Blanc that has been given some crafty treatment. Like 80% of the wine being naturally fermented. And an eight-month period in 500 litre French oak. This care and astuteness makes for a Sauvignon Blanc that one could call genuinely cerebral as it stretches the somewhat confined space this variety likes to run in.
Jonkershoek soils are quartz and granite, so I am not even going to use the M word for minerality in this wine as it is as much of a given as hairspray is at a Donald Trump convention. Together with the spontaneous ferment, the relative warm summers of Jonkershoek and the coaxing of wood, the stony soils have helped give the wine depth and structure. If you want pyrazine, asparagus and feline urine, best go to a Chinese supermarket because it is not in this wine called Amica.
What there is, are grace and brightness on the palate with a glowing sunniness I think South African white wines do better than anybody else. A succulent gush of citrus and white peach provide a wonderful freshness, while a line of roasted cardamom and dried figs offer an exotic, exciting edge to a really fantastic white wine.
As we know by now, Cabernet Sauvignon is King in Stellenbosch and South Africa, and whoever claims to wear the crown is going to have to share it with Neil Ellis. The first wine to bear his name was a Cabernet Sauvignon and throughout Neil’s wine making career, Cabernet has been a part of the journey. The Neil Ellis Jonkershoek Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 lives up to all expectations, and for me offers the clearest glimpse into the Neil Ellis style of wine making.
It’s made from a north-west facing vineyard in Jonkershoek, soils are decomposed granite – the key to Stellenbosch’s Cabernet pedigree. The wine-making is no-nonsense, meticulous and exact: pump-overs until dry, a further period of maceration and then18 months in new French oak. Making the vineyard do the work, yet still applying a scientific and exacting eye to the magical process of grape turning into wine.
The wine is deep garnet and oozes an aroma you can eat with a spoon and smell 45 metres away – downwind. It is that pure Cabernet Sauvignon smell of spilt blood, rained-on tar and crushed pine-kernels. This is all too great not to drink in big mouthfuls, and the experience is one of tear-inducing joy.
Crammed with black and blue berries, the wine is lined with pencil, leather and a bit of Habano cigar. A visceral freshness offers a sense of consuming something living, with silky, plush and velvety tannins lining the mouth and it all ending in a brisk note of burnt orange peel, dried porcini and Iberico ham.
Un-mistakenly Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon. Definitely Neil Ellis.
True greatness is not found, it comes hurtling your way. And you better not duck or you’ll miss it.
- Emile Joubert