Retrieving the Elgin Marvels

When the new CEO for the country’s latest industry body, simply named SA Wine, slips into his or her chair, there will no doubt be a number of pressing issues to contend with. One of which is to act on the acceptance of the fact that the Cape vineyard is too weighted on Chenin Blanc and Colombard – over 40% of total wine output – and that if the quest to premiumisation is to be followed, greater emphasis needs placing on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Reasons being that the latter are universally seen as desired white wines with captured markets, require no introduction to the wine world and command the kind of international prices able to inject the economic impetus into wine farming with which the local industry is tasked to expedite. The establishment of SA Wine no doubt being a new vehicle to help with this.

Be assured, the new CEO should be, that as far as espousing the merits of both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay go, there is great support from the growers and vinifiers of these classic and renowned varieties. Just look at Sauvignon Blanc SA, the first local grouping to bring an international wine competition to South African shores, namely the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon that rolls-in in March. Chardonnay brothers and sisters are also doing it for themselves and have done so ever since De Wetshof Estate launched its first Celebration of Chardonnay event in 2006. This was held until 2018, but since then the Chardonnay Forum has been active in spreading the gospel of Burgundy’s great grape in a Southern shroud. And through its annual Chardonnay Colloquium, Elgin continues to confirm its pride in the region’s commitment to growing Chardonnay, as well as making distinctive and diverse offerings from its 130ha under cool-climate Chardonnay vines.

The most recent Colloquium was held on South Hill Vineyards, one of the region’s 20 wine producers, and besides the variety of wines appraised and discussed, my take-out was that Elgin’s human capital has played, and continues to play, a major part in the establishing of the region as a force in Chardonnay, local and other. The team’s collaboration in sharing a common value of commitment to Chardonnay as a communally loved variety, together with a belief in the ability Elgin geography has to honour the grape through a ream of diverse excellence, is as attributable to the success here as are the cool, elevated vineyards growing on Bokkeveld Shale soils and the resident gifted winemaking skill.

Paul Clüver addressing the Chardonnay Colloquium.

Paul Clüver, MD of Paul Clüver Family Wines, who pioneered Elgin Chardonnay in the early 1990s, proudly asserts that Elgin Chardonnay leads the way when it comes to garnering awards for this category, outshining Stellenbosch, Robertson and Hemel-en-Aarde in appraisal from both local and international critics.

“With only 130ha of South Africa’s over 6 000ha under Chardonnay, I think Elgin can feel justifiably proud in what we have achieved in only 30 years of making wine from this grape,” he says. “This confidence has led to a real bullish feeling among Elgin producers who are now more than ever on a quest to show the world that not only Elgin, but South Africa is capable of making some of the best Chardonnay in the world. The more we get this message out there, the better for the South African wine industry as a whole.”

At the Colloquium, other notable personalities and Chardonnay acolytes included Andries Burger, Clüver’s winemaker from the outset, the commanding presence of Andrew Gunn of Iona and Richard Kershaw MW, who is the region’s local savant, information resource and, of course, a fine winemaker himself.

Joris van Almenkerk, Rudi Schultz from Thelema and Neil Ellis’s Warren Ellis are international wine voices in their own right. And throw in the youthful eager eyes of Jacques du Plessis of Oak Valley and Werner Muller, Gunn’s winemaker, and one has a pretty competent team of homo sapiens to espouse the gospel of Elgin vitis vinifera Chardonnay along with the overall brilliance of the wines.

Some 12 Elgin wines were shown at the Colloquium, with Margaret River, California and Burgundy thrown in to spice things up. The Elgin grouping reminded me of commentary from an American importer at last year’s Cape Wine, who said that he found a “lack of diversity in the overall style of South African Chardonnay”.

Going through the Elgin line-up, my view was of exactly the opposite – and here I am talking about 12 wines from one region. In the four flights, of which three wines originated from Elgin, there was a discernible and intriguing degree of variation, yet all harnessed by a thread of vivid varietal expression and accurate cellar-work.

The wines on offer were:

Highlands Road 2020

Idun Callipyge 2020

Paul Wallace Reflection 2021

Paul Cluver Estate 2020

Neil Ellis White Hall 2021

Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021

Iona Highlands 2021

Oak Valley Groenlandberg 2021

Thelema Sutherland 2020

Almenkerk 2019

Kershaw Clonal Selection 2019

Tokara Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs 2014

While there were and subsequently have been lofty and enlightened appraisals of each wine, my joy in the Colloquium lay in being reminded of the unbridled deliciousness good Chardonnay offers, and how tasty the wines from Elgin are.

Almenkerk 2019 and Highlands Road 2020 are short-skirted seductresses, fleshy curves and sculpted muscles allowing flavours to reach the parts where other wines don’t, thanks to their proactively personable engagement. I have always been a huge fan of Joris’s wines for this very feature, finding a honey-suckle and floral nectar to the Chardonnay that is truly delightful.

I would single-out Highlands Road as the most audacious wine of the day. Deeper in its golden hue than the other local Chardonnays, the flavours of golden apple, warm hay and lime sherbet – all drifting lazily on a dark and threatening thundercloud of spice and fynbos – was truly exciting.

Tasted blind, one wine had me writing the simple descriptor of “This is Chardonnay”, which turned out to be Paul Clüver’s Estate 2020. For here all the varietal descriptors were ticked with a double-weight fountain pen dipped in Burgundian free-run juice. There was citrus-peel, of the thick Cape lemon variety that offers an engaging pleasant bitter grip to the finish. Flame-charred almonds lurked, broodily, while flutters of white peach, Packham pear and white flowers made the wine sing. But the greatness lay in the texture, a corralled focus with ripples of alert energy throughout.

Burgundian expert Remington Norman complemented proceedings with his presence.

Known for the graceful power of its Merlot and Pinot Noir, Shannon had me surprised with a Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021 so delicate it was on the edge of being coy. Cool and long on the palate, there was shyness and restraint in the fruit, which was wrapped in a fragile floral coating, perked by an acidic sparkle that grew on the finish.

And Kershaw, of course, was as meticulously assembled as one could expect from Sir Richard. Clonal Selection 2019 was the wine, a pretty loud and powerful number thundering along through a cold field dappled with various sensorial offerings. A crunchy pear was off-set by rows of butter-cup, and just as the salt-green tang of a Granny Smith apple makes an appearance, a scented meadow-breeze calms the senses, finishing a primal gravelly grip reminiscent of wilderness and big skies broken by wind and ocean spray.

Whoever, thus, takes command of South African wine, welcome to Elgin Chardonnay country. It is going to be a great journey, this is for sure.

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Chardonnay Bell Tolls at Almenkerk

Despite my unashamed propaganda-mongering for the French Huguenots, you have to hand it to the folks from Dutch-land. Messrs Malan, Joubert, Du Toit and Du Preez would still be growing melons and raising goats in Franschhoek if the mighty Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) had not thrown a lifeline in the late 1600s by offering them the opportunity to give up their national identity and swap croissants for stroopwafels and “voilà” for “heel leuk”.

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