The wines of high-altitude Elgin are gaining increasing acclaim, none more so than the Paul Cluver Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest. By Maryke Visagie.
With terroir, it seems to be a case of the more we learn, the more we realise we don’t know anything.
The French just throw their arms in the air and say well, it’s mystical and we can’t explain it, but ours is the best, anyway. The more pragmatic of us try to understand it by isolating and quantifying different aspects of this vast cobweb of variables that make a wine-growing site unique.
Like a certain Mr Albert J Winkler from the University of California, who in the 1980s devised a “Heat Summation System” that divides the wine making world into five regions according to temperature, Region 1 being the coolest. Of course, Mother Nature isn’t that readily boxed into compartments. You can’t lift one thread of a cobweb without pulling a myriad of others sideways as well. Focus on temperature alone and you disregard such factors as soil, rainfall, windfall and slope.
Nevertheless, following Mr Winkler’s system, you will find yourself in Region 2 as soon as the car’s nose dips over Sir Lowry’s Pass into the Elgin valley. “Best for dry table wines of medium body”, advises Winkler, which sounds to me like Pinot Noir country. And yes, this valley is proving itself an excellent site for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and, in the case of Paul Cluver Wines, Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest.
Philip van Zyl, editor of the Platter’s memorably said at one awards ceremony that winemaker Andries Burger and his team can “just as well pitch a tent here”, given how acclaimed the NLH has become, the ’03, ’05 and ’06 all having received the guide’s ultimate accolade of 5 Stars. “We’re lucky”, says Burger about his Noble Late Harvest. “In all my time here, we’ve always had good botrytis development.”
Also known as Noble Rot, Botrytis cinerea spores latch on to the skin of the grape and feed on moisture from within. The effect is to concentrate the juice into a sticky, sugar-rich pulp.
The bright golden 2008 Noble Late Harvest (rated 4 Stars in this issue – see p.93) has hints of apricot, honey, cinnamon, mango and raisins. Noted UK wine commentator Matthew Jukes called the ’07 version “South Africa’s most celebrated sweet Riesling” and “one of the world’s most beautifully balanced sweet wines.” And a flagship wine needs to be treated just a little differently. “My viticulturist must hate the sight of me,” grins Burger, “because I send the harvesting team into the vineyard six, seven times. With every round they have to sort through all the bunches.”
He tries to find a balance between the drier, botrytis-infected grapes and ones with more juice to make a wine that’s got the characteristic botrytis flavours, but isn’t cloying. “That’s what so great about Riesling, it has enough acid structure to cut through the sweetness. We don’t have to cold stabilise our wine, so we don’t lose any acidity.”
Burger refuses to pick a flagship from their line-up, opting instead to refer to his “flagships”. Plural. For his Pinot Noir is as much a success story as the Noble Late Harvest, but it is a notoriously sensitive grape to grow and a tough wine to get right.
“Pinot Noir is unforgiving. You simply don’t get an average one. A bad one just won’t sell. Not to our market anyway, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Noble Late Harvest drinkers have a discerning palate.” He experimented a bit with the 2008 vintage and allowed wild yeast for 20% of the harvest. “I told Paul [Clver Jr, MD] I wanted to try a natural ferment with ‘a few bottles’. I was just a little vague on the amount.” And so far, it has paid off. “We left it on the lees for longer and found better natural extraction. The volatile acidity was also lower on this one than with the inoculated yeast.”
De Rust estate, on which Paul Cluver wines are produced, is a family-run estate with roots stretching back four generations. Just about every one of patriach Dr Paul Clver Snr’s children is in some way involved in the operations and indeed, any marketing photograph has to be taken with a wide-angle lens to fit everyone in. The estate was bought by Dr Clver’s great grandfather, primarily to provide summer grazing for his livestock, but gradually they established fruit orchards. Dr Clver realised the terroir would be perfect for winemaking and the area was proclaimed a growing appellation in the 1980s. The first vines were planted on De Rust in 1986.
Over the years, they have invested the community, originally in the form of providing mentorship to local forestry and farm workers in establishing Thandi Wines. Today they are actively involved in conservation and the promotion of eco-tourism. De Rust forms part of the Kogelberg Biosphere, and within it, the world’s first wine and biodiversity route that curves around the Groenland Mountain. They also formed a partnership with other producers in the area in Slowine, a wine brand in the spirit of slow living and slow cooking.
And slow living seems to be what Dr Clver is leaning towards now. Leaving his son, Paul Jr, to worry about wooing wine buyers and journalists alike, he now has a little more time for pottering about in De Rust’s huge garden filled with heirloom fruits and vegetables. Exotic yellow and green tomatoes stand side by side to fig trees, lemon trees, herbs and other vegetables, with ducks and African chickens clucking merrily in between.
Although they are recognised as pioneers for their work in “frontier territory”, so to speak, they aren’t alone anymore. Others followed and there are now commercial wineries across the valley, from Oak Valley to Elgin Vintners and Ross Gower Wines. Says Burger: “Elgin isn’t just a way to get to Hermanus anymore.”
“The emergence of the winegrowing areas, especially since they started doing well, was probably a bit of a wake-up call for producers from more established areas, who now have to look at what they do well and concentrate on that,” says Clver Jr. They play to their strengths too.
“We’re not going to make a Bordeaux-style red blend anymore, because we’re not really able to compete with Stellenbosch when it comes to this sort of wine. It would be like running in a marathon and getting the bronze medal.”
WINERIES TO VISIT
Highlands Road features a winery
and deli and offers mountain biking,
quad biking and horse riding.
Tel 021 849 8699.
Ross Gower’s winery is constructed
from energy efficient rammed
earth and here you’ll find Elgin’s first
Cap Classique. Tel 021 844 0197.
Iona’s wines come from vineyards
on a mountain plateau, 420 meters
above sea level. Tel 028 284 9678.
Elgin Vintners is a partnership
between six producers, with a
range of eight wines, including the
Bordeaux-blend Agama. Tel 021 848
South Hill was transformed from
an apple farm to a boutique wine
farm with a country guest house and
restaurant. Tel 021 844 0888,
WHERE TO EAT
Enjoy a wide variety of beer served by owner Grard ter Haar in Bear and Barrel
in Grabouw village. It is situated in the historic building that also hosts the apple
museum. 684 Main Road, Grabouw. Tel 021 859 2042.
Bring the kids for a hearty meal at the Thandi Farm Kitchen. Their speciality
is traditional tomato stew and you’ll receive a complimentary glass of red wine in
winter, or white wine in summer. www.thandiestate.co.za. Tel 021 844 0343.
Head out to Houw Hoek Farm Stall on a Sunday afternoon for their famous
buffet lunch, guaranteed to add a few kilograms. They offer a dinner dance on a
Saturday evening and an la carte menu during the week. Houw Hoek also offers
hopeful fishermen the chance to catch some trout and should you choose to stay
for lunch, they’ll prepare your catch for you. www.houwhoekinn.co.za.
Tel 028 284 9646.
The Orchard farm stall is famous for its croissants with preserves. Feel quite
Victorian as you sit in the tea room, sipping tea while overlooking the beautiful
scenery. Pop in to see the art in the gallery across the road or fill your basket with
goodies from the deli. Picnic hampers available. la carte menu available for
lunch, served inside or under the vines. Corner N2 and Oudebrug Road, Orchard
Road, Grabouw. Tel 021 859 2880.
A relative newcomer is the Inn on Highlands and if pizza or prawns make your
mouth water, you’ve come to the right place. Tel 082 559 8555.
The Venue restaurant on South Hill wine farm offers two or three course meals
and an Overberg-focused wine list. Tel 021 844 0888. www.southhill.co.za.
Tagged Wineries & Cellars