As featured in the June issue of Decanter: Though lighthouses as aids to navigation are all but redundant due to GPS, the one at Cape Agulhas will surely not fall into complete disrepair, it being the southern tip of Africa’s distinguishing landmark. Built in 1848, it is South Africa’s second oldest and is today a national monument; walk a little distance from the lighthouse and you come to a plaque marking the official meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
For wine enthusiasts, there’s now even more reason to take note of the area. Though viticulture has only been practiced here for some 15 years, the resulting wines are already impressing industry observers, as indicated by them starting to appear regularly among the 5-Star laureates in respected local wine guide Platter’s (the 2008 white blend known as The Weathergirl from The Berrio in the 2010 edition, the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from The Berrio plus the 2009 white blend Adamastor from Strandveld in 2011).
Most of the vineyards in the district of Cape Agulhas fall within the ward of Elim (after the town of the same name, originally a Moravian mission settlement) and it is thus this specific appellation that forms the focus of this article (which is not to say there are no noteworthy producers in the greater Cape Agulhas area – both Lomond near Gansbaai and vineyards belonging to Stellenbosch winery Quoin Rock outside of Bredasdorp are producing noteworthy wines).
The story begins in the mid-1990s, the period which saw the end of KWV’s stranglehold over the industry. Until then one of the many powers exercised by the central co-operative was to determine where wine producing grapes could be grown. The political transformation occurring at that time facilitated wine industry deregulation and this, in turn, lead to the map of the Cape winelands being significantly redrawn.
Charles Hopkins (winemaker then of Bellingham, later of Graham Beck and now of De Grendel), Hein Koegelenberg (MD of Franschhoek winery La Motte) as well as one or two other forward-thinking individuals became interested in the potential of Elim – there was a growing awareness of the merits of cool-climate viticulture and they thought the strong onshore winds which prevailed there during summer would give them exactly that. They partnered with farmers in the area, the first vines being planted in 1996 and the first release of a wine under the Land’s End label being a Sauvignon Blanc 2000.
Today, there is a total of some 140ha of vineyard planted in Elim (up from 35ha 10 years ago) of which Sauvignon Blanc makes up more than half. Single variety Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends from the area are what have so far made the most impact while Pinot Noir and Shiraz show promise. Only Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot so far seem underwhelming.
A defining character of the wines, both whites and reds, is fruit purity and freshness. Precisely because of the cool ripening conditions enjoyed, grapes move to full ripeness more gradually and reach it later than is typically the case in South Africa, resulting in wines that are remarkable for their high acidities and low pH values. “I’m always very conscious of my acidities,” says Strandveld winemaker Conrad Vlok (also responsible for second-label First Sighting). “Because of our acidities, we potentially struggle with drinkability,” says Dirk Human of near-by Black Oystercatcher. No doubt commercial concerns weigh heavy but it would be a great pity if Elim producers attempted to moderate precisely what currently sets them apart.
In terms of flavour profile, the whites have a cool greenness about them. How much grassy character to tolerate on Sauvignon Blanc is controversial the world over, but these wines are certainly not under-ripe but rather delicate and poised and it’s that acidity that typically gives them a seemingly endless finish.
As for the reds, they provide a convincing counter-argument that South Africa is only capable of big and burly. Think elegant and graceful rather than powerful and weighty. Pinot Noir, in particular, is worth paying attention to. Though plantings amount to all of 10ha in total, what’s been produced to date suggests that Elim will soon rival South Africa’s best producers. The maiden vintage Anders Sparrman 2009 from Strandveld recently hit the market and slots in right at the top of the local hierarchy. Production was 200 cases and despite a relatively hefty price tag of R310 (£25) a bottle, was sold out pre-release.
As to who are now the major players, this is how it breaks down. The Land’s End brand continues to exist but is now owned by Dave Hidden of Hidden Valley Wines, grapes trucked from Elim to the Stellenbosch winery, where Louis Nel is in charge of winemaking. Meanwhile, Hopkins and Koegelenberg have left the scene and the three local farmers originally involved in Land’s End are forging ahead with their own labels, The Berrio belonging to Francis Pratt and Zoetendal to Johan de Kock in addition to Human’s Black Oystercatcher.
Human, Pratt and De Kock practice mixed farming (sheep, dairy and beef cattle, cereals) on massive properties, their undertakings increasingly under pressure to remain economically viable and hence the diversification into wine. This strategy has a real chance of succeeding if the calibre of winemakers who buy fruit from them for their own labels is anything to go by, these including Bruce Jack of Flagstone, David Nieuwoudt of Cederberg and Trizanne Pansegrouw, previously of Anwilka in Stellenbosch and now making wines under her own label.
The attraction for Nieuwoudt? “No extreme heat. Temperature [in the lead-up to harvest] is a big factor.” He makes a Sauvignon Blanc and a Semillon, which he bottles under the David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner label, while a reserve Semillon has featured on Cape Winemakers Guild auction a few times. “So potent, so multi-dimensional,” he notes of these wines. “I have to check myself talking it up too much at this stage but the area’s got unbelievable potential.”
Pansegrouw, once again, appreciates that Elim is cool climate. “Climate change is something we cannot ignore anymore and I believe that Elim is a relatively safe choice for grape growing now and for the future. We’re not exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations like elsewhere in the country, allowing for long ripening periods.” She adds that the area’s moderate and relatively reliable rainfall (about 500mm a year) is also in its favour.
Last but not least among Elim producers is Strandveld, the winery owned by a consortium in which Nick Diemont is a leading figure. Diemont, previously involved in the running of such premier South African properties as Boschendal, Bouchard Finlayson and Vergelegen, was interested in a property with strong maritime influences and after considering Darling and Durbanville, opted for Elim.
The first Strandveld vineyards were planted in 2002 and winemaker Vlok, previously of export group Baarsma and then Delheim in Stellenbosch, arrived in time for the 2005 harvest. As with his neighbours, it’s his Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon that have particularly impressed to date. Whereas quite a few of South Africa’s best examples of Sauvignon Blanc are multi-regional blends, Vlok wouldn’t countenance buying in grapes from elsewhere. “The Elim designation is precious and I don’t want to barstadise it.” It might not have registered much with you until now but expect to hear far more about it in future.