Tim James: Iona and the rise of Elgin

By , 31 January 2022

Iona, Elgin.

Iona was still harvesting its maiden sauvignon blanc in the last week of March 2001, wrote Angela Lloyd  in Grape magazine a few months later, “with the final pick due the first week of April’. The grapes were taken to Thelema to be vinified by Gyles Webb and Miles Mossop. It says something about the coolness of particularly this part of Elgin that Thelema had already taken in the last of their Stellenbosch sauvignon – a month previously, in fact.

Some happy guests tasted that 2001 Iona Sauvignon Blanc last week at a lunch given, at Aubergine restaurant in Cape Town, to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the first Iona harvest and the 25th anniversary of Andrew Gunn’s purchase of the farm. Andrew had contemplated being an apple farmer, but the market was then in a state of collapse, so, with the advice of the eminent viticulturist Eben Archer, he shifted to wine grapes – and hasn’t looked back. Another anniversary is also worth mentioning, as important for the enhanced reputation of Iona. 2022 is the tenth Iona vintage of the estate’s first full-time winemaker, Werner Muller (formerly working with Gottfried Mocke at Chamonix), after a period of little stability in the cellar. I reckon some significant improvements in many of the wines date from then.

As I suggested in my recent rush through the past 50 years of Cape wine, Iona’s establishment in a way presaged the emergence of Elgin as a source of fine wine, especially sauvignon (which remains overwhelmingly the dominant variety), chardonnay and pinot (pretty equal in hectarage and ahead of syrah, with a dozen other grapes in monor places).

Not that Iona was the Elgin pioneer – it was more a symptom and expression of a whole new world. Paul Cluver Estate already had a cellar, and some reputation for its own-label wines since 1997, having collaborated with Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (precursor of Distell) for some Nederburg wines in the mid ‘80s. And, rather surprisingly, the area’s other huge estate, Oak Valley, had had vines (and a cellar – though this later disappeared) from the early 20th century. The all-powerful KWV’s devotion to quantity rather than quality helped to reduce the vineyards to a few hectares of cinsault by the mid 1980s, when an “Elgin Cultivar Evaluation Trial” was conducted with Nietvoorbij. (See the excellent e-book of Oak Valley’s history for interesting detail on all this.)

Andrew Gunn of Iona.

It was the abandonment of the KWV’s notorious “quota system” that allowed Paul Cluver to build a cellar, and farmers like Andrew Gunn to start planting grapes. Klein Constantia winemaker Ross Gower, for example, was another outsider who was early on convinced enough to buy an Elgin farm. Gunn was also a force behind the new Elgin Wine Guild (and a quixotic proposal for a Code of Conduct aiming to regulate aspects of site and plant selection). He says now that the work of the Guild “resulted in many more plantings in Elgin than there would have been”; adding that it still exists but is now “more like a wine tourism initiative”.

So Elgin grew and prospered. For a while it seemed that most of the best grapes would leave the area to be bottled by the likes of Tokara, Thelema and Neil Ellis. Plenty still do leave, but the number of cellars and dedicated wine farms in the appellation has grown significantly since Iona took root (to well over a dozen) – including the return to prominence of the great Oak Valley estate. But the apple market has grown strong again and some vineyards have reverted to being orchards. Andrew Gunn says: “Apples have become the main competitor in Elgin and it’s a no-brainer unless you invest in a cellar and build a strong brand, and even then there is no guarantee of success. The wine business requires deep pockets, hard work and tenacity.” He adds that “We do have great wines coming out of Elgin, with a lot of juice finding its way over the mountain.”

But what of that Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2001, off three-year-old vines? Of which, incidentally, fewer than half a dozen bottles survive in the Iona cellar. I’m having to review my opinion about old sauvignons, having  recently tasted some brilliant examples of longevity from Klein Constantia (see here). The Iona has, unsurprisingly, less intense fruit, than those, a more notable (but still restrained) green bean character and greater sense of starting to tire; but it is remarkable good for a maiden vintage off infant wines. What stands out is the brightness and fine acidic structure – something that characterises the excellent but very youthful Elgin Highlands Sauvignon Blanc 2021 we also tasted (and the fine Chardonnay 2020, for that matter).

Less impressive, it must be said, were the two older reds we were offered: Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 and Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. The latter was the better and one could, being kind, speak of herbal rather than green notes. But the Bordeaux varieties have not exactly proved to be Elgin’s strength. Pinot Noir is the obvious red contender for the area; the Iona one was not previously among the best, I’d say, but the fresh and bright 2018, with a little perfumed charm added to the earthy and sour cherry notes, and especially the Kloof and Kroon single vineyard versions show how much this variety is improving under the guidance of Werner Muller in the cellar – and no doubt improved understanding of the vineyards, and vine age.

Syrah, too, is showing real promise. Richard Kershaw, for example, makes a very good example, and the Solace 2020, from the farm of Rozy Gunn – warmer than Iona proper – is worthy of pretty much all the enthusiasm that Christian evidenced for it recently.

If the Hemel en Aarde is probably the Cape wine area with the highest proportion of vinous hits, the fewest misses and the highest average bottle price, this other Cape South Coast district must be catching up. Yet another reason to be immensely grateful for the collapse of the quota system that suppressed Elgin’s winegrowing potential for so long. Congratulations to Iona on its first quarter-century.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013


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