Elim: Cool Climate wine tourism comes of age

Monday, 2 September, 2013
Graham Howe
The cool climate vineyards of Elim near Cape Agulhas are a hot new appellation. Graham Howe surfs the new wave with the pioneers of extreme maritime terroir. 
We spent a wonderful evening sharing food and wine with a few of the pioneers of the cool climate wine of origin ward of Elim at the Strandveld Supper Club. This close community of generations of wheat and sheep farmers on the windblown plains of Agulhas, have developed the most southerly vineyards in Africa at the southernmost tip of a continent. Superlatives roll off the tongue and the wine brands as easily as the signature Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and white blends from this new maritime terroir.

Each of the winemakers and wives created a sublime course to match flights of Elim wines at dinner - from alikreukel (giant periwinkles) and Sauvignon Blanc to  mussels l’Agulhas and the area’s acclaimed Sauvignon/Semillon blends (Strandveld Adamastor, Black Oystercatcher White Pearl and Berrio's The Weather Girl). Every wine brand tells a fascinating story about the Cape’s maritime history - from First Sighting (after Dias’ first sighting of the Cape in 1488), the Navigator (Prince Henry) and Adamastor (the spirit of the Cape of Storms created by Camoes in the Lusiads) to The Berrio (a caravel in Vasco da Gama’s fleet which rounded the Cape in 1497).  

"It all started with Land’s End in the late 1990s” explains Dirk Human, “To grow the Elim brand we realized we needed to grow more local wine labels”. Land’s End Sauvignon Blanc - the iconic wine brand launched in 2000 by seven winemakers led by the likes of Hein Koegelenberg and Charles Hopkins - put the first fruits of Elim on the map as a new wine ward. The three Elim farmers who grew the grapes for Land’s End - Johan de Kock of Zoetendal Wines, Dirk Human of Black Oystercatcher and Francis Pratt of The Berrio Wines (originally with Bruce Jack of Flagstone) - bravely developed their own brands as well as partnerships with some of the big guys.

Francis Pratt takes up the story over dinner. “Around here we’re used to sowing seed to grow wheat and barley. Planting a stokkie in the ground and waiting years for those little green berries to grow was a new experience!” He talks about “the authenticity of the Elim style” - the delicate cool climate aromatics, flinty minerality, distinct flavours and elegant signature. The Berrio label declares “Each day we thank God for the wind” - the same wind which blew the early navigators around the Cape slowly ripens the grapes and concentrates flavours today say a chorus of winemakers.

“We must have the only weather station in Africa that NEVER registers zero wind” adds Conrad Vlok, winemaker at Strandveld Vineyards, who points out all the tall trellis poles taken out by the wind over the years - replaced by smarter, shorter new ones. They say that sometimes the south-easter blows for fourteen days non-stop. He adds, “You also can NEVER plant square vineyards on these deurmekaar slopes.”

Conrad picks up the thread of the Elim story once he completes cooking and serving what he calls his “vlokking fantastic” mackerel and yellowtail Thai curry in a potjie over the open fire. “This is as cool climate as wine gets in South Africa from my experience. You have to remember that cool terroir = climate, temperature and soil. Your window of opportunity to pick at optimum phenolic ripeness in this area is much bigger than in warm climate areas. When it comes to heat-sensitive reds like Shiraz, we get a fantastic flavour profile - and the Elim wine industry is only ten years old.”  

I came across display samples of the quartz, ferricrete and gravel soils with explanations of the correlation with distinct flavours in the tasting room of Strandveld Vineyards in old stone buildings. The red dry-stone walls made from the koffieklip stones hewed out of rocky soils to plant new vineyards are a landmark at cellars on the Elim wine route. Over a tasting of tank samples of 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from four building blocks from four sites at Strandveld Vineyards, Conrad Vlok comments:

“We have almost forty hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. We get great flavours of green figs, white asparagus and creamy oyster minerality with a wet gravel signature from the yellow ferricrete soils of our single pofadderbos vineyard; citrus, grapefruit and fynbos flavours from the white quartz soils of our weather station site - and a riper, more tropical spectrum of passion fruit and dusty buchu from the koffieklip soils at our Uintjieskuil vineyards (at 7 kilometres from L’Agulhas, the most southerly vineyards in Africa). We stick to what we get naturally. We get fantastic white pepper and dry minerality in Shiraz from quartz soils. Semillon is like sucking on a pebble.”

We moved onto a flight of the elegant cool climate reds emerging from Elim - Strandveld Pinot Noir, Shiraz and The Navigator (a blend of co-fermented Shiraz, Viognier and Grenache), Black Oystercatcher’s Cabernet/Merlot blend and Triton (Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz) to match Dirk’s rare springbok and wild farm mushrooms. The site of these rare giant mushrooms is passed on from father to son.

Former grain, sheep and dairy farmers in the Elim area are taking advantage of their proximity to L’Agulhas - a global tourist destination where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans really do meet at the southernmost tip of Africa. The happy feet of foreign and domestic tourists heading to Cape Agulhas, Gansbaai (world capital of white shark diving), Arniston and Elim (a historic mission station for runway slaves) are coming their way - attracted by tastings of cool climate wines at cellars such as Black Oystercatcher (the superb restaurant is open daily - and new cottages), The Berrio, Strandveld Vineyards (with cottages) and shortly, for the new season, Ghost Corner.

Welcome to Elim, the hub for the new frontier of cool climate wine tourism in the Cape. Named after the legend of the Israelites in the Bible - “They came to Elim where they found 12 springs and 70 palm trees”. When Nick Diemont and Gerrie Wagener, two of the owners of Strandveld Vineyards, bought the old sheep and wheat farm near Elim in 2002, they found it had twelve water fountains - and began planting three special sites of cool maritime influence with 70 hectares of white and red vines.

The Elim brand has grown into eight wine brands and 160 hectares of vines - led by Strandveld Vineyards/First Sighting (the biggest producer in the area), The Berrio, Ghost Corner (the award-winning Elim wines of David Nieuwoudt of Cederberg Cellar), Land’s End (formerly of La Motte/Hidden Valley, now in Charles Back’s stable), Quoin Rock’s Cape Agulhas/South Coast range from their Elim vineyards), The Giant Periwinkle and Trizanne (two boutique labels), and Zoetendal. The vineyards of Zoetendal and The Berrio have been leased out to David Nieuwoudt for five years who opens the newest tasting room in Elim for Ghost Corner later this year. There’s also La Motte’s new Sauvignon Blanc vineyard at Strandveld Vineyards.

My weekend in the Strandveld ended with a tasting at the restaurant at Black Oystercatcher, the hub of the Elim wine route set in the renovated old stables and dairy. The menu at the only cellar-door restaurant on the Elim wine route is foraged from their own herb and vegetable garden, local seafood and farm venison, and Sandra Human’s own recipes. Over a signature platter of local cheeses, farm breads, homemade preserves and cold cuts served on a giant barrel stave, owner-winemaker Dirk Human says his family have farmed the Agulhas plains for five generations

“I was chef when we launched the restaurant in 2008. If someone drives so far to taste our wines, where do they go for food? We used to milk 380 cows twice a day. Now we run a different kind of dairy. We’re open seven days a week in and out of season!”

“Sauvignon Blanc planted in these shale soils produces nettles, capsicum and kelp on the nose with a full minerality and a salty character. Semillon is also showing great potential in Elim. We always say ‘God made this soil on a late Sunday afternoon’. You’ll find ten types of soil within ten metres of each other. What made us plant vines here? Ignorance! People were looking for new cool climate sites in the late 1990s. We’ve only been here ten years - in another ten years we’ll know what to do! I never thought I’d be a wine farmer or make wine. My kids will reap the fruits, not me.”

* Seven Elim cellars will offer tastings and sales of their wines at the annual Elim Food and Wine Festival at Strandveld Vineyards on Saturday, 28 Sept 2013.  

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."