The Elgin’s best

Friday, 29 November, 2013
Michael Fridjhon, BDLive
Cool climate is a relatively new term in the vocabulary of South African wine producers. In the days when growers were paid on the basis of crop size (calculated at 10% alcohol) the trick was to aim for volume and bump up sugar. Ten thousand litres at 10% alcohol was worth pretty much the same as 9,000 litres at 11% alcohol and 8,000 litres and 12% alcohol — and so on.
Unsurprisingly, the warmer sites, which favoured higher alcohols and more generous yields, were more in demand than places where ripeness was always a battle.

When Tim Hamilton Russell sought a more Burgundian (cooler) location he didn’t exactly enter into a bidding war for land in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley: why would anyone be chasing lower quantities at lower alcohols if the playing fields were tilted in favour of higher yields and riper fruit? Before growers were driven towards the yield-alcohol nexus that defined the old order of statutory protection for wine farmers — and which prevailed from the 1920s to the 1990s — not all Cape viticulture focused on the brandy potential of wine grapes. In fact, in the 19th century there had been vineyards around Hermanus.

Still, for nearly a decade no one really followed Hamilton Russell to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. For a start, there were problems with obtaining planting quotas. If you weren’t going to be allowed to produce wine from your low-yielding vineyards, why make the investment in the off-chance that the legislation might be amended?

However, by the second half of the 1980s it was clear that a major revamp of the way the wine industry was administered was imminent. Cool climate land was still relatively inexpensive so many of the start-ups of that era started sniffing around the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

However, one of the more obvious — and more proximate — locations was Elgin, but because it was the heart of a lucrative deciduous fruit industry, land wasn’t cheap. The first players there were apple and pear farmers with both the interest and the inclination to test out the suitability of their properties for new-wave grape growing. They were followed by some specialist cellars, of which Iona comes first to mind. Initially, a dedicated Sauvignon Blanc producer, owner Andrew Gunn, in time moved on to a number of different varieties, including Chardonnay, Shiraz and more lately Pinot Noir.

To read more, head to Michael's Blog on BDLive, click here