Elgin living legend: Neil Ellis

Monday, 6 November, 2023
Christine Lundy
“It is so easy to fall in love with Elgin.” - Neil Ellis, founder of Neil Ellis Wines.

Elgin is one of the Cape's more recent appellations. Although subsistence grape cultivation existed there since the 18th century, Elgin wasn’t spared by the phylloxera plague, which devastated the Western Cape vineyards at the end of the 19th century, so many vineyards disappeared. The resurgence of viticulture in Elgin began gradually in the 1980s, thanks to a group of individuals known as the "Elgin Living Legends”. They recognised the extraordinary winemaking potential of this unique cool-climate region. We aim to share some of their stories in a series of articles titled "Elgin Living Legends," with Christine Lundy, the marketing manager for Wines of Elgin and an experienced wine writer, leading the interviews.

Neil Ellis, a pioneer in site identification, grape sourcing, and site-specific wines, was also the first to produce certified Elgin Sauvignon Blanc in 1990, following changes in wine appellation regulations, using grapes from a vineyard planted in 1981. Therefore, it is fitting to begin this series with him.

I met Neil Ellis for the first time only a few months ago while trying to understand what made Elgin exceptional and why wine estates in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were interested in Elgin grapes. Listening to Neil's wealth of historical knowledge, surrounded by a group of South African visionaries and revolutionaries, made me realise the importance of reviving these "old" stories. While we are deeply focused on Elgin's exciting future, we must also reflect on the past to appreciate how far Elgin has come.

To explain his passion for site-specific wines, Neil Ellis took me back in time to the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes referred to as the era of "white coat winemakers." These individuals excelled in producing technically sound wines but lacked excitement, seldom setting foot in the vineyards. Neil, during his time as a trainee cellar master at KWV, had the opportunity to learn from some of the era's foremost experts in winemaking techniques.

His subsequent position at Groot Constantia exposed him to the influence of cooler-climate viticulture, leaving a profound impact on him. He produced the first Sauvignon Blanc and Rhine Riesling for the farm and the valley. His Constantia experience sparked his search for other cool-climate regions, ultimately leading him to Elgin. “It is so easy to fall in love with Elgin,” said Neil.

During those times, wineries primarily catered to the local market since exports were restricted due to apartheid regulations. White varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Riesling (Crouchen Blanc) dominated, with few noble varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc available. Vineyard health was unreliable, prompting today's efforts to develop virus-resistant vines, as being virus-free was insufficient.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a select few began sensing the winds of change and started exploring international premium wines. However, very few understood the need to prepare and focus on improving wine quality. Neil was part of a group of winemakers who formed a study group, seeking to better comprehend and appreciate the philosophy behind top wines. They aimed to appreciate the finesse and site expression of these wines, moving away from the "Parker style," which was characterised by heavier and similar in style.

The 1990s marked the inception of a wine revolution, encouraging winemakers to reconnect with the vineyards. This era saw a renewed emphasis on understanding specific sites, the emergence of wine shops, and the opening of new restaurants.

Neil knew early on that if he wanted to achieve his wine dreams, he would need to venture out on his own and source quality grapes from regions best suited for specific varieties. He entrusted growers to tend the vines while he focused on winemaking, utilising rented cellar space. His sights were set on Elgin, where he believed that the ideal conditions for apple cultivation also made it an excellent location for grape growing. His vision found support from Denis Johnson, who was then working for the Hall family and had a vineyard quota.

Today, the Whitehall Chardonnay celebrates the legacy of vineyards meticulously chosen by location. The grapes for this premium Chardonnay grew just down the road from the Whitehall farm, where Neil produced the first certified Sauvignon Blanc. The philosophy remains to craft Chardonnay of exceptional purity, reflecting the site and the season in which it was grown.

To give a bit more background on vineyard quota, at the time, the concept of an "estate" held a broad meaning, emphasizing quality, as wines made on-site from grapes grown on a single property were seen as a guarantee of quality. This notion posed a challenge for innovators like Neil, especially in light of the rigid vineyard quota system that confined winemakers to predetermined wine-producing regions with boundaries rooted in politics. This constraint was particularly frustrating for individuals like Neil, who recognized significant potential in alternative areas.

“To survive, innovation is imperative. As Elgin continues to grow and deepen its understanding of its soil and terroir, we will uncover even greater possibilities for the future of winemaking,” said Neil.

Neil Ellis once said in an interview with Wendy Toerin, and repeated it to me: "It takes 10 years to get to know and understand a vineyard site before you can formulate the appropriate wine policy, then another 10 years to find the ultimate expression of that site in the wine. That's 20 years... which might be half your working life!"

Let's see what the future holds for Elgin.

Christine Lundy

Christine Lundy is a French wine and lifestyle writer and marketer passionate about creative storytelling in writing and visual form. She came to South Africa 23 years ago with her South African husband. Her creative career started in luxury retail, advertising, and publishing. Fate led her back to the vineyards. Having grown up with Pinot Noir from her family estate in Burgundy, she had always had a passion for wine. She studied with the Cape Wine Academy and then completed her WSET 3. As she learned more, she wanted to share her knowledge and started writing for a number of magazines, including Classic Wine Magazine and Food & Home, where she wrote the wine column. A move to Johannesburg gave her the opportunity to return to high-end marketing with fine and rare wine importer Great Domaines. Back in Cape Town, she was given the opportunity to share the Wines of Elgin story and became their marketing manager.

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Neil Ellis. Photo: Christine Lundy
Neil Ellis. Photo: Christine Lundy

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