The Elgin wine region   
Part 1, introduction to South Africa's coolest wine district

elgin wine region map

Over the last 6 months, I've visited the Elgin wine region twice, and as a result I've begun to get to know it quite well. It's a very special region that is already making some stunning wines. And it has a lot of potential to grow and make even better wines, although currently some of its vineyards are under threat from the economic success of apples, the valley's most important crop.


Elgin, which is technically a district in the Cape South Coast region, has some unusual geography that makes it ideally suited to growing high quality wine grapes. It is South Africa's coolest wine region, and temperatures here rarely venture over 30 C. Andrew Gunn of Iona showed me a print out from a temperature logger in one of his vineyards, and it showed that over the 2016/17 growing season, the temperature only went over 30 C twice, and then for just a few hours each time. Vines love these conditions because they can carry on the work of steadily ripening the grapes; usually once the temperature passes 30, they shut down because of the risk of losing too much water.


The valley is unusual in that it is surrounded on all four sides by mountains. There are only four routes into the valley, and all of these are passes. Think of Elgin as an elevated saucer, where the valley floor is at around 300 metres, and is fringed by mountains: this is the only wine region in South Africa that is surrounded like this by mountains. In terms of geology, the mountains are made of table mountain sandstone, while the floor of the valley is decomposed shale. As the valley floor climbs to the mountain slopes, there's a transition zone.


Within the valley, there are all sorts of exposures: lots of little hills, and not so much completely flat ground. This makes for a range of microclimates, and so deciding where to put a vineyard and what to grow is a complex choice. When people first started planting vines here, they didn't think it would be possible to ripen reds, and Sauvignon Blanc was the great hope. Since then, it's become clear that quite a few varieties do well here: you just need to plant them in the right places.


On my October visit, I took a flight around the valley in a gyrocopter. From the air, you can see that there aren't all that many vineyards in Elgin. It's actually an apple growing district with vineyards rather than a wine region. The region was first officially delineated as a Ward within the District of Overberg as recently as 1990. At this time, apple growing was going through a bad time, so as well as pioneering wineries, lots of farmers planted vineyards because they thought it was a way to make money. Things have changed, and now apple growing is vastly more profitable than farming grapes. So quite a few vineyards have been ripped out and replanted with apples, and many wine producers also produce apples.


There are 7000 hectares of farming land in the valley, with 6000 hectares of orchards (mostly apples, some pears), which at the moment are making good money. There are just 800 hectares of vineyards, down from a high a few years ago of 1000, with vines disappearing every year. 'If we weren't passionate about what we do, we'd just rip out vines and plant orchards,' says Joris van Almenkerk of Almenkerk, one of the leading wineries in the valley. He points out that while there are 28 producers making Elgin wines, there are only 9 cellars in Elgin. A lot of the grapes leave the valley. Almenkerk has 15 hectares of vineyards, plus four more of apples and pears, and they've just planted some more apples.

Oak Valley, one of the largest farms in the valley, has 360 hectares of apples and are busy planting more. 'They say money doesn't grow on trees,' says Oak Valley's Brad Gold, 'but here it does.' He adds, 'If you are just selling grapes, you are better off planting apples.'

 paul cluver
Paul Cluver

Paul Cluver, whose family winery was one of the pioneers of Elgin winegrowing, agrees that Elgin is currently in a state of flux. The second largest grape grower in the valley, Malteno (with their brand Winters Drift) has moved away from vines. 'They took a position and ripped out 60 hectares of vines,' he says. 

Still, there's plenty of optimism about the wines that are coming out of Elgin these days, economic issues concerning the profitability of grapes aside. Chardonnay, in particular, is causing quite a buzz, and Richard Kershaw, a relative newcomer, is leading the way. His most recent releases are a three-pack of Elgin Chardonnays titled 'Deconstructed', from different clones and soils. They retail at 2400 Rand, which is an unprecedented price for South African Chardonnay. The good news is that wines like these will, by virtue of their pricing and market positioning, raise the price ceiling and prestige of Elgin Chardonnay. The result will be that some of the current excellent Chardonnays from the Valley, which are underpriced, will be able to sell for a bit more. This should ensure the future of vines in Elgin, and stop the vineyards being ripped out for orchards. Because this is a very good place indeed to grow wine grapes.


'Chardonnay is where this valley is going with whites,' says Brian Smith, of biodynamic boutique winery Elgin Ridge. But Brian is realistic: his Sauvignon Blanc is his biggest seller, and Almenkerk also sell out of their Sauvignon Blanc each year. Iona built their reputation with Sauvignon Blanc: this is why it is the most widely planted variety in the valley. Joris van Almenkerk agrees with Brian about Chardonnau. 'But Elgin should not be a one-trick pony,' he says. 'The styles of our wines are so distinctive that restaurants don't need to bump a wine of the list to put an Elgin wine on.'

For reds, two varieties are beginning to get quite a bit of attention. The first is the obvious one: Pinot Noir. It's a variety that has been grown here for a while, but it's only recently that producers have been able to get some real elegance into the wines. One of the leaders here is Paul Cluver, who have used Martin Prieur of Domaine Jacques Prieur as a consultant. Martin visits regularly and gets his hands dirty, and the 2014 and 2015 releases of the Seven Flags Pinot Noir, the top bottling from Cluver, have shown real elegance and purity.


More recently, a number of producers have begun to get excited about Syrah, which can do really well here. Andrew Gunn says that he's very excited by the potential of this variety. His Solace Syrah is evidence of just what this variety can do here. But other things also do well: look at the impressive results that careful viticulture has achieved with Merlot at Almenkerk.

With its cool climate, Elgin is also making some very nice MCC (sparkling wine) emerging, with one producer, Charles Fox, specializing entirely on MCC production. With the rise in interest in sparkling wines, expect to see more fizz from Elgin. I have the feeling that we are yet to see exactly what this small wine valley can produce.


Elgin Ridge 
Paul Cluver

See also:

A visit to Elgin from 2010

Wines tasted as indicated  
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