Elgin Ridge   
Part 2, exploring Elgin, Africa's coolest wine region

elgin ridge

Brian and Marion Smith are biodynamic pioneers in the Elgin Valley, with their Elgin Ridge wine estate.

elgin ridge 2Brian Smith, vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa, and Marion Smith

They moved to South Africa in 2007 after selling their Kingston-based IT business. They'd always wanted to do a vineyard project but it took them a while to decide where. Initially they had thought about making sparkling wine in the south of England, but the land was just too expensive. Then they considered France, but found that the wine industry was in turmoil and most of the properties on the market were there because the people were struggling to sell their wine, and they were expensive to boot.


So they turned to South Africa, and a property in Elgin that ticked all the boxes. Marion had first visited Cape Town in 2002, and liked it so much she came home having brought a holiday flat. Brian visited in 2003 and while he was staying there tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that he liked so much (the debut vintage of Iona), he went to visit the owner, Andrew Gunn. They became friends.

kosie van de merwe
Winemaker Kosie van der Merwe

The combination of affordable land, and knowing people there led to the purchase of an abandoned 10 hectare apple farm in 2007. 'It turns out that we have wonderful soils,' says Marion. 'This was more luck than judgement,' Brian adds. 'It is great that we were able to plant from scratch.'

The winery

They started off by planting 4.5 hectares, with 3.5 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and half a hectare each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Initially they farmed organically, and then converted to biodynamics, making them one of the very few certified biodynamic wineries in the Cape. Since then they have added more vines, including some Semillon, more Chardonnay, and even a bit of Cabernet Franc. For the first few years Brian made the wine with help from Niels Verburg, but as of the 2016 vintage they hired Kosie van der Merwe, a talented young winemaker who is now running things. Viticultural consultant Kevin Watt helped get the vineyards established.





In October 2016 I visited, and had a look around the vineyards with vineyard manager Taurai Matunbwa, and then a tasting with winemaker Kosie van de Merwe. I really like what's going on here, and in particular the Pinot Noir and sparkling are very interesting. The Sauvignon is made in a more complex and interesting style than most in South Africa, which sometimes counts against it in competitions, but it's an interesting drink.


For the Sauvignon Blanc, which is the bulk of production, the 2016 vintage was a warm one, but the wines showed good retention of acidity. The cool weather in February saved the vintage, and harvest was in the first week of March. 'We harvest on taste because we want ripe flavours,' says Kosie. They open up the canopy quite a bit promoting thiol precursors, and pH was around 3.3 with acids at 5.4-6.

This year, the must was settled for three days and no enzymes were used. Juice was heated up to 15 C for fermentation to start, and Kosie tried to keep it there as it progressed. Biodynamics allows the use of a yeast nutrient called 2B Fermcontrol, which is really useful.

I returned in March 2017 to spend a day getting stuck into vintage, and I also had a chance to revisit the wines. The tasting notes below are from both occasions, with month/year of tasting indicated.

elgin ridge


Elgin Ridge 282 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Elgin, South Africa
A nice growing season has resulting in a really appealing wine. Lovely textural Sauvignon with ripe pear and melon characters, as well as a bit of tangerine. It's a ripe yet balanced style with some complexity and a smooth warmth in the mouth that reminds me a bit of sake. Very much in a ripe fruit spectrum, and works so well. 91/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge 282 Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Elgin, South Africa
This was a challenging year which required rigorous selection in the vineyard, and the final wine had some botrytised fruit in it. Half the normal quantity made. Very pure, fresh citrus, pear, spice and ripe apple notes with a touch of apricot and maybe a bit of sweetness. Textured with melon and peach skin characters. 91/100 (10/16)

Elgin Ridge 282 Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Elgin, South Africa
14.5% alcohol. Very pure, fresh citrus and pear fruit on the nose with some passionfruit richness. Fresh and detailed on the palate. Quite delicate and precise with lovely citrus and passionfruit, and some fruit sweetness. Some alcohol evident. 92/100 (10/16)

Elgin Ridge Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa (cask sample of final blend)
6 barrels made, 1 of which is new. Very linear and spicy with nice citrus and some pear fruit, with apple and spice. Zippy and vigorous with some some oak. Lovely. 92-94/100 (10/16)

Elgin Ridge Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
CY95 clone, barrel fermented in old barrels. This is tight and a bit unyielding at the moment, but there's lots of potential here. A hint of struck match on the nose and some cedary, spicy structure on the palate, as well as fresh lemony fruit with some spicy detail. There are richer elements here, and they are competing a bit with the keen acidity and shy citrus fruits, but this should come together really well. 93/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 Elgin, South Africa
(Cask sample) First vintage was 2012, and the vines are now seven years old. Lots of fruit was dropped this year and there was a lot of sorting. 777 clone is punched down lightly and goes to stainless steel. 667 is fermented in 500 litre bins with 12% whole bunch on top. 115 goes into the concrete egg. Nice sweet red cherries and plums with some elegance. Very fresh and supple, and really nicely expressive. 91-93/100 (10/16)

Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2015 Elgin, South Africa
100% destemmed, into stainless steel, 3 d cold soak, natural ferment of around 10 days, go to barrel with free run, pressings go to separate barrels, kept separate until blending. Attractive aromatics with sappy red cherries and plums. Lovely fresh cherry and plum fruit palate with hints of herbs and tar and a nice spiciness under the fruit. Drinkable, with a nice combination of sweet and savoury notes. 90/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 Elgin, South Africa
This is Kosie's first vintage. One third in stainless steel, one third in plastic bins, one third in concrete egg. A bit of carbonic in the plastic bins, with 80% destemmed and 20% whole bunches on top. This has a lovely silky character in the mouth, which makes it stand out, with a combination of sweet fruit and elegance. Floral and expressive with liqueur-like raspberry and cherry fruit. There's a subtle, sappy edge to the floral nose, with fine cherry fruit and appealing texture. It has an immediate appeal, but there's also some seriousness here. 94/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge MCC 2011 Elgin, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. Such a distinctive fizz. 83% Pinot Noir and 17% Chardonnay, with the base wine made oxidatively, fermented in stainless steel and going to barrel for 2 years, stirred every 3 weeks. Then the wine spend 3 years in bottle on lees with zero dosage. Full yellow colour with a hint of pink. Intense but delicate too, with ripe apple, pear and a hint of strawberry. Lovely texture with some almond and apricot. 91/100 (10/16)

Elgin Ridge MCC 2012 Elgin, South Africa
25% Pinot Noir, 75% Chardonnay. Natural ferment, two years in oak, then three years on lees for the second ferment, zero dosage. This wasn't made as a commercial preposition but because co-owner Marion Smith wanted some fizz, but it has turned out to be quite a good seller. This is the second vintage. Rich, appley, waxy nose combines sweet and savoury elements. On the palate there are ripe apples, almonds and some sweet melony notes. There's a richness to this wine that's quite delicious, and some baked apple, marzipan and pastry characters, too. A brave wine. 90/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge MCC 2013 Elgin, South Africa
100% Chardonnay, natural ferment, two years in oak. This is an undisgorged bottle, and it isn't released yet. There's a lovely rounded creamy texture to this wine, which shows lovely citrus characters typical of Chardonnay, with some crisp apple notes. Has lovely richness to the crisp fruit, with a warm textural, slightly nutty thread. Real complexity to this, with some pastry richness. 91/100 (03/17)

Elgin Ridge Chaos 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Debut vintage for this 40% Semillon/60% Sauvignon blend. The Semillon was partially destemmed, whole berries in a barrel with some whole bunches on top. After a few days the whole bunches was hand destemmed, and the whole berries were then pressed and went back o barrel. The Sauvignon Blanc was destemmed, pressed and fermented in barrel. Bottled in 500 ml bottles. Complex, spicy and intense with a savoury twist to the taut, waxy citrus fruits. There's some nutty detail, here, too. It's clean but complex with a bit of structure. A good acid core runs through it. It's not an orange wine, but it has an almost red wine-like presence, with some structure. Give this time. A brilliant food wine. 93/100 (03/17)


Elgin Ridge 
Paul Cluver

See also:

A visit to Elgin from 2010

Wines tasted as indicated  
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