Sipping in the deep south

Sipping in the deep south

For a wine region famed for its cooling coastal breezes, there’s little sign of the sea on the road to Elim. 

Here, on the Agulhas Plain, the back roads are hemmed in by wide pasturelands and the stubble left from a rich harvest of winter wheat. The only hint that the Benguela and Mozambique currents are mingling a few kilometres away is the cool air whipping across the empty fields. In the distance, fynbos-clad hills mark the northern boundary of the wide flat lands leading towards Cape Agulhas. 

It’s an area known for its frontier spirit: of ancient sailors battling wind and wave to discover new worlds, the shipwrecks of those who foundered and of the farmers that followed to craft a new life from these limestone soils.  

That history is writ large in the wineries that have sprouted from these hills in the past 15 years. First Sighting and The Navigator honouring the watchful sailors battling the Agulhas seas; Zoetendal, for the precious fresh water that feeds many of these vineyards; The Berrio, named for one of the caravels passing Agulhas under the command of Vasco Da Gama; and Lands End, in homage to the iconic lighthouse of Cape Agulhas at the very tip of Africa.

There are others out here too: Quoin Rock, somewhat in limbo at the moment due to auctions and court battles, the garagiste producers of Bredasdorp’s Giant periwinkle, and the wide open vineyards of Land’s End. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no shortage of wineries out here on the windswept plains.

But those were all to come. 

My first stop after the drive from Cape Town was the cool confines of the Black Oystercatcher tasting room. Outside, a shaded stoep wraps around what used to be the stables and milking shed of the Human’s family farm. These days, in what is perhaps a sign of the times, the cattle are gone and it’s been transformed into a stylish yet homely tasting room.

‘The first question people ask is why we make wine here,’ chuckles Dirk Human, whose family has farmed in the region for five generations, and have worked these 1800-hectares for nearly half a century. And disregarding government meddling in wine wards prior to 1996, there’s a straightforward answer. If the question could be answered with a single word, it’s this: terroir.

As changing climates and changing tastes see wine makers scrabbling for cool climate vineyards, the diverse soils of the Agulhas Plain are proving themselves among the most exciting new vignerons in the Western Cape, with a scattering of farms producing stellar wines… often against the odds. 

In the early days it was the likes of Bruce Jack, Johan de Kock, Charles Hopkins and Hein Koegelenberg who gambled on the cool climate – coupled with a rare supply of fresh water in a region where the groundwater is often brackish – around Elim having the potential to produce great grapes. 

Since those first vines were planted in 1996, the wineries here have steadily made a name for themselves by turning a challenging terroir into an opportunity for producing wines unique to the region.

‘Our soil type and our proximity to the coast is key to growing grapes in Elim. Of course you can be close to the coast and hot as hell, or close to the coast and too humid, but our specific climate here is perfect,’ explains Dirk, who planted his first vines on the farm in 1998. ‘We’re surrounded by coast on three sides and we have constant wind directly off the ocean so it’s still quite cold; it keeps temperatures down and diseases out of the vineyard.’

With little elevation to the vineyards it’s the wind alone that keeps the mercury low, and a nearby weather station shows that in the past decade you can count the number of still days on one hand. 

But if the terroir above ground is predictable, what lies beneath is a different story altogether. A single vineyard can contain up to five different soil types: from quartzite to ‘koffieklip’ ferricrete, impermeable clay to weathered shale.

‘My dad always said that God made this land on a Saturday, late-afternoon,’ laughs Dirk. ‘He wasn’t really paying attention... He just threw in all the leftovers.’

But a boer maak ‘n plan, and in Elim that means teasing unique flavours from each of the soils. 

‘We’ll pick the grapes separately from each soil type and you can identify them in the tank,’ says Dirk. ‘They have very different, distinctive flavours coming out. There’s a herbal – almost buchu – flavour from the quartzite, a kelpy note from the broken shale, and a mixture of the two off the ferricrete.’

‘But it can be very difficult to manage… there’s also the soil depth that’s an issue: the soil can vary from 20 centimetres to a metre and a half,’ admits Dirk. ‘In the beginning we made lots of mistakes, trying to work out how to manage this particular soil in certain conditions. Birds are also a huge problem for us. There is canola, barley, oats and wheat in the fields around and the birds then come and raid the vineyards.’

It’s not the last time I hear grumbles about birds during my few days driving around the region, and a number of farmers resort to netting the bunches once the vines begin to bud. Making wine a few kilometres from the southern tip of the continent is clearly not without its problems, but the unique terroir offers a unique flavour profile to the Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir and Shiraz that the area is most famous for.

‘The intensity of the white wines, in particular, is what drives people to this area. We have intense minerality and flavours that are very true to the cultivar. That’s simply down to the soil and the terroir,’ says Dirk, as we pause our tasting to order lunch. Black Oystercatcher runs a homely farm-style restaurant throughout the year, with hearty portions off a globetrotting menu. Much of the produce comes from the farm’s vegetable garden, and during hunting season local game is a highlight. 

I opt for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with my meal. It’s a speciality of the area, with Black Oystercatcher’s bottling offering a delicate balance of crisp tropical fruit and minerality. I’m impressed too that we’re drinking the 2011, the latest release from the estate.

‘As a whole our terroir lends itself to maturing our white wines: we have low pH, good acidity,’ explains Dirk. ‘You’ll see at all the wineries here: the wines are crystal clear, and the lower the pH the better the wine will age.’

The same applies to the red blends – a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Shiraz – on offer: ‘The red wines are a very different style to Stellenbosch or Paarl; I think it’s a more elegant style. I also leave the wines in the bottle for two or three years before release. They’re elegant reds with very strong flavours and tannins that could be mistaken for green flavours if not left in the bottle to mature.’

The white wines are the standouts at Black Oystercatcher though, and although I’m not much of a Sauvignon Blanc fan, the gentle acids and crisp minerality quickly win me over. So too the Semillon, which comes to the fore in the ‘White Pearl’ blend, where the rich Semillon and crisp Sauvignon Blanc marry perfectly. A low-alcohol Rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is also a big-seller, says Dirk, and a small batch of pink Méthode Cap Classique is in the pipeline.

Although he’s not afraid to tinker, in the end the Elim region needs to develop its own identity, says Dirk: ‘We need to concentrate on what’s really different in our wines; the things that we do well. Our Sauvignon Blanc has a real identity, and I think in a blind tasting people could easily taste a Sauvignon Blanc from Elim. The Semillon from this area is brilliant too… and if I decide to plant further I’ll look at Shiraz and maybe a Pinot Noir. It’s a nightmare to farm with Pinot, but it’s a great climate for it.’

I’ve long enjoyed Pinot Noir from the region, and my next stop is at the winery doing more than any other to prove that the ‘heartbreak grape’ can thrive on the windy plains of Agulhas.

Strandveld Wines traces its history back to 2001, when a group of enthusiastic wine-lovers decided to set up their own vineyards and decided the windswept fields around Elim were just the place. 

‘When we planted here we started with Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, with just tiny amounts of Grenache, Viognier and Mourvedre,’ says winemaker Conrad Vlok, who joined the estate in 2004. ‘Then later on we planted Pinot Noir, and the Pinot out of the area definitely looks like it has potential.In the last five or six years especially, Elim has been producing some very special wines.’

The Strandveld portfolio is split between two brands: the entry-level First Sighting that includes an excellent Shiraz and value-for-money Pinot Noir, and the flagship Strandveld range. While the First Sighting Sauvignon Blanc 2012 picked up a gold medal at this year’s Veritas awards, it’s in the Strandveld selection that the real expression of Elim terroir shines through, perhaps most noticeably in the white pepper of the Syrah and bright strawberry notes of the Pinot Noir.

And while it’s the two single varietal reds that grab me, Conrad is just as proud – well, as proud as this unassuming, straight-talking winemaker can be – of his Sauvignon Blanc. 

And rightly so: his 2012 Strandveld Sauvignon Blanc – produced from a single vineyard block – picked up a gold medal at the Concours Mondial Sauvignon Blanc awards in France this year, one of just six gold medals to come from South Africa. Typically, Conrad passes much of the credit onto the soils in the ‘Pofadderbos’ vineyard that produced the wine. 

‘This ferricrete is a very good soil for Sauvignon Blanc. It has more tropical fruit flavours than the quartzite gravel up top that gives us the flinty minerals. The secret to our Elim wines is all in these little micro-terroirs.’

But those micro-terroirs all have one thing in common; the relentless wind, and it’s the harsh conditions of the Agulhas Plain that inspired Conrad’s remarkable blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The Bordeaux-style ‘Adamastor’ pays homage to the mythological titan of the sea imagined by poet Luís de Camões in his epic poem ‘The Lusiads’. The literary figure may have long been associated with the cutting winds and harsh storms of the southern Cape, but out of the bottle Vlok’s Adamastor slides across the palate as smoothly as a day in the doldrums.

And the 2010 vintage is particularly interesting; with fierce winds stripping buds off the vines and leading to an exceptionally low yield. The Sauvignon Blanc was cold-fermented in stainless steel, while the Semillon was barrel-fermented and lay on the lees for 10 months. The end result: a wine that is both full-bodied on the palate, but fresh with a dry minerality. 

‘For us Semillon is a wonderful blending component; it’s also a very important part of the First Sighting Sauvignon Blanc. It works well in a cool climate as it reduces the acidity on your Sauvignon, reduces your alcohol. It helps to age the wine with a nice waxiness. I like the flavour profile it adds to the Sauvignon Blanc,’ says Conrad.

And yet while the wines in the bottle go from strength to strength, finding a market remains a challenge for the Elim wineries that often lack the marketing clout of the larger Stellenbosch estates.

Strandveld produces 24 000 cases a year, of which 6000 are exported, and it’s in the overseas market where the well-travelled Conrad sees the region’s true potential.

‘If you really want to grow a wine business, you can’t look at your local market: our domestic market is just not growing fast enough. If I’m growing 10 percent a year all I’m doing is taking wine away from someone else. The fact I’m growing my sales of First Sighting just means someone else is selling less of their wine. That’s not what we want.’

For it strikes me that Conrad would like to see the whole area selling more wine, not just his estate. The region’s handful of wineries are just a few kilometres apart, and there’s a friendly camaraderie between the winemakers.

The sun peeks out the next morning as I drive up the palm-lined drive to The Berrio, where Francis and Franchen Pratt have around 40 hectares of the 1400-hectare wheat farm under vine. At one end of the sun-splashed tasting room a sign reads what should perhaps be a mantra for the Elim winemakers: “Praise the wind”.

‘The wind is a good thing, but it is constant, and it’s a factor in the growing capacity of the vineyards,’ laughs Franchen, after a brief tasting of their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon range.‘It’s a difficult area to farm in: between the wind and the birds, nothing comes easily.’

As with Black Oystercatcher next door, their Sauvignon Blanc is the standout here, with a nose and palate bursting with a balance of fruit and minerality. And as with the other estates, a blend of Sauvignon Banc and Semillon – here, a 67/33 blend dubbed ‘The Weather Girl’ – is also a stunner. Pinot Noir is planted on the farm but mostly sold to other producers, while a Shiraz is due for release in 2013. 

Shiraz has become the stand-out for Land’s End winery too, established in 2000 and now run as a partnership between Dave Hidden of Hidden Valley in Stellenbosch, and wine-marketer extraordinaire Charles Back.

‘There’s something so special that you get in Elim that’s a common thread in both white and red grapes; there’s a saltiness and minerality you simply don’t get in other regions,’ says winemaker Emma Moffat. ‘It’s definitely the sea breezes and the longer cooler ripening period. The wines here have an elegance that you don’t get elsewhere.’

Alongside Shiraz, the 14 hectares of vineyard in the area includes Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.  Both the Land’s End Sauvignon Blanc and award-winning Shiraz reflect Elim’s coastal terroir, but it’s one rather unusual bottling that has the closest connection to the sea.

In late-2010 a 225-litre oak barrique of Shiraz was encased in a concrete coffin and lowered beneath the waves two kilometres off Cape Agulhas.  

“Superior red wines need to be oak-matured at consistent temperatures and humidity. Underwater at Cape Agulhas is an ideal, natural environment:  the temperature is consistently around 13ºC and the humidity is constant,” explains Hidden. ‘I decided to make the sea an integral part of the wine-making process in a way that had never been attempted before.’ 

Fifteen months later the barnacle-encrusted barrel was raised and the Shirwaz bottled. The result? The highly-prized ‘Shipwreck Shiraz’, of which just 290 bottles are available. 

Hidden isn’t the only winemaker to go to great lengths to use Elim grapes in great wine.

Cederberg Cellars has bought grapes from the region for years, with David Nieuwoudt’s outstanding Ghost Corner range crafted from Elim grapes trucked 300-kilometres north. Nieuwoudt buys in Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir and – for the first time, this year– Shiraz from selected wineries, and praises the cool-climate characteristics on offer. 

‘Elim is just ideal for Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon,’ enthuses David. ‘We get very intense green pepper; dusty, fynbos, asparagus notes; and a minerality that separates the wines from everything else.’ 

The good news is that Ghost Corner will soon have a new home on the Agulhas Plain after signing a three-year lease on the cellar at Zoetendal, where Johan de Kock planted the very first vines in the region. 

‘We feel it is important to give Ghost Corner an address,’ says David. ‘Ghost Corner had to be completely different to Cederberg. It has its own identity and that is what is so fantastic with sourcing the grapes from Elim; two extreme terroirs creating completely different wines.’

It’s perhaps fitting that I end my tour of the Elim wineries where it all began. While Johan De Kock has decided to hand over the cellar to Ghost Corner, he still has a few bottles of his remarkable Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz to hand.

‘The Shiraz is just a perfect reflection what this terroir can do,’ he says, as the wind whips across the vineyard rows and a murmur of marauding starlings whips in from the fields. 

‘When we started off we had no idea if this was going to work. It’s not easy and we don’t get big crops… although we get better crops than what the experts anticipated. It has taken time, but we’ve learnt to farm here and the rewards are outstanding.’ 

First Published: 2014-01-15 ClassicWine magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.