Elim and the Cape South Coast revisited
By Jamie Goode | 10th March 2019Back in 2010 I visited Elim, on the Cape South Coast. That's almost nine years ago now, and back then it seemed a relatively new wine region full of promise, largely because this was one of the coolest regions in South Africa. And, as we know, grapes tend to perform best when they are grown near the margins of where ripeness is possible. In the Cape there's no shortage of sunshine and heat in most wine regions, so cool-climate viticultural areas are prized. And Elim competes with Elgin for the prize of the coolest Cape wine region. However, cool climates do bring their challenges, leaving very little margin for error with the grape growing.
Back in 2010 I visited Elim, on the Cape South Coast. That's almost nine years ago now, and back then it seemed a relatively new wine region full of promise, largely because this was one of the coolest regions in South Africa. And, as we know, grapes tend to perform best when they are grown near the margins of where ripeness is possible. In the Cape there's no shortage of sunshine and heat in most wine regions, so cool-climate viticultural areas are prized. And Elim competes with Elgin for the prize of the coolest Cape wine region. However, cool climates do bring their challenges, leaving very little margin for error with the grape growing.
Back in 2010 there were a group of five pioneering producers: Strandveld, Black Oystercatcher, Berrio, Quoin Rock and Zoetendal, and I met and tasted with them. On my return, I attended an event that was part of the tri-annual Cape Wine celebration held at Bruce Jack's farm. This gathering wasn't focusing solely on Elim, but the broader eastern part of the Cape South Coast region (not including the better known Elgin, Bot River and Hemel-en-Aarde regions that form the western part of the Cape South Coast). Of those five Elim producers, just four remain, as Quoin Rock is no longer in the region. But add to them the likes of Ghost Corner, Bruce Jack, Lomond and Sijnn, and suddenly you have an exciting group of producers.
As well as a cool climate, Elim has interesting soils, too. The dominant soil is called koffieklip (coffee stone), and it’s quite distinctive. It consists of lumps of iron-rich clay cementing together smaller stones, and it is actually pretty soft: you can usually break it apart with your bare hands. There’s also shale, and some granite and quartzite. The main problem for viticulture here is the wind, which can be problematic for grape vines. Wind buffeted vines show short internodes – the gaps between the nodes where the leaves form. And when it's very windy, the vine loses too much water through its stomata (the pores on the underside of the leaf that allow air, containing the carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis, inside), so it closes them. As a result photosynthesis, and hence growth, can shut down, delaying ripeness.
Conrad Vlok and his Strandveld winery are the leaders in Elim. Conrad has been planting new vineyards, and currently has 80 hectares of vineyard, out of a total of just 160 hectares in the region. He's been adding 10 hectares a year, and along with Francis Pratt of the Berrio, these are the two producers who are actively planting here. 'No one else is going to plant grapes in Elim,' he says. 'People aren't planting vineyards and our wine industry is under threat. They will run out of grapes.' Conrad is positive about the new plantings, though. 'It's exciting because we can do things right, where we've made mistakes in the past. We are 15-20 years down the line.' Many of the grapes from the region are being used for sparkling wines – Methode Cape Classiques. The Strandveld Sauvignon Blanc is particularly impressive, as is the Bordeaux-style white blend, the Adamastor.
One of the stars of the region is David Nieuwoudt, who makes his Ghost Corner wines from Elim fruit. David is actually based in Cederberg and makes the wines there, but Ghost Corner is an Elim-focused project. His Sauvignon Blanc is exceptional, and for me is one of the very best from South Africa. He is also famous for Semillon, which is very distinctive when grown in this cool spot, giving a distinctive green pepper edge to the wine. It ages fabulously. 'This area, Constantia and the upper Stellenbosch are three top regions for fantastic Bordeaux white blends,' says David. 'Semillon is a forgotten grape,' he adds. 'It can make world class wines, and they age.' We tasted the 2011, and it was still fresh and had plenty of life in it.
'This area is becoming one of the most exciting in the Cape winelands,' says Lomond winemaker Hannes Meyer. Based in Agulhas, close to the ocean, Lomond is a large farm of 1000 hectares, with 120 hectares under vine. It was owned for a while by the giant Distell, but was sold to its current owners Geoff Mgiver and David Mosterd a few years ago, and the wines have improved. The wines have up till now been made in Stellenbosch, but they have built a new cellar on the farm for the 2019 vintage. While Lomond make some nice reds, the real star here is Sauvignon Blanc. They make two premium examples, the Pincushion and the Sugarbush, from different soils, and they are both compelling.
Sijnn (which is pronounced like 'sane') is an exciting project from Stellenbosch producer De Trafford that is now 10 years old. It's based further east, in Malgas, and here the soils are quite different to those of Elim: alluvial pudding stones over shale/schist. These stony, bony soils make very interesting wines: a Chenin-based white with freshness and focus, and a red blend based on Syrah, which is elegant and slightly meaty. In addition, Duncan Savage takes some grapes from the farm which he uses to make an exceptional Touriga Nacional/Syrah blend called Are We There Yet.
Bruce Jack has owned the Drift farm for 25 years. It's an isolated place, and he didn't plant any vines here until 2002. Then there was a big fire that took out three-quarters of the vineyard in 2006, so he planted again in 2008. Behind the farm there is a mountain – Lizard mountain – which was formed 330 million years ago. The soils have degraded on either side of the mountain, and that's what he grows his grapes on. He says that these are ancient Antarctic soils. 'The climate is very different here,' says Bruce. 'In the southern Overberg we talk about elegance. These are the most elegant wines in the world.' And Bruce's The Drift Pinot Noir and his Over The Moon are indeed both very elegant, light, ethereal wines.