The mind-boggling expansion of vineyards to all possible corners and new terroir in the winelands – accompanied by a hectic proliferation of wineries and labels – has opened up a plethora of new possibilities for the wine explorer and the tourist.
But no other ‘new’ area has in recent years offered such potential for discovering unique attributes of both the environment and the product of the vine, as Elim, the recently proclaimed ward that is now the southernmost wine production area in the country. And, arguably the coolest.
Obviously the wine visitor facilities are still scanty in this quite remote area, although only some 200 plus kilometres from Cape Town – situated roughly west of Bredasdorp and Struisbaai. But, the hot news for that area is that work is about to start to construct a new tarred highway linking Bredasdorp and Gansbaai, over Elim and Baardskeerdersbos.
Meanwhile, the area boasts vineyards that are literally a few kilometres from the southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas – a name which quickly got lapped up to denote one of the new local wine enterprises, Agulhas Wines. This is one of a handful of new local wine ventures, marked by a rare ‘interconnectedness’ and mutual collaboration that becomes quite a brain-teaser to unravel once the enthusiastic cellar pioneers start telling their story. In fact, there are today five producers and two local cellar facilities, while about ten wines have been bottled to date … some in Stellenbosch and Somerset West.
My guide during a mid-winter visit to the area, was Willem Loots of Zoetendal Wines, situated on the banks of the Nuwejaars River, just outside the picturesque Elim village from which the area’s name obviously derives. It was right in the centre of this old Moravian missionary settlement – at the crossroads next to the imposing church building – that I had my early morning rendezvous with Willem, who is now firmly dug in here, following a career as winemaker at Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch. And a more different and challenging domain Willem could not have chosen … wide open expanses with rolling hills and plenty of waterlogged vlei areas and linking streams, with the Bredasdorp and Heuningberg Mountains in the distant background, close to the undeveloped coastline flanked by the Agulhas National Park.
Willem and his wife, Louise, with three children, have moved into a new house alongside the new Zoetendal Cellar. Suddenly there are the new realities of driving the offspring long distances to school on dirt roads that in winter become muddy hazards. Of course, you have to plan you shopping and social life smartly as you can’t just dash down the road. Willem is in partnership with the original owner of the land, Johan de Kock, a leading local sheep and wheat farmer. Having coffee with them in Zoetendal’s cosy tasting room, one has an unspoilt view over the river, and vineyards in the distance, to where Elim nestles on the hillslope with its characteristic, multicoloured little thatched-roof dwellings. The cellar was built here a year ago and everything looks brand new – even the freshly cut wood below the sandstone fireplace in the tasting room.
The whole thing, they explain, was kickstarted by the Land’s End project in 1996. Johan played golf at Bredasdorp with well-known winemaker Newald Marais, who asked why he did not grow vineyards on some of his expansive tracts of land in the area. The first vines – belonging to a syndicate comprising, Johan de Kock, with Charles Hopkins, Hein Koegelenberg, Johan Wiese, Pieter Strauss, Michael Loubser and Dirk Human – were planted on the farm Moddervlei. The land belonged to Johan and his wife, Elizan and 15 hectares were planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Of course, the project went by trial and error … learning to live and work with the realities of a totally different climate and terroir. “The soil contains plenty of salt and there’s a lack of trace elements … we paid our school fees at Land’s End,” said Johan.
Meanwhile, two other local farmers, Dirk Human and Francis Pratt had also started planting vineyard, with Francis later “climbing out” and starting a wine venture with Bruce Jack (of Flagstone Wines, Somerset West), called The Berrio, name after the first ship that first sailed around the southern tip of Africa. The Berrio was apparently the first brand in the market, having bottled a Sauvignon Blanc at Flagstone’s Somerset West facility from the 2000 vintage. Today, the concentrated, fruity 2005 Sauvignon is accompanied by a velvety soft 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon in the portfolio. After The Berrio followed the establishment of Agulhas Wines by Nic Diemont, where Conrad Vlok, previously with Baarsma and Delheim, is now the winemaker for his First Sighting Wines. Vlok also makes wine here for Dirk Human, whose own brand is called Black Oyster Catcher – named after the endangered ocean birds that thrive along this coastline.
My next stop on this Elim tour was Dirk’s farm, also Moddervlei, where he showed me the extent of the new plantings for the Malachite Project adjacent to a large, newly constructed dam for irrigation. Having just had ample rains and the presence of running water all over the place, water shortages or excessive heat don’t appear to be threats in this area. Human has taken the lead with yet another local farmer, Con Neethling, in establishing Malachite Wines – an empowerment business which will see 60 hectares of wines being established in partnership with a black group who will own 15%.
“Our vineyards are bordered by oceans on three sides; the cool sea breezes constantly caress the grapes, allowing them to ripen gradually. Furthermore, the maritime terroir of this peninsula provides cool laterite, sandstone and broken shale soils in conjunction with mild temperatures and a high light intensity during the ripening stages. These factors serve to endow the grapes with intense berry flavours.”
At the Agulhas wine cellar, largely constructed of the porous coffee stone that is abundant in the soil, Conrad Vlok proudly displayed some barrel samples of the First Sighting and Black Oyster Catcher wines. It was particularly notable that the local Sauvignon Blanc wines develop grassy flavours with hints of asparagus, rather than green pepper-like characteristics, with a distinctive minerality. The samples of Shiraz tended to be more on the spicy side, with less pronounced fruit. My favourite was the First Sighting Shiraz 2003 with plenty of soft white pepper on nose and palate … and, was it my imagination, hints of fynbos.
There were also interesting barrel samples of Smillon, Merlot and Pinotage.
“Obviously it’s still very much experimental and a matter of growing with the wines and learning about the intimacies of the local conditions,” said Conrad.
Back at Zoetendal, during an informal braai luncheon, I could familiarise myself more with the character of the local wines. The 2004 Zoetendal Sauvignon Blanc is quite light, with that mentioned minerality and a dash of asparagus. The 2004 Shiraz, obviously better suited to braaied chops, was pretty full and spicy, but already very drinkable with soft tannins. It would appear that the Elim producers have put plenty of faith in Shiraz, which is known to be more of a warm climate cultivar, while Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, is again more suitable to cooler climes. The results so far are interesting, with some pleasant surprises, but one cannot help wondering whether this ‘mix’ was not influenced more by current market fashion rather than awareness of local conditions and potential.
The Quoin Rock company, which owns and manages a wine grape farm in Cape Agulhas for vinification at its cellar in Stellenbosch, says on its website the area is especially suited to producing grapes which benefit from cooler ripening conditions such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. “Higher humidity, frequent rainfall and soil moisture during the ripening period of the grapes can pose risks to viticulture with losses to botrytis being quite common. The uniquely cooler ripening conditions preserve flavour and acidity in the grapes with tannins remaining soft and elegant.
Bruce Jack likens the local south-easterlies and south-westerlies “that blow almost every day” to a “huge airconditioner”.
“A vine concentrates 50% of its energy growing skyward so the wind becomes a massive restrictor to vegetative growth encouraging the vine to concentrate on producing concentrated fruit … the wind also dries out excess moisture including overnight dew.”
He adds that there is a “huge disparity” of structure and trace element interaction over a small distance. “I believe this increases the potential for complexity in the wines. This type of soil’s main advantage is workable and practical stressibility which allows control to develop small, concentrated berries,” said Bruce.
Meanwhile, there is no lack of enthusiasm and drive among the Elim pioneers. And probably nowhere in the Cape winelands are the vintners in such intimacy with their natural environment and rich biodiversity, grinding away as modern pioneers in a relatively isolated and undeveloped country.
Treasuring the ecosystem …
The Elim wineries form part of the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area initiative or “an area of excellence and good practice”, established among the owners of the properties that collectively form part of the Nuwejaars Wetland Ecosystem. This with a view to create a sustainable ecology in accordance with international standards. The Special Management Area borders on the Agulhas National Park and includes the Nuwejaars Wetland Ecosystem, which comprises a number of extensive water bodies or vleis, of which Zoetendalsvlei and Volvlei are the most notable. The system further includes portions of Laterite Fynbos (also described as Coastal Fynbos, Elim Lowland Fynbos and Mesotrophic Asteraceous Fynbos), which has been described as highly irreplaceable.