This year, Neil Ellis Wines, the pioneer wine producer in site identification, grape sourcing and site-specific wines, will celebrate its 35th anniversary since the first vintage of his namesake label.
The 1984 Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from grapes in Banghoek and Firgrove, in the Stellenbosch district, and meant a lot of nosing around the restrictive quota system prevalent at the time. This was considered a first for the South African industry where regulations restricted grapes from crossing district borders and where wine cellars were considered reflective of origin rather than the vineyard.
This wine, the first release of the well-known vineyard selection wines, best tells the story of soil, climate and the art of winemaking. A total of 437 cases were produced, released in 1986 and retailed for about R7-R8,50 per bottle. The vision, a pursuit of quality, extended out of the cellar and into the vineyards where varieties would excel and best express a particular style of wine reflective of their environment. The ideal was to identify the individual vineyards on the labels but, at the time, legislation prevented him to do this.
By 1990, wine appellation regulations had changed and Neil launched the first certified Elgin Sauvignon Blanc of the same vintage from a vineyard planted in 1981 on the Whitehall property. Shortly after, in 1991, the Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc from Darling made its debut as another first for the industry. The vineyard selection soon grew into a stellar range of wines sourced from the four primary sites of Stellenbosch, Elgin, Groenekloof and Piekenierskloof. While Stellenbosch grapes remain pivotal for quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage, this vision allowed for a style of varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Grenache that are best reflected in origin.
“The celebration of 35 vintages is to me as much about looking back, mindful about the journey that has brought us here, as it is about embracing technology and science in the future of winemaking. We will not be able to succeed and stay ahead of our game if we don’t acknowledge and respect the stories that brought us here today,” says Neil.
Neil’s son, Warren, has since taken over as chief winemaker and with a masters degree in viticulture has taken on the quest of exploring and identifying new sites for winemaking. “To make a site-specific style of wine you need to be specific about the site,” says Warren. “The vineyard should dictate the style of wine, not the winemaker.” The story of site-selected wines continus as Warren spends the majority of his time researching and exploring new sites, gaining valueable information and experience that will ultimately serve the objective of the company to continue to produce wines of a distinct style.
As the company celebrates 35 years of pioneering excellence, the objective remains to apply the experience and knowledge of the past 35 years to current techniques and technologies for a new generation of winemaking. “Our vision remains to make distinctive, refined wines that are expressive of their terrain and rank amongst South Africa’s finest. A pursuit of quality, nothing less.” Neil Ellis