IONA WINE FARM
Friday 12 May 2017
There are times during wine tasting when one unexpected moment changes the entire direction or recollection of the tasting. It could be a particular wine, for example the 2016 Chenin Blanc at DeMorgenzon or 2016 Estate Chardonnay at Hamilton Russell, which are the only wines I have scored a perfect 20/20. It was the ‘vertical’ tasting of the 2014/5/6 `8 Rows’ Sauvignon Blanc from Diemersdal at the recent Society tasting evening. I recall too sampling tank samples of 2017 wines at Mountain Ridge Wines and Ambeloui Wine Cellar. It could also be meeting the winemaker. I think Silvermist Organic Vineyards, Almenkirk Wine Estate and Hout Bay Vineyards.
Iona went one better. Midway through the tasting, an elegant, silver haired gentleman came into the Tasting Room. “Are you the winemaker?”, I politely asked. “No, I am the owner”, came the reply from Andrew Gunn. We chatted briefly about the wine farm, the wines, and challenges of production and release and he left to return to his Saturday afternoon.
Andrew came to Iona in 1997. He was an engineer by training and sought an outdoor life to escape city life in Johannesburg. The run-down apple and pear farm was unprofitable but Andrew fell in love with the elegant Herbert Baker homestead. The views overlooking the Elgin Valley below to the Atlantic Ocean are spectacular. The property was called ‘Geelbeksvlei’ after the yellow-billed ducks that inhabit the surrounding marshy area. The name lives on in the large dam opposite the farm across the road.
Andrew sought to decide what to make of the property. He was fortunate that his uncle was a geomorphologist and he soon discovered that the farm was uniquely placed to make high quality wines. Sitting on a plateau at 420m above sea level and with the Ocean, just 3 kilometres away, bringing a maritime climate of low summer rainfall and cool to moderate temperatures, the conditions mirror those in Bordeaux and Sancerre in France. The cool conditions mean that the grapes are picked up to 2 months later than elsewhere in the Western Cape. The vine leaves are only now yellowing.
The poor alluvial soils (and sustainable viniculture without the use of synthetic products) add to the mix to make for a perfect terroir. Forty hectares of vines grow on the 100 hectare estate, with a focus on Sauvignon Blanc (60% of harvest), Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Smaller quantities of classic Bordeaux grapes (Shiraz too) are also grown. The first wine was produced in 2001 when the farm was re-named after the West Scottish island of Iona. I often wondered why the name; this is where Andrew’s ancestors hail from. The Viking ship on the bottle label gives another clue to Andrew’s heritage.
Karen, who has worked at Iona for over 20 years, was my tasting host. Andrew’s first car, a 1958 Porsche 356 and as old as me, sits at one end of the small, plain Tasting Room decorated with modern artwork (Andrew’s wife, Rozy, is a trained artist and sculptor). There’s no real fuss here – that goes into the wine production.
I rated the 2 white wines equally. They were elegant in their simplicity and with good minerality as expected from the terroir. Delicate cool, green citrus notes and pale straw appearance defined the classic Sauvignon Blanc. The oak maturation (20% new oak, together with 2nd/3rd/4th fill) in the Chardonnay showed through subtle apple notes but the honeycomb aromas complimented rather than overpowered. The Sauvignon Blanc was bright but not too lively on the palate, with good acidity. Less dry, but only just, the Chardonnay showed classic light creamy mouth feel.
My favourite wine was the Pinot Noir. It was all a Pinot Noir should be: light bodied and shiny, deep pink in appearance; sour cherry, strawberry and spicy white peppercorn on the nose; dry, silky smooth and evenly balanced on the palate. The One Man Band showed greater complexity of aroma and flavour as one would expect from a blend of 6 cultivars, some brought in from elsewhere. The challenge for the winemaker is to make a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts. Werner Muller has succeeded. The tannins in this 2011 vintage show signs of softening for an engaging mouth feel as warm fruitiness and hints of spice follow through from nose to palate.
Iona is at the very Southern tip of the Elgin wine-growing District. The route from the N2 heads south and steadily descends through apple and pear orchards. The last 4 kilometres are on a dirt road that rises through steep, fire-ravaged slopes and onto the plateau. The journey is well worth it for the quality wines with their classic feel, delicate flavours and elegant minerality. The journey for Andrew too – Johannesburg life must seem a long way away – was well worth it too. How many people can say, “I own a wine farm”?!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Sauvignon Blanc – R144
2016 Chardonnay – R260
2014 Pinot Noir – R260* FAVOURITE WINE
2011 One Man Band (57% Syrah, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 12% Merlot, 2% Mourvèdre, 2% Viognier) – R260