NEIL ELLIS WINES
Friday 1 December 2017
I arrived for tasting at the ‘golden hour’ at Neil Ellis Wines just east of Central Stellenbosch at the start of the Helshoogte Pass. An hour sooner and I would have been caught up with guests finishing their lunch; one hour later and the Tasting Room would have grown busy with visitors after work at the end of the week. I was therefore fortunate to have the near sole attention of Philip and Tessa for my tasting.
The Cellar building, built in 2010, is unusual in having no real front. Perhaps it is the side facing the expansive car park but the industrial look means that it could easily be the rear. It mattered not as I soon made my way into the Tasting Room to introduce myself and sit at the long counter. Elsewhere inside the thick walls were the production facilities, offices and the vinotéque that houses over 3,000 older vintages.
I could have tasted in a large room beside or on a grassy lawn in sun at the side. It is always exciting to visit a wine farm that one knows little about beyond recollection of the name. I learned that, after 40 years of making wine, Neil handed over the winemaker duties to his son, Warren, and that other family members – as so often the case with South African wineries – are responsible for yje business of Finance (youngest son, Charl) and Brand Manager (daughter, Margot).
Neil Ellis was the first real Cape negoçiant winemaker, selecting individual farms and areas for their terroir and, in turn, specific cultivar selection. The farm is IPW accredited for sustainable practices that include respect for the soil, economy of water use, recycling and energy efficiency. Grapes are sourced from 4 main growing areas: the Jonkershoek, with cool south facing slopes and deep, red clay soils (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Cinsault); cool Elgin just 10 kilometres from the ocean and with a range of quartz, sandstone and clay soils (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz); bush vines in water-holding decomposed granite in dryland Groenekloof, near Darling, with breezes that prolong ripening (Sauvignon Blanc); and 60 year old bush vines sandstone and shale soils in mountain Piekenierskloof with its extremes of day/night temperatures (Grenache).
Red and white wines are made in equal amount. The tasting choice of 5 wines is between 2 collections: the Regional Range (R30) or the Terroir Specific Range (R50). I was fortunate to be able to taste from both as the Tasting Room was quiet. This was an excellent approach as I was able to compare and contrast wines from both collections.
The first 2 wines that I tasted were Sauvignons Blanc, one from Groenekloof and the other from Jonkershoek. They differed in vintage by a year and price too, by a factor of two. I preferred the cheaper wine which just goes to show the benefit of tasting rather than being guided by price. Both wines were a very pale straw to the point of being almost colourless. The youthful Groenekloof wine was a classic Sauvignon Blanc. I would use it as a reference wine for its good definition of lemon, lime, guava and asparagus aromas, and dry acidity.
The terroir-specific 2016 Amica was wild yeast fermented in French barrels and matured for 9 months in 30% new and 2nd/3rd fill oak. Predictably, it showed warmer citrus notes with pineapple and vanilla. I was unsure of the oak regime and preferred the vibrant, youthful classic.
The Whitehall Chardonnay, named after the owners, was also very pale and especially for a Chardonnay. It had similar oak fermentation and maturation as the Amica which showed as oak ‘forwards’ with caramel and vanilla also prominent on the nose, followed by baked apple. The palate was lighter and showed only slight evidence of malolactic fermentation. I liked it enough to buy a bottle.
My favourite wine of the tasting was the Grenache. I sampled it alongside the Cinsault which made for an intriguing tasting as I tried to note down the differences. The Grenache was a shade lighter in medium body and deep pink/pale ruby colour. It was warm (14% alcohol), ripe and fruity on the nose with cherry and red plum aromas. There was a hint of spice to the dry, smooth and lightweight mouth feel that gave it a Pinot Noir-like character. Maturation for 18 months in 20% new/80% 4th fill barrels rounded the wine and gave it balance.
Cinsault is a blending grape and less commonly made into a single cultivar wine. Famous for being one half of the cross that developed Pinotage (the other being Pinot Noir), it is also known as the ‘Pinot Noir of the Swartland’. The notes were slightly sweeter than those of the Grenache, with less cherry, redder plum and unripe raspberry. This gave a spicy bitter yet clean palate, aided by 17 months in the cellar in 25% 2nd/ 75% 2nd/3rd fill oak barrels.
The tasting was feeling comprehensive as Tessa poured me 2 Pinotage to compare (as with the Sauvignons Blanc) from the Regional and Terroir Specific ranges. I rated them both the same as their similarities were closer than their differences. Both wines were medium ruby in colour and full bodied, ripe on the nose, contained 14.5% alcohol, and showed good balance. The cheaper Jonkershoek Pinotage was more dark plum and blackberry than the Bottleray wine. Dusty dry tannins, from 50% rather than 25% new oak (the rest being 2nd/3rd fill) gave a firmer finish. I am not surprised that this wine gained 5 Platter stars.
The bush vine Shiraz was a classic and well priced at R120. I liked all about it: full in body; complex fruit and spicy aromas; and smooth, easy drinking style.
Shiraz made up the majority (60%) of the Rodanos Rhone blend, made together with Grenache and Cinsault in equal amounts. This was another well made wine that I enjoyed. The winemaker’s aim to make a wine ‘with a wide spectrum of red fruit flavours’ was successfully achieved and I liked the complexity of red and dark fruit flavour from the 3 cultivars on the nose. New and old (4th fill) maturation gave rounded tannins that softened in the mouth with a positive finish.
The tasting ended with another side-by-side comparison, of Cabernets Sauvignon. Like the Pinotage, the wines came from vineyards less than 10 kilometres from each other that gave them similarities. They were classic in full body character, with dark berry fruit flavours and smooth on the palate. I preferred the limited edition Terroir Specific wine from the Jonkershoek, another multi-award winner, for its fuller, silkier mouth feel from maturation in 100% new French oak barrels.
This was another enjoyable experience and one I had to work for! It was great to sample wines made with the same cultivar but from different growing regions (winemaking too) alongside each other. It was good to taste the Grenache with the Cinsault. Comparison really focuses a tasting. The Neil Ellis wines were well made and many were representative in style and character of their cultivar. The Regional Range offers good value for money (R100 +/-) for wines made in Stellenbosch. Understandably, the limited edition Terroir Specific wines were more costly (mostly R250 to R350) and whilst I liked many – the Grenache, Rodanos and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular – they were at the top of my price range to buy. I shall certainly enjoy the Chardonnay and look forwards to a return visit in the future.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc – R95
2016 Amica Sauvignon Blanc – R210
2016 Whitehall Chardonnay – R230*
2014 Piekernierskloof Grenache – R300 FAVOURITE WINE
2014 Groenekloof Cinsault – R275
2015 Pinotage – R120
2015 Bottelary Pinotage – R300
2015 Groenekloof Shiraz – R120
2012 Rodanos (60% Shiraz, 20% Grenache, 20% Cinsault) – R300
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – R150
2014 Jonkershoek Cabernet Sauvignon – R350