South over the Hills in Elgin
SOUTH HILL VINEYARDS
Thursday 7 December 2017
The very distinctive reversed ‘Ж’ symbol on the wine bottle label made me think of King Ken, the Chenin Blanc ‘king’ of Ken Forrester Vineyards. It wasn’t of course but the thought played in my mind. The letters come from vineyard owner Kevin King and make a playful and immediately recognisable brand logo. I have seen the wine many times at specialist wine tastings and events and always wanted to taste, not knowing where the wine was made.
I had seen South Hill wines for sale at the Peregrine Farm Stall on my way from Cape Town. A stop at the ‘Red Tractor’ for padkos is a must for any trip East from Cape Town on the N2. Moreover, the turn off to the Elgin wine farms is just a few hundred metres from the entrance. A regulation iced Chelsea bun and cappuccino for breakfast and I was soon driving though the rolling landscape in the morning sun.
It is always a pleasure to be in the region and I have visited many vineyards for tasting: Paul Cluver, Oak Valley, Elgin Ridge, Almenkerk, Charles Fox and Iona. Today was the turn of the smaller and less well known (to me at least) wine farms. The pretty landscape with its intertwined orchards and vineyards is intimate and inviting. The size and age of tree and vine plantings new and old tell the history of changing economic pressures on the local farmers and growers. Big mountains like the Simonsberg or Jonkershoek or Helderberg in and around Stellenbosch are not needed for natural beauty.
It is easy to get lost here. My position on the satnav always deviates from the actual road at a certain point South of Almenkerk to take me to a kind of ‘Bermuda triangle’ off the map. Traffic is occasional and the pace slow and so easy to admire the views. The cleverly and well branded olive green and white Elgin Valley ‘Experience the Magic’ signs by each property help when close by to one’s destination of course. This is ‘Cool Climate Wine’ country and I was pleased to be here. Elgin really is rather good at branding!
The final 6 kilometres of my journey was along a gravel road bordered by vines with pink roses and blue Agapanthus on the end of the rows. I arrived at 10am, the opening time of the Tasting Room, only to find that I could have had my breakfast at South Hill as it is served earlier for guests staying at the six-bedroom Guesthouse or romantic Pumphouse Cottage. I was immediately struck by the beauty and the tranquillity of the location, together with the white buildings set in Shiraz vineyards. It was easy to relax and forget my super early start to avoid the Cape Town rush hour traffic.
I was met in the Tasting Room by winemaker, Sean Skibbe. The Tasting Room is set in an old barn. It was larger than expected and equally inviting. Bright and open, the tables were well spaced, furniture comfortable, and the walls covered with colourful art. I made a note to return before I tasted even a sip of wine.
The rich salmon coloured Rosé made the perfect start, somehow more so as I had expected to begin with white wines. Sean explained how it was first made using Cabernet Sauvignon but with the combination of increased demand for the wine and declining yields it made sense, since 2015, to use juicier Shiraz grapes. This is the insight that only the winemaker can give (as Sean did throughout the tasting) and my privilege to listen to. The wine was warm in tone, forwards and with rich aromas of light candy and strawberry. Fresh, dry, crisp without too much tannin, this was as a Rosé should be.
The Sauvignon Blanc was light and clean on the palate too. I liked the character that was neither overtly green nor overtly tropical. The notes combined fresh green pepper with lemon, lime, melon and kiwi. The lime flavours lingered in the mouth to complement moderate acidity. I would have preferred a little more depth in the finish but at R95 this is a great value for money wine for the quality.
The Kevin King wines with the mirrored K on the label – almost reminiscent of the Union Flag to remind my British roots – were a class above. The exclusive range of small batch wines is for sale mostly at the vineyard. Each wine is named after a family member, in this case ‘Bassey’ is a nickname for wife Sandra. The wine was the only blend of the tasting – of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon in equal amount – and the rise in popularity of the classic white Bordeaux blend comes as no surprise. The 2 cultivars make excellent barrel bedfellows. The Sémillon (matured for 5 months in old oak) brings a subtle warmth and texture to the Sauvignon Blanc, rounding off the fresh acidity whilst leaving a vibrant palate with flavours of ripe lemon, lime, honey and vanilla. This was the best wine so far.
Meanwhile, I was trying to write my notes whilst listening to Sean. We talked much about the ebb and flow of the fruit and wine industries in the area. South Hill was, like many an Elgin wine farm, former run-down apple and pear orchards. Many were pulled out in the late 1990s to early 2000s. There were only 3 pioneer wine growers at the time: Paul Cluver, Oak Valley and Iona. Now there are 16 farms listed on the Wines of Elgin map and that does not include all. Fruit prices picked up by around 2008 and so today there’s little or no money in vines. So much so that total Elgin vineyard area has reduced from 1,000 hectares to 700 hectares.
The Kevin King Bazza, called after Kevin’s dad’s nickname, was a delicious Pinot Noir and my favourite wine of the tasting. It had good colour being grown on the heavier clay soils of the farm but was nonetheless light bodied in appearance. I liked the warm and vibrant aromas of red cherry, ripe cranberry and red plum. The balance on the palate between the earthy not bitter flavours, clean tannins and alcohol was excellent. I had no hesitation in buying a bottle.
I bought a bottle of the Syrah too and am always partial to the more delicate and fragrant Syrah/Shiraz that comes from the cool climate areas. Sporting an elegant yet simple purple label, the wine was medium-bodied with ripe but fresh dark fruit and spice notes. The cool climate floral notes – violet is always a clue for me – rounded the nose. Like the Pinot Noir, the wine was well made with good balance of spicy, smoky oak and fruit flavours.
The Syrah grapes come from a new block planted in 2015. Hitherto, much of the harvest was sold to neighbouring producers and so I am pleased that for over a decade Sean has been making wines at South Hill. Sauvignon Blanc covers half of the vine area (27 hectares of the 57 hectare farm is under vine) with small amounts of Chardonnay (newly planted), Sémillon, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Shiraz making up the remainder.
The Elgin climate suits these premium quality grapes. Rainfall is plentiful in the Valley, though South Hill has less than elsewhere due to a rain shadow. Drip irrigation is used only as an insurance policy (as it happened on the previous night to my visit). Sean is unusual in being responsible for both viticulture and viniculture – don’t mention office work! – and hence able to see all activities from the vineyard through to the winemaking.
Surprisingly for the local cool climate, South Hill is able to make a decent Cabernet Sauvignon. The cultivar is one of the last to ripen and so needs an extended period of warmth. Good use of the topography assists. The grapes are grown on gentle North facing slopes of the farm, in contrast to the steeper South facing blocks that favour the cool ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The subtly wooded Cabernet Sauvignon was classic full bodied and rich in flavour. It was more delicate than one from the Stellenbosch area and good for it. I liked the forwards dark cherry and berry fruit aromas that fed to a good intensity of flavour on the palate.
The final wine of the tasting was another favourite and one I bought also. The BBK from the Kevin King range (youngest son is Benjamin Barry) was a juicy fruit-driven full-bodied Malbec. Only 800 to 1200 bottles are made from the ¼ hectare pocket of vines. Some white spice notes showed beneath the sour plum, mulberry and cranberry fruitiness. These gave way to soft tannins that limit ageing potential.
South Hill impressed from the start and is somewhere I shall return to before long, and to stay over for a weekend. The location makes an excellent and peaceful base to explore the Elgin Valley, to visit the local wine farms and farm stalls, or visit further afield to Grabouw, Hermanus, Walker Bay and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Sean was generous with his time and I was fortunate to have the benefit of his knowledge and insight. I learned so much more, about the farm and general wine knowledge, than during regular tasting.
The wines were decent too and it most likely helps that Sean has been the winemaker at South Hill since 2005. I recall Wilhelm Pienaar, not so far away at Hermanuspietersfontein Wynkelder in Hermanus, telling me that a winemaker needs at least 7 years at an estate fully to appreciate the vines and the terroir. I liked many of the wines and could easily have bought more. I look forwards to drinking the wines I purchased. The value for money for their quality was outstanding and I shall add South Hill to my modest mental list of vineyards I am happy to buy wines from without prior tasting. South Hill was a simple place (you won’t even find the wines listed on the website) that doesn’t overcomplicate and where simple things are done well. Forget some of the big name Elgin wine farms and do go to South Hill.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Sauvignon Blanc – R95
2015 Kevin King Bassey (50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Sémillon) – R155
2016 Shiraz Rosé – R78
2014 Kevin King Bazza Pinot Noir – R150* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Syrah – R135*
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon – R125
2015 Kevin King BBK Malbec – R175*