ELGIN VALLEY TOUR
Friday 6 to Sunday 8 April 2018
It has long been my intention to stay in the Elgin Valley to take a more relaxed approach to sample more of the magnificent wines of the Valley without having to return to Cape Town at the end of a busy tasting day. The accommodation at South Hill Vineyards had tempted when I visited for tasting last December. I vowed at the time to return with my partner to show her the beautiful Elgin Valley. Iona Wine Farm has been at the top of her list for wine tasting so our plans neatly fell into place for a weekend trip.
It takes just one vineyard visit, or even to browse the wine shop at the rear of the Peregrine (aka Red Tractor) Farm Stall on the N2 East of Cape Town, to pick up the clever marketing of the Elgin Valley Wine Guild and Wines of Elgin tourism. ‘Cool climate wines’ is the most recognisable branding of any of the many wine routes in the Western Cape.
The Elgin Valley Wine District lies just an hour (70 kilometres) from Cape Town astride the N2. Most vineyards are South of the highway in an area of 100,000 hectares that is registered with UNESCO as a biodiversity haven of natural importance. Orchards, vineyards, forests and native fynbos form a patchwork in this undulating, intimate landscape. The Valley floor, home to the wine farms, lies between 350 metres to 450 metres above sea level. It is surrounded by the Hottentots-Holland, Kogelberg and Groenland Mountains that bring diverse soil types to the almost 1,000 hectares of vines.
Low cloud cover, gentle slopes and the maritime climate (Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay are barely 10 kilometres away) give Elgin the ‘cool climate’ conditions that are ideal for elegant wine making. Summers are warm and dry whilst winters are cold and rainy. Additionally, the prevailing South-Easterly winds from the Atlantic Ocean help maintain the below average temperatures that can delay ripening by up to 2 months compared with Stellenbosch and its surrounds. The cold night temperatures, in particular, preserve the acidity and fresh aroma profiles of both white and red grape varieties.
Take a look at the Wines of Elgin map or classy website and you will soon realise how many wine farms there are to visit. I know. I have visited 11 of the 16 major ones. There’s: arty Almenkerk; MCC specialist Charles Fox; top quality and emerging Elgin Ridge; rural Hannay; boutique, beautiful Highlands Road; classic, elegant Iona; beautiful wine and food Oak Valley; lovely whites Oneiric; Pinot Noir and Riesling at family estate Paul Cluver; and fun, great wines at Paul Wallace; as well as quality wines at South Hill during the past year. Most are open during the week with some closed at weekends and/or available for tasting only ‘by appointment’ so it is good to check in advance. My aim this weekend was to visit Elgin Vintners and Lothian Vineyards, 2 of the remaining 5 that I have yet to explore and sample their wines.
I didn’t know the origin of the ‘Elgin’ name until researching this article. I presumed a Scottish connection – the town of Elgin lies close to the Moray Firth in East Central Scotland – but was wrong. The father of a local child called Elgine Herold named the area ‘Elgin’ in the late 1800s in his daughter’s memory, with local support, after she was killed by a snake bite at the nearby Palmiet River.
No trip from Cape Town East on the N2 to Elgin (or even the Garden Route beyond) is made without a pit stop at the Peregrine Farm Stall. Not only does it give the chance for a coffee and one of their famous pies but also an excuse to browse the local wines in the shop at the rear. The display of wines from the region is as impressive as it is inclusive. I cannot resist browsing the shelves and inevitably realise there’s many more wines to taste and buy.
The route to Elgin Vintners was straightforward enough as I turned right off the N2 immediately past the Farm Stall. If, like me, you use the satnav coordinates from the Platter’s Wine Guide you will be directed down a lane signposted to the ‘Elgin Learning Foundation’. Follow the winding, leafy road and after 2 kilometres you will end up at Elgin Vintners. It is easier to continue a further couple of kilometres without turning off as this leads to the wine farm entrance on the right.
Elgin Vintners (see full tasting review article here) is unusual in being a cooperative between 6 grape producers and 6 winemakers. ‘Quantity has a quality of its own’, so they say, and the fine wines offer excellent value for money. Tasting is in the magnificent 1927 Sir Herbert Baker-inspired homestead that is also a luxury hotel, complete with glorious gardens, swimming pool and tennis court.
The white, rosé and red wines were all well made and typical of the cool climate style of the Valley. I particularly enjoyed the elegant, crisp Sauvignon Blanc; the subtle lightly wooded delicate Chardonnay; the medium salmon Merlot Rosé with its great intensity and value for money; and the superb, refined and well-balanced spicy red fruited Pinot Noir. I well recommend a visit if ever you wish to break your journey on the N2.
South Hill Vineyards
A lunch appointment with Winemaker Sean Skibbe at South Hill beckoned. I took the Arumdale Road cross country and passed many of the wineries I have visited: Almenkerk, Hannay, Paul Wallace, Highlands Road, Oneiric and Charles Fox. The topography of the Valley does tricks as one is seemingly always descending. It also plays tricks with my satnav as my location progressively diverges from the road on the electronic map the further south I travel. Fortunately, I know this from past experience and was able to reach South Hill without getting lost en route. I recommend using the Wines of Elgin map, freely available from wine farms or printed off the internet, as a handy aide memoire.
The journey to South Hill through the pretty, manicured autumn landscape took just 20 minutes which shows how compact the Valley and its wine farms are. Tarred then decent gravel roads took me to the vineyard entrance with its rock and sculptured metal sign. Owner Kevin King met us at the Restaurant before Sean gave a mini tasting of 3 wines as I ate lunch. South Hill makes some of the best wines in the Valley (see full tasting review here). The new, premium King of the Hill Chardonnay oozed class with its complex flavours of sweet apple crumble and rounded palate. I liked the elegant dry Pinot Noir, my favourite wine, with its delicious aromas of red cherry, cassis, raspberry and white peppercorns. Last was a fruity, peppery Syrah just waiting for a braai or fatty steak to pair with. Sean was as engaging and full of knowledge as ever and it was a pleasure to listen to him.
Lunch was tapas style with a wide selection of dishes on the menu, priced at a very reasonable R55 to R85 per portion. I shared creamy mushroom risotto, smoked snoek pâté and home baked bread, spicy lamb meatballs, and olives in different marinades. I could not resist dessert, even better value at just R30 to R40 each. Sumptuous Elgin apple crumble and not-too-sweet chocolate brownie, served with vanilla ice cream made a perfect end to lunch with black coffees to accompany.
It was time to find my room after the lazy lunch. South Hill offer self-catering accommodation (5 rooms, mostly en suite, from R1100 per couple per night) in a large building close to the Restaurant. The farm is renowned as a wedding venue and there’s a discreet bridal cottage an appropriate distance away. The room was comfortable and well equipped with all that was needed in the bathroom as well as tea and coffee making coffee facilities (complete with ground coffee and cafetière). Fast, reliable wifi was throughout, including in the Restaurant.
The accommodation is corporate, contemporary style rather than cottagey in character. The bedroom appeared to have no heating source (I needed blankets from the wardrobe on the second night) or television. The satellite TV was in a large communal living room/kitchen which had a log fire. The room arrangement thus differed from the self-contained self-catering cottages or cabins at Hermanuspietersfontein (deep in the Sondagskloof) or Wosleley (Arum Lily Log Cabins and Seven Oaks Wines Cottages). The benefit was that I met all 3 generations of the extended Kevin King family and friends for a warm welcome. The drawback was that privacy was not total.
Outside there was much for the active visitor. I didn’t trail run, swim in the large pool, or ride my mountain bike through the vineyards. I did play a fun game of boules with my partner on the prepared court under the setting Saturday sun. There’s braai facilities and a pizza oven too or those who wished to cook (the Restaurant is not open in the evenings). The tapas lunch was so filling that I didn’t need dinner on Friday night so stayed in. I did enjoy a tasty breakfast to set me up for Saturday wine tasting: I chose Garlic Mushrooms on Toast, whilst my partner ordered homemade Eggs Benedict.
The accommodation at South Hill was relaxing and all I needed. It was great not to have to drive back to Cape Town at the end of the day but instead to rest amid the sounds of the birds by day and the frogs at night. It makes a perfect base from which to visit the vineyards, for a wedding party, or family/friends who wish to socialise during their stay whilst enjoying their own space in their own rooms.
Iona Wine Farm
Iona is the Southernmost and highest of the Elgin Valley vineyards, being just 3 kilometres from the sea and set on a plateau 420 metres above sea level. The poor alluvial soils and climatic conditions mirror those of Bordeaux and Sancerre in France to provide an ideal terroir for grapes with a high natural acidity and fruity freshness. The cool climate means that the grapes have longer to ripen as they are picked 2 months later than elsewhere in the Western Cape. I had been before almost a year ago (see the review here) but my partner had not.
Fourth year Stellenbosch University Theology student Hanli was our engaging host as we sampled the elegant wines that are the envy of many. I started with the flagship Sauvignon Blanc that is 70% of vineyard production, with half exported. I liked the surprisingly tropical flavours of guava, papaya, greengage, sweet lemon and tangy grapefruit, together with the crisp, mineral mouthfeel. The lightly wooded Chardonnay was creamier with rich, complex, intense aromas of warm apple crumble, popcorn, butterscotch and caramel. The elegant and delicate, light Pinot Noir was another favourite with potent sour cherry, unripe raspberry, sour cranberry and white pepper flavours. The dry, precise, bright wine would have been perfect with food.
Owner and former engineer Andrew Gunn joined us for the last tasting. I recall from my visit almost a year ago how he told me of his dream to develop the wine farm and to live in the historic Herbert Baker homestead. I remember too the care with which the Iona wines are made, particularly the time allowed for wines to settle and mature before release. There’s no better example than the One Man Band that is aged for 5 years before sale. I was set the task to pick out the 6 blended cultivars and didn’t do too well. The medium bodied wine is Syrah-led, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Mourvèdre and Viognier with complex bold currant, berry and savoury flavours that opened out in the glass. This was another wine to enjoy with a fine meal.
We returned to South Hill after the tasting via Charles Fox (to see the magnificent Tasting Room and views) and then the Old Mac Daddy holiday resort so we could book a table for dinner. My partner stayed to work during the afternoon. I had much more fun as I ventured to Lothian Vineyards for my final tasting of the weekend.
Lothian Vineyards took my breath away and I so wished that my partner had come with me. As with Elgin Vintners and elsewhere in the Valley, my trusty satnav took me on a run around that eventually led me down the Appletiser Road to nowhere. I had to double back past the Peregrine Farm Stall towards Cape Town to Rockview Dam Road. The industrial gate at the Eskom entrance gave no clue of the excitement ahead. Neither did the whitewashed entrance with name and wine barrel – so typical of so many a wine estate – and paved road through autumn vineyards.
I ended up at a huge designer home the likes of which I have never seen. I am not usually a fan of modern and contemporary architecture but Lothian changed all that. A heavy wood door led me to a lobby with curved glass and chrome stairs in perfect position to lead the eye inwards and upwards to the high ceilings and upper floor. Beyond, and where I met family owner Ewen for tasting (by appointment recommended), the house opened out into a riot of colour with artwork and décor that left me open-mouthed. The property sits on a peninsula on a lake and so surrounded on all sides by spectacular water views. All is integrated with perfection of form and function, inside-to-outside, and to take advantage of the magnificent setting. The sweeping curves of the infinity pool, with several layers cascading down to the lake, ably complimented and balanced the building. You can rent the building with its 8 rooms for 16 guests – but you’ll need at least 3 days and R42,000 (ex VAT) to do so.
The wines were equally as impressive (tasting review here). Made in the Burgundian style by Master of Wine Richard Kershaw, they showed as much poise and fine balance as the building. I liked the Mourvèdre Rosé with more intensity of flavour than many I taste. There was lightly wooded Chardonnay with subtle aromas and a refined palate, together with a rarely made Riesling that showed unusual delicacy. My favourite wine was a superb Pinot Noir that oozed precision, complexity of spicy berry and stone fruit flavours, with finesse on the crisp, dry palate. The Noble Late Harvest, made from botrytised Viognier, was unctuous and delicious with silky dried fruit aromas.
Lothian is high on my choice for the award of ‘Hidden Gem’ at the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society 2018 Awards. It is April only but there will have to be an impressive challenge to surpass this amazing vineyard. I should add that Ewen’s knowledge and commentary on the wines sampled was as good as that of any winemaker – that indeed is a rare treat in itself.
Old Mac Daddy
I returned to South Hill with a huge smile on my face, albeit tinged with sadness that my partner had not come along with me. It gives excuse to visit again. We relaxed and then played boules before the 5-minute drive to the Old Mac Daddy for dinner. The resort is ‘part designer farm lodge, part luxury trailer park’ with accommodation in a mix of vintage Airstream trailers, tented camps and self-catering villas. ‘Get Away from it All’, the branding says. I can only imagine the look on investor faces when owners Jody Aufrichtig and Nicholas Ferguson proposed shipping 1950s Airstreams from the USA to haul them up the hills of rural Elgin Valley for a holiday destination.
The Barn Restaurant was already more than half full when we arrived and filled further during the evening. The echoey, open room was well lit with quirky pail lighting and warm from the wood stoves. I could see why it is popular with families (dogs too wandering between the tables) as the menu covered the basics for children and adults alike. I ordered the ‘special’, sirloin steak with eggs on top and potato wedges. It was small in size, well cooked but without a lot of taste. My partner chose the chicken burger without bacon. It arrived with bacon that would not have suited Jewish or Muslim guests. The waitress, dressed in neat uniform with name embossed on it, replaced the burger without fuss. We shared a chocolate, Oreo and fudge ice cream dessert after with coffee to finish. There was a 2-piece band playing (I don’t know if Jesse Jordan or I were more surprised than the other to see each other again, the first time on more than 4 years) that improved in sound quality throughout the evening. Service was cheerful and polite though on the slow side. It seemed there were too few waitrons for the number of guests. Nonetheless, it hit the spot and the wallet – an affordable R375 with tip – and could not have been closer for the return to South Hill for our second night.
Return to Cape Town
I awoke refreshed but too full to eat a second breakfast at South Hill. We said our farewells. South Hill made for an excellent, relaxing stay. It is ideally located for the Elgin vineyards but also as a place to unwind and do very little. I didn’t want to rush the return to Cape Town and to get as much out of the mini wine tours as I could.
Neither my partner nor I had been to the Root 44 Market, located at Audacia Wines South of Stellenbosch. It wasn’t far off the N2 and so made a convenient stopping point on our way back. It must be one of the largest and most established markets I have been too. It was mid-day when we arrived and the car parks were swollen with hundreds of family visitors and not a few dogs. The market is fully weatherproof with each section under marquee: kids play area; Blue Moon bar; craft tent; food court; furniture design; band stage and seated deck.
We visited each tented area in turn, beginning with a fun round of 18 holes of crazy golf. The Craft tent was more like a mini mall and mostly offering women’s clothing. There was a wide range of food available in the marquee next to it, with something for every generation as well as the carnivore and vegetarian. Two hours was plenty for me as the family hustle and bustle seemed amplified after the relative quiet of the Elgin Valley.
An hour later and we were home. It had been a great extended weekend and mini tour of the Elgin Valley. The area and its beautiful tranquil countryside remain special to me. I had re-visited South Hill and Iona as well as tasted at Elgin Vintners and Lothian for the first time. Better still, I had shown my partner the valley and some favourite wineries. I know I shall visit again. There are at least 3 more wine farms to explore that I have yet to taste at ….