A SIP FROM THE SOUTHERN TIP
Far from the manicured estates of the Franschhoek valley and the terraced vines of Stellenbosch, South Africa’s maverick winemakers are increasingly seeking out pastures vineyards new.
Whether it’s the trend-setting blends of the Swartland or the elegant white wines and Pinot Noir of Elgin, the South African winelands tend to live up to the writings of Pliny the Elder. “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”, wrote the wine-loving Roman philosopher. “Always something new out of Africa.”
And the rolling hills and grasslands of the Agulhas Plain are certainly new territory when it comes to South African winemaking. Just 25 kilometres from the southern tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas, on the outskirts of the historic Moravian mission village of Elim, a handful of talented winemakers are quietly crafting award-winning cool-climate wines.
The first vines were planted here in 1996, and a process of trial and error over the years has shown local winemakers and farmers precisely which cultivars perform best on these windswept hills.
If asked to pick a signature white wine for the region, winemakers would immediately turn to Sauvignon Blanc – the unique terroir bringing a racy acidity and crisp minerality to the glass. They’re attributes that marry neatly with the Semillon that also does well here. For red wines, Syrah is the champion; although Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache also perform well in this cool-climate region.
“We’re surrounded by coast on three sides and we have constant wind directly off the ocean, so it’s still quite cold; it keeps temperatures down and diseases out of the vineyard”, explains Dirk Human of Black Oystercatcher Wines. “Our Sauvignon Blanc has a real identity, and I think in a blind tasting people could easily taste a Sauvignon Blanc from Elim. The Semillon from this area is brilliant, too.”
Human’s family have farmed in the area for five generations, but it was only in 1998 that he took the plunge and planted his first vines.
He’s come a long way in the years since, and his range of wines draws many a visitor out to the unassuming farm winery. His Sauvignon Blanc is superb, but it’s the White Pearl blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that perhaps best encapsulates what Elim wines have to offer. Visitors to the estate also have the opportunity to sample his more experimental wines made in limited quantities (the Semillon fermented in barrel with wild yeasts is particularly good).
And while the wines at Black Oystercatcher are worth a visit in themselves, the estate is no one-trick-pony. In late 2016, local craft brewery Fraser’s Folly set up shop alongside the cellar and tasting flights of their superb beers – Pilsner, Weiss, Pale Ale, IPA and ‘Moerkoffie’ Stout – are offered at the recently enlarged farm restaurant. The kitchen dishes up generous portions of homely, hearty fare and is far and away the best place in the area for a bite to eat.
Don’t get settled in just yet though. A short drive through the wheat fields lies another of Elim’s pioneering cellars.
Strandveld Wines was established by a group of wine-loving friends in 2001, but day-to-day it’s the affable cellarmaster, Conrad Vlok, who is in charge of crafting the winery’s range of award-winning red and white wines.
Many of those pay homage to the rich, if infamous, maritime history of the Agulhas coastline: the First Sighting range of entry-level wines is a tip of the hat to the mariners rounding Cape Agulhas, while The Navigator Rhône-blend is a tribute to those who managed to negotiate the fickle compass needles at Africa’s southern tip.
Vlok has made a name for himself and Strandveld with his superb red wines: both his Pinot Noir and Syrah are excellent, but another standout is his single-vineyard Poffaderbos [Puff Adder Bush] Sauvignon Blanc that showcases the unique character of this windswept corner of the Cape. The charming tasting room, with views out over the Agulhas Plain, is as fine a spot as any to shelter from the wind and soak up the region’s unique wines.
The wineries of the Elim district are an easy hour’s drive from the popular whale-watching town of Hermanus, making them ideal for a day-trip away from Walker Bay, but are also within striking distance for a weekend trip out of Cape Town.