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Elgin - From Apples to Vines

Michael Cavanagh -- Contributing Editor

50 years ago, you may have been hard-pressed to find many grapevines in Elgin.  The apple was the king fruit in this region of South Africa, orchards dominating the landscape instead of vineyards.  And while there are still plenty of Fujis and Granny Smiths to go around (evidenced by orchard workers bartering apples for transportation), grapevines have made significant inroads in Elgin.  Located 40 miles southeast of Cape Town on the opposite side of the Hottentot Mountains, Elgin is a ward located in the broader region of the Cape South Coast, and it is making a name for itself as a premier winegrowing region in the country.

The Wines of Elgin



While many recognize South Africa for being a favorable place to grow Mediterranean grapes, which is certainly true in certain districts and wards, Elgin's close proximity to the coast results in a cooler climate in which many Mediterranean grapes struggle.  Luckily there are plenty of other wine grapes to cultivate.  Wine makers in Elgin work with many different varieties, but generally focus on “cool climate” grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.  Of course, unburdened by restrictions on which grapes to grow allows vintners to experiment with a number of different grapes, including the unique South African creation Pinotage, which takes on an entirely different character in Elgin.  Syrah (also widely called Shiraz in South Africa) is another grape that does well, with many resembling their Northern Rhone counterparts.  Yet there are two grapes that may propel Elgin's popularity.

Pinot Noir - The esteemed grape from Burgundy has captured the attention of wine drinkers the world over, and vintners in many international regions have tried their hand at cultivating Pinot Noir.  But sometimes the grape is not a willing participant.  It seems as though it is quite picky about where it plants its roots.  Fortunately for growers in Elgin, the vine has acquiesced.  Many extraordinary examples are being made here with an attractive balance of bright fruit and more subdued characteristics.  Pinot Noir in Elgin seems to fall in the middle of the spectrum in regards to “Old World” vs. “New World” examples, with familiar aromas and flavors from Burgundy as well as California, Oregon, and New Zealand.  Its light-to-medium body and soft mouthfeel make it great to pair with meaty fish or white meat and dishes that showcase mushrooms.


Chardonnay - While Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa has established a good international reputation, Chardonnay may eventually prove to be the country's signature white grape, especially in Elgin.  This does not come as surprise considering the climatic similarities with Burgundy and the long established history of Chardonnay in the French region.  But vintners in Elgin have the freedom to ferment and age the wines in any manner they choose, giving this relatively small ward a surprisingly wide range of Chardonnay styles.  While some choose to treat their wines with oak, resulting in butter, toast, and vanilla characteristics, others prefer to use solely stainless steel, which enhances the tropical fruit components of the wine.  And some wineries even decide to do both styles under one roof.  With that array of styles, Chardonnay can pair with an equally large range of dishes. In South Africa, an unoaked Chardonnay would be perfect with the delectable calamari dishes found in abundance, while an oaked version would do quite well with a baked chicken dish.

Growing grapes in Elgin

With only seven miles separating it from the Atlantic Ocean, Elgin enjoys the cooling influence brought by the Benguela Current from the south. The cold water and air brought up from Antarctica make it significantly cooler than its northwestern neighbors.  Elgin also benefits from an almost constant breeze which comes from the surrounding mountains, which gives the ward another unique facet.  Elgin is surrounded by the Hottentots and forms a bowl around the valley.  Within that bowl there are plenty of undulations that each form their unique microclimate but all benefit from the wind and the nearby ocean.  This has resulted in vintners planting a wide array of grapes, testing what their own unique terroir can do to a range of varietals.  And as they begin to see that expression in the bottle, Elgin may indeed rise to prominence on the international stage. The orchards days may be numbered.

Michael Cavanagh has been a contributing editor for CorkQuiz.com since 2012. He has worked in nearly every aspect of the wine industry including retail, production, and media. He and his wife recently spent four weeks in South Africa working on a project about the diversity within the South African wine industry.  They were so impressed with the wines they decided to import some brands back stateside. Cavanagh Family Imports was recently established in Baltimore, Maryland and is excited to bring some of South Africa's best wines to the United States.

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