El­gin fully jus­ti­fies its ap­pel­la­tion as chardon­nay coun­try


De­spite the rel­a­tive prox­im­ity of the Cape’s wine re­gions — many of the bet­ter-known ap­pel­la­tions are lit­tle more than an hour’s drive from each other, and not much fur­ther from the Mother City — it is clear that re­gion­al­ity and va­ri­etal speci­ficity is not a wine writer’s fic­tion.

Paarl is warmer than Stel­len­bosch, El­gin is cooler, has more rain and higher lev­els of hu­mid­ity in sum­mer.

Grow­ing con­di­tions de­ter­mine which cul­ti­vars are likely to per­form op­ti­mally: you could risk caber­net in El­gin (and some grow­ers do), but you’ll never quite es­cape the un­fash­ion­able herbal notes.

Since caber­net is a late ripen­ing va­ri­ety, the chances of the crop be­ing com­pro­mised by early win­ter rains (ad­mit­tedly more reg­u­lar in the past than lately) would be high. But early ripen­ing cool cli­mate cul­ti­vars do well there — hence the high per­cent­age of El­gin sauvi­gnon, pinot and chardon­nay.

In­evitably re­gional mar­ket­ing as­so­ci­a­tions try to trade off an ap­pel­la­tion’s per­ceived strengths. Hemel-enAarde has nailed its colours to the pinot noir mast, Stel­len­bosch to caber­net and El­gin to chardon­nay.

For sev­eral years the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Sym­po­sium has at­tracted an im­pres­sive turnout at the end of in Jan­uary: wine lovers from around the coun­try and some from fur­ther afield de­scend on the val­ley for talks, tast­ings and en­ter­tain­ing lunch par­ties.

Stel­len­bosch — sur­pris­ingly late to the game — took its iconic caber­nets on a road­show to Jo­han­nes­burg for the first time ear­lier in 2017, eas­ily sub­stan­ti­at­ing its claim to be­ing SA’s caber­net heart­land.

El­gin’s an­swer to all this has been the Chardon­nay Col­lo­quium and the sec­ond edi­tion took place on the first week­end of Oc­to­ber.

In for­mat it’s not vastly dif­fer­ent from the Pinot Party: some eru­dite pre­sen­ta­tions — of more in­ter­est to the pro­duc­ers and geekier mem­bers of the au­di­ence, but per­fectly ac­ces­si­ble just the same — fol­lowed by wide-rang­ing tast­ings. These in­cluded all of the El­gin 2016s, some fine Bur­gundies and bench­mark wines from Aus­tralia, New Zealand, Canada, Cal­i­for­nia, Ar­gentina and Chile.

A sit-down din­ner her­alded the end of day one, with the Satur­day ded­i­cated to farm vis­its and themed lunches at the var­i­ous pro­duc­ers’ cel­lars.

Those tempted to con­sider that the de­ci­sion by the El­gin pro­duc­ers to pro­mote the ap­pel­la­tion through chardon­nay was lit­tle more than a cyn­i­cal and op­por­tunis­tic swoop on one of the few pres­tige cul­ti­vars not yet taken up by an­other re­gion were dis­abused of the idea by the ex­pert pre­sen­ta­tions which be­gan pro­ceed­ings.

Once you get to see the “fit” be­tween El­gin’s cli­mate and the va­ri­ety’s ideal grow­ing sea­son it be­comes clear that the ap­pel­la­tion’s claims to chardon­nay pre-emi­nence are not mis­placed.

De­spite the com­pact­ness of the El­gin Val­ley, con­di­tions are any­thing but ho­moge­nous. Av­er­age grow­ing sea­son tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tion has a spread of more than five de­grees. While the av­er­age rain­fall for the val­ley ex­ceeds 1,100mm, the south­ern side has to make do with half of that.

Vine­yards are planted at al­ti­tudes rang­ing from un­der 200m to more than 450m. If chardon­nay wasn’t an ex­traor­di­nar­ily ver­sa­tile va­ri­ety, it could never do as well as it does across this range of ter­roirs.

Al­most all of El­gin’s top pro­duc­ers (of which there are many) bot­tles at least one wine with a state­ment to make.

Paul Clu­ver and Oak Val­ley de­liver in­ten­sity and fi­nesse; Richard Ker­shaw thought­fully com­posed gen­er­ally sin­gle site wines of great co­her­ence and com­plex­ity. Iona of­fers a rounded and richer style, so too Al­menkerk, Paul Wal­lace and High­lands Road. South Hills seems to ex­tract more per­fume, Boschen­dal and Loth­ian more flinty notes, while El­gin Ridge de­liv­ers an earth­ier (some might say funkier) of­fer­ing.

Ev­ery site within the val­ley, and ev­ery wine­maker, has an in­flu­ence on the out­come. El­gin might be chardon­nay coun­try in the broad­est sense, but given its smor­gas­bord there’s no risk of drink­ing bore­dom.

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