Friday, September 2, 2011

South Africa: Neil Ellis gives a geography lesson

From Times Live: Neil Ellis gives a geography lesson
“No matter what Simon Barlow [seigneur of top-draw Stellenbosch estate Rustenberg] may say, we’re upper Ida’s Valley and he’s lower Ida’s Valley. [Banker and owner of Tokara] GT Ferreira lives in those trees over there – he’s on Ida’s Ridge” said Hans-Peter Schröder, surveying the valley from the stoep of the new all singing, all dancing wine cellar of Neil Ellis Wines where he is a partner. It’s a sort of Hemel en Aarde for Old Cape Money.

“You see that house over there” he says, pointing to the dark mustard one. “I was brought up in that. Dad was a schoolteacher and we got expropriated by the government when they moved all the ‘coloureds’ out of historic Stellenbosch to Ida’s Valley.”

The wheel has come full circle for Hans-Peter. For after being expropriated, he moved to Japan, made his fortune with Parker pens and returned to Oude Nektar, around the corner in the Jonkershoek Valley where he now lives in a billionaire’s ghetto with Jannie Mouton, the Steinhoff manne and Una van der Spuy, doyenne of SA gardeners, 99 not out.

Geography is the key to understanding the wines of Neil Ellis. Three decades ago, he was the first serious winemaker to break the tyranny of the wine estate, which dictated that grapes should come from the estate, only. Appellations, on the other hand, were assigned by the address of the winery. A nonsense that Neil quickly exploded when summonsed by the grey shoed bureaucracies to explain himself.

Today he sources grassy green grapes from Groenekloof in Darling, elegantly Elgin expressions of whimsy and finesse, punchy Grenache from the Piekenierskloof and best of all, perfectly poised fruit from 35ha of old vines in the Jonkershoek. A gaggle of wine hacks were invited to a Café Dijon catered lunch at his Upper Ida’s Valley winery. Some forgot. Some didn’t show. And one was suddenly too busy, having RSVP’d only to pop up at Jörg Pfützner’s Big Bottle Bash in Constantia later that evening. Their loss, as the Cape’s finest wines were poured in Upper Ida’s Valley that afternoon.

Pick of the bunch was the 2007 Jonkershoek Vineyard Selection Cabernet made from 15ha of Cabernet Vineyards next to Hans-Peter’s home. Serious feng shui stuff. If this doesn’t get a Platter five star, then I’m a Chinaman.

Among the whites, the Vineyard Selection barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2010 shows that Bartho Eksteen (another rumoured Platter five star laureate) is not the only winemaker to realize that judicious barrel fermentation takes grassy green to the next level.

The 2009 Vineyard Selection Pinotage is yet another mould breaker, with soft tannins made with an elegant Pinot Noir respect for fruit, while the 2009 Grenache from the Piekenierskloof shows that you don’t need to go all the way to Priorat to make great Mediterranean-style wines.

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