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, together with varietal specificity, is not some kind of wine writer’s fiction. Paarl is warmer than Stellenbosch, Elgin is cooler and 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 now unfashionable herbal notes. Moreover, 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. On the other hand 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-en-Aarde 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 January: wine lovers from around the country (and some from even further afield) descend on the Valley for a series of talks and tastings and some of the most entertaining lunch parties you’ll ever attend. Stellenbosch – surprisingly late to the game – took its iconic cabernets on a roadshow to Johannesburg for the first time earlier this year, easily substantiating its claim to being the country’s cabernet heartland.
Elgin’s answer to all this has been the Chardonnay Colloquium, the second edition of which took place in 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 a series of 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 kicked off 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 – at least on paper – are not misplaced. That said, despite the compactness of the Elgin Valley, conditions are anything but homogenous. Average growing season temperature variation has a spread of more than 5 degrees. While average rainfall for the valley exceeds 1100 mm, the southern side has to make do with half of that. Vineyards are planted at altitudes ranging from under 200 metres to over 450. If chardonnay wasn’t an extraordinarily versatile variety, it could never do as well as it does across this spread of terroirs.
As for Elgin’s top producers (of which there are many) almost everyone 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 generally 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 of the word, but given its smorgasbord, there’s no risk of drinking boredom.