Those in the know have kept the secrets of the Elgin Valley close to their hearts. But with the cult following currently enjoyed by cool-climate wines, that’s set to change. Stepping onto the stage is one of this unspoiled, friendly region’s shyest stars. Meet South Hill Vineyards.
When South Africa’s most innovative bottled water producer, Aquasky, went searching for a sustainable source of premium mineral water, they found it on a farm at the end of a bucolic country road.
Africa Capital Group (Pty) Ltd produces water from the air for their brand Aquasky, which is sold predominantly to restaurants and wineries. Covid exposed the need for an additional, consumer-focused product, and MD Brendan Williamson looked at more than 100 farms – from Franschhoek to Tulbagh – before he found South Hill Vineyards in Elgin. There, he discovered way more than the aquifers he was seeking: some of the coolest wines in South Africa.
There’s an international swing to cool-climate wines and South Hill Vineyards winemaker Sean Skibbe explains that Elgin is one of the coolest, if not the coolest, wine-growing region in South Africa. This is why it produces such exceptional wines, and why wine-makers from warmer areas clamour for South Hill’s grapes.
“Take Sauvignon Blanc,” Skibbe says. “When grown in warmer regions, the grapes peak early and have to be harvested under-ripe and still green to preserve their volatile freshness. There are tricks that can be used in the cellar to compensate, and these wines may have a good, aromatic bouquet when young, but they are often a little thin on the palate and tend to have a greener, more acidic profile with a limited potential to age.”
“Sauvignon from Elgin is completely different – it’s fruity, softer, still crisp and fresh, but not acidic. And it has longevity. Our 2021 SB is drinking beautifully now, and even better than it was 12 months ago – and it was great then.
“There is no substitute for a cool climate,” he continues. It slows down the ripening so we harvest later, which allows the grapes to develop more flavours, which leads to better-bodied, fruity wines…
“Elgin is a tiny region – less than 1% of SA’s wine-growing area. It has been South Africa’s best-kept wine secret for too long,” he says. “It’s a beautiful area, offering an authentic experience where hospitable people craft exceptional wines. At many tastings in the valley, you’re likely to be hosted by an owner or the winemaker – someone with a real investment in that farm and that wine.”
Skibbe has been with South Hill since its maiden vintage. He notes that the previous owners have left South Hill with a great legacy, many loyal customers and a huge opportunity to build and grow the wine business. “The wine has always been in the background. That changes now.”
To those who know, those who buy South Hill wines whenever they see them, these are excellent reds and whites that are still pretty good value. The highly rated South Hill range includes a Sauvignon Blanc, dry Rose, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
With all vineyards on South Hill approaching 20 years of age, there is potential to replant, the potential to consider a new range, build the export market, and push the premium nature of the wine. The holy grail for Skibbe is to craft “an incredible, exceptional wine – the best this region can produce”.
As he says this, Williamson is nodding. “Sean can build a premium product – he has the track record and the experience. We’re going to give him the tools to do it.”
South Hill offers tastings from Wednesday to Sunday (as well as a variety of exceptional accommodation options – including a houseboat on one of the natural, perennial dams on the farm). For now, tastings can be enjoyed at a table in the restaurant, outside in the garden and even within the wine maze, which is studded with fascinating nuggets of wine info.
There’s a relaxed atmosphere here. There is plenty of styles, and beauty in abundance, but zero pomp and the only ceremony is observed at the many weddings that take place in this spectacular setting.
“From the beginning, I’ve always wanted to make wines that are accessible but complex enough for someone who wants a little bit more. That’s this whole farm: it’s accessible but interesting enough to satisfy even the most discerning of customers,” says Skibbe.
There are plans to build a new tasting room on the edge of the top dam, looking down the length of the incredibly beautiful Elgin Valley. For the cult followers of South Hill wines, it’s a little poignant to know that more people will soon learn the secrets held here. But it is time.
For more information on South Hill Vineyards, please visit https://southhill.co.za/ or call (+27) 21 844 0888.