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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2010.


Neil Ellis Wines is owned by Neil Ellis and Hans Schroeder. Neil was making wines and consulting for various Cape wineries in the early 90s when Hans returned from Japan after 25 years away, and bought the Oude Nektar property in the Jonkershoek Valley. A natural partnership between the winemaker and the vineyard owner soon ensued, and Neil Ellis Wines was born here in 1993.

On my last visit I also took in a new boutique winery that had just been built on the same property called Stark Condé Wines, also owned by the Schroeder family. Currently Neil Ellis is building a new cellar, to which he will move, as Oude Nektar will become the base for the Schroeder family and Stark Condé.

I met up with Warren Ellis (right), Neil's son and winemaker and viticulturist who took me through from the history of the estate to their plans for the future.

Neil Ellis was seen the first négociant in the Cape, buying fruit from specific vineyard sites and focusing in on what each property did best - "just planting everything on the same estate, whether suitable or not," was the way it was done at the time according to Warren, so Neil Ellis was one of the pioneers in specifically matching grape to soil.

Their Groenekloof vineyard is in Darling, close to the ocean, and has a specific microclimate 5ºC cooler on average than surrounding areas. Very rich soils are 150 billion years old, and the old bush vines have some of the highest pyrozene levels in South Africa; the distinctively herbal component so favoured in Sauvignon Blanc. The home Oude Nektar vineyard in Stellenbosch benefits from cool breezes, producing cool-style Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz - much cooler than their neighbours on the other side of the mountain. Neil Ellis have also sourced fruit from Elgin for many years, the sandstone and clay soils are comparable to Burgundy, though temperatures are cooler on average. Most recently, the company has added a new vineyard in Piekenierskloof, 50 kilometres north of Tullbagh, planted at altitude on sandstone soils and where Grenache shows great promise.

I touch on the relatively high alcohols of most South African wines. "Look at this heat here," he says, "we can't get below 14% or so without getting green tannins, but we are doing everything we can in the vineyards to control it. We'd rather not do anything in the cellar." He admits this causes a problem: "EU supermarkets don't want wines over 14%, because they can't rebate the import tax. In South Africa you simply cannot sell wines over 14% from supermarkets."

the wines

UK Agent is Raisin Social, but see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Whole bunch pressing, a little bit of barrel ferment, different yeasts and three months on lees. Quite a complex nose, with green, herbal notes, classic gooseberry and passionfruit flavours. The palate has a big, very juicy character, with loads of grapefruity punch and a sherbetty edge of brightness. Real pea shoot edge and hinting at a nectarine and peach ripeness. A lovely, concentrated wine this. 91/100. £8.99, Majestic

Vineyard Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2008
From the mountainside around the winery. Part whole bunch presses, part tank ferment and part in older barrels. Spends eight months in barrel. Rich nose with honey and obvious toast and creaminess from the barrel. A very different animal, on the palate a fat, lemony fruit and again that grapefruity, pithy cut and intensity. Has fine length, hinting at a pineapple tropicality. 91/100. £10.99, Harrods

Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2009
Picked relatively early, but in three parcels: first is pressed and fermented in steel with laboratory yeast. Second starts with wild yeast in tank and then goes into barrel for six months. Third is ripe fruit, whole bunch pressed and fermented in 500 litre French oak where it stays for six months. Quite a cool, nutty almond nose with a touch of lemon and lime, and just a light layering of vanilla. The palate has a real orange fruit brightness, with a juicy lemon and lime flavour and a clean, long finish. 89/100. £8.99, Tesco

Elgin Chardonnay 2008
Made "towards a Chablis style", whole bunch pressed and half fermented in barrique, second part starts in tank with wild yeast. Nutty, toasty, oatmeally notes, with a coolness, even minerality about it, but still a real ripeness and hint of tropical fruit. The palate has a big sour lemon thrust, lovely acidity that is dry and savoury with a melon fruit. 90/100. £9.99, Costco

Vineyard Selection Grenache 2007
From Piekenierskloof, a citrus and Roobois growing area at altitude, making it a very healthy growing area. 59-year-old bush vine vineyard. Open-tank fermented and 17 months in French oak, around 20% new. Fairly light colour, spicy strawberry and raspberry nose, typical Grenache nuttiness. The palate has a red fruit juiciness, with a lovely earthy mouth-feel and soft, spicy tannins. Quite light bodied, but has fine freshness married to length and intensity, adding up to a lovely food-friendly wine. 91/100. Not in UK.

Vineyard Selection Pinotage 2007
From Stellenbosch vineyards around the winery. A real site-specific wine that produces flavours unlike vineyards around. Vineyard ravaged by strong winds and grapes are small with thick skins. Cold-soaked, stainless steel ferment, 15 months in French oak, 65% new. Very supple, tight black fruit nose, and little notes of tobacco and spice. There's a robust, quite powerful feel to this wine, the fruit savoury and dense, punching through with an earthy quality. Hints of that very ripe fruit, but stays dry and savoury. 90/100. £16.99, Ellis of Richmond, SAwinesonline

Vineyard Selection Shiraz 2006
From Jonkershoek, open-top ferment and 18 months in French oak, 50% new. Lovely creamy, ripe black fruit on the nose, with some spice and a little floral note in the background, a tiny kirsch-like highlight. The palate is juicy with raspberry and a darker, slightly chocolaty note coming through. Very nice drinking, though lacks a little excitement perhaps? 89/100. £16.99, Ellis, SAwines

Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
From Jonkershoek, fermented quite hot to bring out plummy flavours before 24 months in French oak, 75% new. A parcel selection and a barrel selection, with some fruit declassified. Gentle cedar notes to this, but only very gentle, the fruit somewhere between red plums and some juicy black berries. The palate shows the oak more prominently, with a vanilla and spice layering and a medium-bodied juiciness that has lots of tangy acidity and nicely drying, fine-grained tannins. A finely-tuned style, with lots of fruit, but restrained and elegant too. 92/100. £16.99, Costco.

return to South Africa 2010