No Vineyards, No Problem: Négociant Neil Ellis Produces Top-Flight Wines
For much of his career, Neil Ellis produced an impressive array of wines despite having no vineyards of his own. He contracted his grape needs to produce his award-winning Vineyard Select range of wines. Neil Ellis, in light of his success, has become an elder statesman of the South African wine industry while his son Warren has now taken over winemaking duties.
A négociant sources wine from other’s vineyards to create wine. That remains true today for Neil Ellis Wines although they have now added vineyards in Darling and Stellenbosch of their own.
Surprise And Refreshment From South African White Wines
One of the biggest surprises during our South Africa trip, was the Sauvignon Blanc. Most of the South African white I had stateside was inexpensive Chenin Blanc. Tessa, our friendly wine ambassador, started us with the Groenekloof 2014 Sauvignon Blanc. It was deliciously grassy with a dash of tropical fruit. A steal at 85R (South African Rand) or about $7 US.
We next ventured into a taste of the 2013 Amica white blend. This is 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Semillon. While the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc was finished in stainless steel, the Amica was barrel aged for some light oaking. The result is a complex wine. There are herbs and citrus flavor notes in a wine with a slightly creamy body. As the Green Dragon, my wife and tasting partner, said: “there is a lot going on in the back end.”
A Spectrum Of Red Wines To Tease And Entice
This was our final stop of the day, so the whites were helpful to recharge the batteries. Neil Ellis has a beautiful “cellar door” but we chose to sit outside with a view of the vineyards and mountains.
We were next treated to an expansive range of red wines. Neil Ellis is one of the few South African wineries to offer a single varietal Grenache. The 2011 Vineyard Selection Grenache is made from 62-year old bush vines. It is purple and plumy in the glass.
The 2013 Aenigma is a Cabernet Sauvignon (69%), Shiraz (27%) and Cinsaut (4%) blend. This a a great blend at a great price (about $6 US). Shiraz is done exceedingly well in South Africa and the Groenekloof 2012 Shiraz is an elegant wine that is aged for two years in French oak.
The 2010 Vineyard Selection Rodanos is an 80/20 Shiraz and Grenache blend. This Rhone style wine is rich, juicy and soft. South Africa’s signature red is Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The 2013 Pinotage has a bit of tobacco funk and deep plum flavors.
An American Gets Schooled In South African Cabernet
I must admit, I think the US does some pretty fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Cabs are some of the finest in the world and those from Paso Robles and Washington State aren’t too shabby either. During our trip I was awakened to the fact that South Africa has some premier Cabernet – and they do it in their own unique style.
In the US, the most valuable assets of the country are locked in vaults at Fort Knox. In South Africa, they are stored in the Vinoteque at Neil Ellis. This is where the best and older vintages of their wine is stored.
Tessa “unlocked” these treasure wines for a tasting of some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon vintages against the current releases.
We started by sampling the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for this Cab are from the Jonkershoek Valley, the coolest location in Stellenbosch. It spent 18 months in French oak. This is a solid, fruit forward Cab that could age for a couple more years.
Another wine from the current offerings is the 2013 Cabernet Merlot. This is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine sparkles with bright flavors, aromatic fruit and a nip of spice. This is a great bottle at about $8 US. (I should mention here that due to the exchange rate and buying the wine in country, the price of South African wine on our trip was an unbelievable bargain. I’d expect to pay about $25 for this bottle in the US.)
Tasting South African Cabernet Sauvignon From Last Century
Lest you think that South African Cabernet is weak and one-note wines, Tessa brought out a bottle of 1999 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes for this baby come from Jonkershoek Valley. The wine was superb from the first sip with a nuance of caramel and herbal notes. There are hints of violet and the taste is youthful despite its 16 years of age. This was our favorite of the tasting and one of the best of our trip.
We closed out with the 1998 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine, sourced from grapes in Stellenbosch, has also aged delightfully. Both the Cabs from last century still have gas in the tank and could age for several more years. The ‘98 had some earthiness and funk that put this one slightly behind the ‘99 in our hit parade.
Neil Ellis Wines is producing wines at the pinnacle of taste and quality. The winery produces several ranges for international sale. We encourage you to try them – but for the authentic experience, visit the winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa.