Elgin as a wine-growing region is a beautiful enigma. It harbours a plethora of stories and tease you with its unpredictable weather. Driving from a sunny Cape Town towards a bank of clouds bulging over the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, one is never sure quite sure what awaits you on the other side.
If the Iona Wine Estate is your destination, their website is a wealth of information cannot prepare you for the sights, sounds, and smells as you drive high up Highlands Road. You get a glimpse of this valley's rich potential, with undulating hills disappearing in the distance. And as the sun burns off the last veil of mist, revealing a sunlit landscape with a multitude of meso-climates, it becomes clear why Elgin remains on the lips of many wine lovers.
Iona must be the pinnacle of your Elgin adventure as you reach what seems like the end of the valley and come across this beautiful mystical farm where the essence of place and people come alive in the detail of its wines.
But did it possess that same attraction in its derelict state when they found it? We asked the man himself.
Stepping into the tasting room, Andrew Gunn's first car, a 1958 Porsche 356A that he bought for R675 in 1969 at the age of 19 from wages working in a steel mill in Vereeniging, is parked among other beautiful artworks. It serves as an icebreaker introducing the collection taking centre stage today, the wine.
After selling his business in Johannesburg in the mid-1990s, Gunn dreamt of being a farmer and spent six months looking at around 30 farms in the Western Cape from Franschhoek to Barrydale.
"Nothing appealed to me until I drove through the Elgin Valley. I looked at five farms, the last one being Iona, named “Geelbeksvlei” at the time. Driving up the mountain, I became excited by the farm's remoteness, surrounded by nature conservation and pine plantations. I arrived at the back door of this beautiful old house, walked through to the front, and fell in love with the view over the Valley. And I said to myself: "This is where I want to live."
Being in awe of this magical place, he didn't see the wood from the trees and thought he was buying a viable apple farm.
“It was February, and the trees were laden with apples. I only took occupation in June 1997 and quickly concluded that the trees were old and that the farm was planted with the wrong varieties. Everything needed to be replanted. Being a trained engineer, I'm fairly practical and, after plenty of reading and research into climate and soils, understood its potential as a wine farm."
The first vineyard was planted in 1998, and the last apple trees pulled out six years ago, making space for a total of 36 hectares planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. "I designed the cellar myself with practical advice from my friend Niels Verburg of Luddite, who was also our winemaker for five years from 2003, a wonderful relationship."
Those acquainted with Iona wines are intrigued by its cool climate essence and have come to enjoy the wines for their fruit purity, detail, honesty, elegant structures, and deliciousness. When Gunn did his initial research, this was precisely what he found the wines would deliver on, a style somewhere between Sancerre and Burgundy in France. This was met with scepticism, but standing by his convictions, Gunn took a leap of faith and decided to plant vineyards. Iona's location makes it the coolest vineyards in the valley, and they harvest much later than anyone else. This results in perfect ripeness of grapes at low sugar and pH levels, capturing that ideal natural acidity aiding longevity.
"Think of making a fruit salad. If you use under-ripe fruit, you must sprinkle sugar over it. If the fruit is overripe, you need to squeeze lemon juice over it. The most delicious wines come from perfectly ripe and balanced fruit. The soils are mainly post-glacial gravels overlying deep clay. It is quite different from the rest of Elgin, with some decomposed Table Mountain sandstone. And as our winemaker Werner Muller’s mantra goes: "The wines are made in the vineyard."
Their winemaking practices follow suit with minimal intervention. Vineyard blocks are aptly named to highlight the farm's history, like the vineyard "Bloekom" where Bloekoms were once planted, "Kerk" which marks the site of a church, and "Granny Jean" that was planted with the help of his mother.
Yet, the transformation of a fruit farm to becoming an exceptional wine farm is not a task for the faint-hearted, and one needs to entrust your vision with like-minded individuals.
"Of all the businesses I have ventured into, this has been the most challenging and competitive of them all. It's been a combination of luck and perseverance. The chance of finding the farm and meeting people who contributed and supported the journey makes it impossible to name everyone. This includes Rosa Kruger, with whom I started the journey. Karen Gabriels, the first person I met on the farm, has lived here all her life. Today she is an invaluable member of our marketing team.”
Gunn smiles as his thoughts travel down memory lane. As with the most exciting wines, the journey is imbued with larger-than-life personalities: "Though sceptical about my climate claims at first, Prof Eben Archer became a valuable mentor throughout the journey; Ross Gower's quiet confidence in Elgin; Dawid Saayman, soil scientist par excellence; Giles Webb who gave us the opportunity of making the wine at Tokara for the first 3 years and Miles Mossop who made the first 3 vintages for us. Carrie Adams tasted a tank sample of the maiden 2001 vintage of Sauvignon Blanc from a plastic bottle and raved about it! Not to mention Niels Verburg, my friend and first winemaker in our own cellar and many friends, family, fellow workers, customers, and suppliers who gave advice and shared the vision that made the dream a reality."
Meeting his wife Rozy 20 years ago, shortly after losing her husband Derek in a car accident, shortly after they had bought a piece of land 3 km's north of Iona, was another stroke of good fortune, he continues.
"We were both at a vulnerable stage of our life, but she is now my great friend, confidant, partner, and matriarch to our large extended family. We share a common vision of compassion for every aspect of our business and the people we interact with."
To make Iona their own, the original name Geelbeksvlei wasn't appropriate for a wine label. They wanted a word with relevance that could convey a personal connection.
"I am a first-generation South African. My ancestors are one of the oldest Scottish Clans, and we trace our origins to the Vikings that landed in Scotland in the 900's, specifically Gunnar, who founded the Gunn Clan, son of Olaf the Black. The Viking ship on our label is a component of our family crest, and Iona is an island off the west coast of Scotland where the Vikings were active, also the name of my house when I lived in Johannesburg, a wonderful circle."
EVERY WINE HAS A STORY
This is a word that appears on some of their labels, a French term used when a producer has sole ownership of a vineyard and doesn't buy in or sell grapes. They decided to celebrate this as they believe consistent quality can only be achieved if you are in complete control of the whole process from the vineyard into the bottle.
Sauvignon Blanc's versatility is celebrated here, from the concentrated and more serious wild ferment to the delightful Sophie.
Andrew Gunn: “Sophie started in 2009 when we had wine surplus to the Iona requirements as we only make a limited volume each year. I felt this would happen every year and created the Sophie te'Blanche brand, named after "the most famous woman to never exist and a nickname for Sauvignon Blanc." She became an overnight success. We now source additional high-quality grapes from Cape South Coast producers.
ONE MAN BAND
The One Man Band Red Blend is the epiphany of a seamlessly executed concerto where five varieties are blended to create music for the wine soul.
"Blending affords the luxury of gauging the impact each new season has on each individual varietal component. The blend is never a fixed affair in terms of each variety's proportion but rather a celebration of what thrived under the unique conditions. Rozy's long-standing friendship with the sculptor Bruce Arnott led to the collaboration of his bronze sculpture "One Man Band" being used as the name of our wine and the inspiration for the graphic illustration on the bottle."
Brocha Vineyards produce the fruit for Solace and One Man Band, a separate property of only nine hectares. "Rozy farms this using organically registered products, laboratory cultivated biological fungi and bacteria, which when sprayed on the vines scavenge off the unwanted fungi and bacterias such as downy and powdery mildew. Biodynamic preparations are applied according to the lunar calendar, no herbicides are used at all. This is a far cry from being formally registered, which is a rigorous and expensive affair. For that reason, the way Brocha is farmed is simply a reflection of Rozy's personal philosophy and preferences."
Solace is, therefore, a true ambassador for this philosophy - unfiltered, unfined, and no enzymes or commercial yeasts are used. Solace is made from 100% shiraz. "If sustainability refers to equal give and take between soil care and the humans that take from it, then Brocha is such a farm."
KLOOF, KROON, FYNBOS
These wines are a celebration of terroir and a master class in the subtle yet significant nuances each site expresses regarding their specific vineyard sites, aspects, clones, soils, and microclimates.
"Only 500 bottles are made of each; the rest of these grapes become components of Iona Monopole Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They are a fantastic reminder to us of a vine's ability to express its own sense of place that can actually be savoured."
ART AND WINE
The love of art is a kickback from Rozy's first occupation, a fine artist.
“Wine and art both share the dubious honour of being scrutinized and labeled as good, bad, or ugly by any subjective observer. They also both benefit from genuine engagement from the viewer or drinker. The curious person will delve deeper to acquaint themselves with the wine or the art piece. This knowledge often dramatically enhances the experience of either and is the real reward.”
Two pieces in their tasting room encourage the viewer to engage with them. "Nothing" by Willem Boshoff, on engagement will reveal much more than "nothing" and "A catalogue of shapes" by Charlayn von Solms which is an interpretation of Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey certainly benefits from some knowledge of the characters to further appreciate the real intent of the artist. Both wine and art can reflect the intellect, personality, ideals, and skill set of the individuals or teams that make them, although wine is perhaps better described as a story in a bottle rather than a work of art.