Greg Landman meets the country’s top winemakers. This month is the turn of Neil Ellis of Neil Ellis Wines.
Words: Greg Landman
Born in Cape Town in 1953, Neil was raised in Wellington. Family holidays in Lourenço Marques introduced him at an early age to a continental way of eating and wine drinking that he found most appealing. “I realised early that there would be no office for me,” he says. He studied at Elsenburg and spent many years at KWV, Groot Constantia and Zevenwacht, before making wine under his own label, the first person in the Cape to do so.
A member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild since 1983, he has always been an innovator in the wine business, but is guided by traditional methods and no slave to technology. “I feel deeply for traditions and values I’m privileged to pass on,” he says. In 1993 Neil and Hans-Peter Schröder formed a joint venture at Oude Nektar in the Jonkershoek Valley that has gone from strength to strength. Neil relocated to his own estate in Helshhoogte Road in 2010 and the first vintage was vinified there this year. He and his close-knit family live in Stellenbosch while his winemaker and viticulturist son, Warren, lives on the farm. Neil travels abroad often on business, mostly to France, Italy and Spain, sometimes with his wife Stephanie. “But I’m not good at holidaying,” he admits.
You’re spoilt for choice in the Cape when it comes to spectacular settings for wine estates, but one of the most beautiful is the Helshoogte Pass from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek. On the Stellenbosch side are the vines of Neil Ellis, a Cape legend who has made wine in other areas, such as Jonkershoek Valley, but here the views of the mountains must be so inspiring.
Very much a family business, son Warren is the winemaker and viticulturist, making wines in partnership with his father; other son Charl takes care of the finances; daughter Margot is the marketing fundi; Neil’s wife Stephanie is the glue that binds them all together.
Neil believes “no single piece of land can be good for all varietals”, and sources grapes from many areas. He has built up relationships with growers who meet his and Warren’s exacting standards. There are also vineyards on their farm, mainly Cabernet, but theirs is a wide-ranging palette, including Jonkershoek, Piekenierskloof near Citrusdal, Groenekloof near Darling, and Elgin.
The wines are intensely fruit-driven, serious in conception, but easy to drink without getting too precious for their own good. “We make wines that reflect the area from which they spring, but I still take my cue from Old Europe, especially Burgundy,” says Neil.
Lees contact for 8 months of the components – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – leads to plenty of tropical fruit in the mouth and a dry finish. Perfect for sushi, roast chicken and pork. Well priced at R65.
The grapes are from Elgin, the oak from France, and the result is delicious. Intense fruit flavours beautifully supported by oak nuances subtly playing their role. Superb with fish and light creamy pasta dishes. R100 at the cellar.
Intense, dark-berry aromas on the nose with typical spicy notes of cloves and black pepper. Delicious to drink without puckering up. Cool slightly especially in summer heat. R100
As the wine writer for Country Life magazine for the last 15 years, Greg has met and interviewed more than 150 of the country’s top wine makers. His articles offer unique insights into where to eat, what to drink, and where to go all over the Western Cape. With his dining companion Beryl Ormsby Browne, he has also reviewed more than 60 country restaurants for the magazine and has been a reviewer for the prestigious Eat Out Guide for 12 years. His passion for everything the winelands has to offer has led him into the world of wine tours. To find out more, visit his website Magic Grape Tours.