Spioenkop, Elgin

The first rain drops of the week fell as we arrived at Spioenkop vineyard, set in the dramatic and rolling landscape of Elgin in the Overberg district, Western Cape. The vineyard is run by Koen Roose, Belgian by birth, engineer by education and winemaker by passion, he is a rebel who cares little for trends or fads. His obsession is with “bottling Elgin”. This purism means no irrigation, no yeast and a firm guiding vision from the vineyard’s creator-in-chief which captures the most of Elgin’s unique soil and climate. The combination terroir and winemaking has resulted in a series of outstanding and individual wines which have gained plaudits worldwide since his first vintage in 2010.

Traditionally Elgin was known for its Pink Lady apples, but in 2005 Koen spotted the potential. Sheltered by four surrounding hills the area resembles a moon crater, it is 200m+ above sea level and as a result the temperature is 3 degrees cooler than the surrounding vineyards. Additionally, it has a unique microclimate whereby when the temperature reaches 32 degrees the hot air sucks wind through the valley and acts like a natural self-correcting air conditioning system. This keeps the grapes at cooler and more consistent temperature. This coupled with the unique patchwork of laterite (a soil and rock type rich in iron and aluminium) (see picture below) makes Elgin different from anything else in the otherwise dry and arid surrounds and easily spottable thanks to the bright turquoise almost luminous lake in the middle of the estate.

spionk soil

At Spioenkop all of the varietals are judiciously selected to suit the terroir and planted to reach their full potential. For example; Riesling is planted where the draining is exceptional, Pinotage in the coolest area at the bottom where a swamp used to be and hence the highest soil content of clay and fossil. He is also constantly trying innovative methods, willing to buck trends where he feels it doesn’t match his terroir. This includes producing Elgin’s first Chenin Blanc with fewer of the tropical characteristics popular in the South Africa industry, and growing Sauvignon Blanc so the canopies grow low and wild with minimal pruning to give tiny tight bunches of concentrated fruit, he also plants the rows closer together than his neighbours, carefully shaping the vines to create the style of wine he wants, sexy steely Sauvignon.

spion lake

If commercial ‘Coca Cola’ wines are what you are looking for you’ll be sorely disappointed. At the tasting we tried an array of wines which were totally unique to South Africa with delicate structure, precision and unbelievable concentration of fruit. Spioenkop itself is a far cry from an immaculate show vineyard, it’s a working farm producing serious wines. In his own words – ‘pretty vines don’t produce pretty wines’, I think he’s got the right idea and can’t wait to taste the future fruits from the deliciously different revolutionary Spioenkop.

Spion koen

I’m joining the Riesling Revolution!

In my opinion Riesling is an underappreciated grape. This may be because of misconceptions such as it being cheap and sweet, the dated creature of 1970’s fondue parties; or that the bottles look like they should come with a translator in medieval German; or the concern that the whiff of petrol emanating from the cut-price bottle you just bought round the corner is making you wonder if you were miss-sold a Molotov. However, look beyond the slander and the fact of the matter is that German wines are like their cars; there are plenty of them, they are undeniably sassy and well-built – quite simply they should not be ignored.


So in a selfless attempt to start reparations and de-mystify some of these Teutonic beauties, I’ve gone straight for the jugular – a comparison of three German Rieslings. Comparing the wines simultaneously was a great help in highlighting the surprisingly wide range of difference, a reflection of the flexibility of Riesling and the fact that producers are trying lots of interesting things with the variety, but it did prove a challenge for my inherent clumsiness – six large glasses, a small table and me trying to navigate around it had its moments!

2010 Riesling Trocken ‘Tres Naris’, Axel Pauly (Mosel)

Bright yellow with limey reflections it’s a gem to behold; tiny bubbles give a sense of sparkle as easy on the eye as Bradley Cooper. It was the gentle aromas of papaya and lime making a trickery of the nose which made the refreshing steely acidity of the palate more noticeable as you unpack the layers of this intriguing wine. The teasing bubbles coupled with the coarse body cut through the mouth in a pleasurably abrasive way.  As you might guess, it’s a serious wine for Riesling purists – the delicate fruit and uber-dry finish is the sidecar to the steely minerality and nervy acidity. This particular producer, having learned the ropes from his father, first cut his teeth in New Zealand and California before moving back to Germany, perhaps explaining his emphasis on the pure expression of the grape. An invigorating, no nonsense little number – it would be great on its own on a summer’s day and is quite simply a mighty fine example of how a Mosel Riesling should taste.

2010 Riesling QBA ‘R3’, Stefan Breuer (Rheingau)

Our star performer – it gives a sense of place so strong it’s almost tangible… wunderlust. I’d barely had time to look at the lovely bright yellow colour of the wine before an array of mango and melon flavours leapt out of the glass and whisked me away to a Caribbean beach. The nose tells a different story to the palate, where the fruitiness is balanced by a sassy acidity and a surprising spicy finish. It’s a fabulous example of a Riesling from Rheingau, showcasing the subtle spices a-typical of those Rieslings in the area which are dallying with an approach better suited to contemporary palates. The transition from fruit to acidity followed by spice is an adventure for the mouth; it’s amazing how this wine pulls off being so elegant and precise without losing its edgy quirky feel – this is reflected in the funky label. It makes for an interesting, easy drinking tipple which is very versatile with food. We had it with cuttlefish which seemed to work perfectly as the sweetness of the wine cut through the oily saline qualities of the dish, but I really think you could have it with anything.

2009 Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, Weingut Merkelbach (Mosel)

While more ‘traditional’, the final wine is delicate grapefruit on the nose but playful and juicy on the palate, with delicious tropical notes providing a luscious integrated sweetness which is tightly combined with a smoky spicy finish, giving it a surprising, slightly quirky edge and leaving it free from the ‘another Blue Nun’ jibes. These unique tropical/spicy flavours come from the red volcanic soil of the “Spice Garden” where the grapes are grown, making the wine one-of-a-kind. It still is quite a mouthful and needs to be carefully paired with something sweet or rich such as duck– a delicate fish dish would be completely dominated by this.  This means it isn’t quite to my tastes, but in my mind it deserves to be adored if only because of Rolf and Alfred (below), the brothers who have lovingly produced it for us.

Alfred and Rolf Merkelbach

So, have I convinced you? Go on, abandon the Sauvy B, Chardonnay and Chenin – join the Riesling Revolution!!