Neil Ellis
Skilled, and sometimes overlooked, negociant winemaker with a penchant for cool-climate regions

I first visited Neil Ellis in 2005, and was impressed by his wines. Since then he’s moved location, with a new winery: from 2014, he’ll be making all his wines here, no longer needing to run multiple cellars. The new winery is in Ida’s Valley, Stellenbosch, which is part of the Simonsberg and near to Glenelly, Rustenberg, Tokara and Delaire.

Neil Ellis started out on his own as a negociant back in 1986 – a relatively rare commodity in South Africa where estate wines are held in such high esteem – after gaining experience with KWV and Groot Constantia. The business model was simple: he leased cellar space, bought in top-quality grapes, and made his wines.

Then in 1993 he went into partnership with Hans Peter Schroder, who coincidentally had in 1986 purchased a Stellenbosch wine estate, Oude Nektar, in the Jonkershoek Valley. Neil brought his winemaking expertise to the table, while Hans Peter brought extensive cellar space and a spectacular estate. Neil has the majority shareholding, and as well as him and Hans Peter, Neil’s son in law is involved.

There are 7.5 hectares of vines at Ida’s Valley, next to the winery, but the majority of Neil’s vineyards are elsewhere. Oude Nektar in Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch, has 40 hectares of red grapes; there’s the 120 ha Contreberg Farm in Groenekloof, Darling, which is at altitude and just 8 km from the cold Atlantic, a good source of whites; and the Whitehall farm in Elgin, another cool climate area. His own vineyards satisfy about half of his needs; the rest is based largely on long-term contracts with growers, supplemented by a bit of spot buying. ‘I have always had an interest in the fruit from cooler climate sites,’ says Neil. But it’s a long process getting to know vineyards: ‘It takes an above average viticultural team 10 years to understand a vineyard site before you can formulate a winemaking policy.’

Total crush each year varies, but is in the region of 650 tons. Neil is no longer selling to supermarkets in the UK, but has concentrated on working with Berkmans, with an on-trade focus. This has made a significant difference. ‘With supermarkets, the only time you are selling significant volumes is when there’s a promotion, which accounts for 70–80% of volume,’ says Neil. ‘And no one makes money in a promotion.’ He’s also critical of South African producers, who he thinks lack long-term strategy. ‘It’s not in the South African nature to play the long game; it is not our chemistry.’ He thinks that in the long term South Africa will sell less volume, but will be selling more niche products.’

‘The art of wine is blending and selection, but only science can give you quality,’ says Neil. He believes in the scientific approach: ‘any reasonable-sized winery should have an experimental program.’

‘We have weathered the storm of ego-driven wines,’ Neil states. ‘I am not trying to make a certain style to suit opinion formers. Let the sites drive the style. In terms of winemaking, it is about applying a management within that environment to protect and enhance what the vineyard can give.’

I asked him about the use of stems in making Syrah. ‘We employ a percentage of whole bunch and a percentage of whole berry. The remained is destalked and crushed. It varies from vintage to vintage. The challenge here is that contrary to Europe we don’t usually end up with well ripened stalks. The beauty of Shiraz is that under our conditions if it is physiologically ripe it has softer, well framed tannins. You get integration from a relatively young stage in the wine’s development. The European technique isn’t directly applicable to our circumstances, but Shiraz is one of the few varieties where stems might have a beneficial influence.’

 I was particularly impressed by Neil Ellis’ Pinotage, a variety I struggle with. ‘We take a Burgundian approach with extraction techniques and use Burgundian wood,’ says Neil. ‘The idea is to capture and frame integrated tannins, looking for brightness of fruit. One of the beauties of this variety is that if you exclude aggressive tannins, there will always be sweetness of fruit. This wine portrays all the elements of wine that I am interested in: we understand this particular piece of earth and what it can give. It has immediate access but we think it shows its best after 5–6 years.’

THE WINES

Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Fermented 2010 Coastal Region, South Africa
This has around 15% new oak, with 500 litre barrels used. Focused, pure fruit driven nose with subtle grassy, grapefruit notes. There’s mineral complexity here, alongside grapefruit/citrus character, and good texture. Lovely. 91/100

Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2010 Elgin, South Africa
From 3 blocks in Elgin, on different soils. A region that is becoming very well known for Chardonnay. Fine, fresh nose with focused citrus and white peach characters. Restrained, fresh, mineral palate with good acidity and also volume and breadth. Spicy oak in the background (combination of 228 and 500 litre barrels). Very fine with ageing potential. 93/100

Neil Ellis Grenache 2009 Piekenierskloof, South Africa
From a remarkable vineyard in the Citrusdal, on a mountain plateau north of Malmesbury famous for its rooibos tea. It’s a disease-free area and these vines are on their own roots (60 years old now). Sweet, vivid ripe berry fruits nose. The palate is focused and fresh with vivid cherry and raspberry fruit. Ripe and sweet but also fresh and spicy with a warm finish. 92/100 

Neil Ellis Pinotage 2010 Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is from a 400 m vineyard facing south east, with tiny yields of small berried small bunches. Neil Ellis says it is really a white wine site, but it has made a lovely Pinotage. Sweet, pure, fresh elegant cherry fruit nose. Very appealing with seductive aromatics and pure, elegant berry fruits on the palate. Supple and a bit spicy, with lovely purity, elegance and appeal. 93/100

Neil Ellis Syrah 2007 Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Sweet, aromatic and nicely spicy with some tarry notes alongside complex, rich, spicy berry fruits. The palate is fresh with good acidity and vivid, spicy, focused citrus freshness as well as spicy, earthy berry fruits. Lots of interest. 92/100

Neil Ellis Syrah 2010 Groenekloof, Darling, South Africa
Very fresh and pure with vivid pepper and olive cool climate notes meshing with pure cherry and berry fruits. Ripe, pure, slightly meaty fruit notes. Smooth-textured and pure, with cherries and plums complemented by peppery freshness. Fabulous. 94/100

Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Distinctive gravelly nose. Bold, rich and tarry but still has freshness, and a savoury blackcurrant bud note. The palate is fresh with pure blackcurrant fruit. Stylish and ripe but really fresh with a spicy, gravelly, savoury twist. 93/100

Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2009  Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Brooding, taut blackcurrant bud nose with black fruits and some savoury spiciness. The palate shows lovely fresh blackcurrant fruit with good acidity. Very pure and fresh with lovely precision. Fabulous. 94/100

STELLENBOSCH REVISITED

Part 1, Waterkloof
Part 2, Waterford
part 3, Reyneke
Part 4, Kanonkop
Part 5, Rustenberg
Part 6, Meerlust
Part 7, Delheim
Part 8, Thelema
Part 9, Neil Ellis

Wines tasted 03/12  
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