Iona, Elgin
South Africa revisited part 15

In 1997 Andrew Gunn (above), who’d made his money from a medical suture company, bought a run-down apple farm in the Elgin region. Now it’s one of South Africa’s leading producers of Sauvignon Blanc, although 15 hectares of apple trees still remain alongside the vineyards. It’s at an altitude of 420 metres, with a view of the sea, which is just 3 km away.

Gunn is a first-generation South African. His grandfather was Scottish (hence the name ‘Iona’), a member of one of the oldest clans, the Sutherlands, from near Wick. Remarkably, they can trace their ancestry back to the Vikings. I met with him, his wife Rozy, and winemaker John Seccombe.

Gunn didn’t plant blind; he knew what he was doing in selecting this site. Initially, he put temperature loggers around the farm, and found that the climate here was significantly cooler than expected over the three months that the loggers were recording data. He was able to compare his farm data with those from the Elgin weather station. Because there was a consistent relationship over his three month trial, he was then able to extrapolate his data out over the whole growing season. The exciting results showed that this site was cooler than equivalent places in Europe where Sauvignon Blanc was grown. If the grapes could ripen, then the results could be quite exciting. Peak summer temperatures here are usually 24–25 °C, and if they experience three days over 30 °C, then it’s unusual.

John Seccombe

Gunn’s uncle was a professor of geomorphology, and he came out in 1997 to do a survey of the site. It showed that the farm had post-glacial alluvial soils: it was an old river valley. The first harvest was in 2001: by South African standards, it was a late one, straddling the end of March and beginning of April. Gunn found that he was getting good fruit set and a long ripening period, which seemed ideal.

Sauvignon Blanc is the main focus, and 65% of Iona’s plantings are accounted for by this variety. Gunn also owns another farm down in the valley, with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier planted. He never has to acidify. The main farm has 29 hectares of vines, while the property in the valley is 11 hectares, making a total of 40. 

Elgin is quite a new region. When Andrew Gunn started out, Paul Cluver was the only producer in the region. Oak Valley was third. ‘We believe it is the up and coming wine region,’ says Gunn. ‘Shortly after I started planting I called a meeting of farmers to share experience. We formed the Elgin Wine Guild, with a view to promote quality.’

In terms of South Africa’s wine classification, Elgin is currently a ward, but will soon be a wine district. It’s the only one with natural boundaries – in this case, three mountain ranges and the sea. It’s a bowl surrounded by mountains, with the valley floor at 300 m, and the highest vineyards are 900 m. If harvest date is used as a measure of climate, this is the coolest wine region in South Africa.

The Sauvignon is really impressive. ‘Here is a site where we have longer hang time, and can push ripeness without losing acid and getting silly alcohol levels,’ says John Seccombe, the winemaker. ‘For me, Sauvignon is about balance on the palate. I have never been a fan of methoxypyrazine. Let’s try harder to make a balanced wine.’ The 2010 Sauvignon is a slight departure in style; the first year that Seccombe has attempted to push the ripeness a bit more.

Gunn is a big fan of Chardonnay. ‘I planted it because I love white Burgundy. I am very excited about Chardonnay from Elgin generally,’ he reveals.


Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Elgin (cork sealed)
Lovely fruit here: crisp and taut nice citrus fruit, and a subtle lanolin edge. Good acidity. 91/100

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Elgin (screwcapped)
Bright, fresh, mineral nose with some citrus notes. Fresh and crisp. The palate is fresh, citrussy and mineral with slightly herbal fruit. Lovely. 90/100

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Elgin
Beautiful nose: ripe, full and aromatic with rich melon and pear notes. The palate has some rich melon fruit as well as herbiness and lovely fresh grapefruit and spicy minerality. Fresh and crisp yet with richness of fruit. 92/100

Iona Chardonnay 2009 Elgin
50% stainless steel, 50% wood (one-fifth new). Wild ferment. Dense but fresh with a herby edge to the generous fruit. Peach, pear and some spice notes. Lovely subtle toasty, nutty richness and some citrus freshness here. Fine acidity. 89/100

Iona Syrah 2007 Elgin
Lovely dark cherry, plum and olive nose. Rich, fresh, meaty and spicy with some grippiness. The palate is dense and rich with ripe blackberry and blackcurrant fruit as well as plum and spice notes, and a bit of pepperiness. Bright fruit and a lovely complex spicy, peppery dimension. 93/100

Part 1, Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards
Part 2, Cape Point Vineyards
Part 3, AA Badenhorst Family Wines
Part 4, Eben Sadie: Sadie Family Wines and Sequillo Cellars
Part 5, Paul Kretzel of Lammershoek
Part 6, Mullineux Family Wines
Part 7, Vondeling
Part 8, Scali
Part 9, Sterhuis
Part 10, Raats
Part 11, Migliarina
Part 12, Charles Back and Fairview
Part 13, Hermit on the Hill
Part 14, Klein Constantia
Part 15, Iona, Elgin
Part 16, Paul Cluver, Elgin
Part 17, Eagles' Nest, Constantia
Part 18, Anthonij Rupert
Part 19, Oak Valley, Elgin
Part 20, Shannon, Elgin

Wines tasted 10/10  
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