Wine legends – Neil Ellis
Neil Ellis opened the door to winemaking that highlighted regional diversity in wine and regions previously unexplored.
On his formative years
Neil’s father was involved in exporting fruit. He was at school in Wellington.
“Our science teacher was a wonderful man by the name of Nollie Burger, and he always asked the boys questions. If you didn’t get it right, he asked if you were in line to inherit a farm and if you said no, you’d get a slap in the neck, but it was part of the game at that time. So, you told Nollie, you realised it was either that slap, or you do your work.”
“When I was young, you had to do compulsory military training. It gave many young men a chance to think about their future. In my case, it was clear. I didn’t want to go into an office. I thought it might be something in agriculture or forestry. People suggested I go to Elsenburg before going into a BSc, because the first year would give you a sense a direction. Whether it was the influence of my drinking buddies, I don’t know, but wine fascinated me.
“In my final year, our hostel father Rooies van Wyk told me about a position at the KWV. They were looking for what they called an ‘intern cellarmaster’, which is probably a nice name for someone who drags pipes around and scrubs the floors.
“I thought, before I continue and waste my father’s money on further studies, I want to see if I like it. That’s where I started there. Now, the KWV can be criticised for many things of the past, but that they were a powerhouse in production with fantastic people, is for sure. I had the privilege of working with those people.
“I will never forget my very first day in that large building. I walked past Oom Vasie van Niekerk’s office. He always sat with his feet on his desk. He called me over, enquiring whether I was the new guy. ‘Let me tell you,’ he proceeded to say, ‘that it’s brandy that pays your salary and not wine!’
“I immediately knew where I stood with him.
“Among the many, many good people some are still good friends.
“Years later, via Danie de Wet, I became involved again in the mid-2000s and had the privilege to serve on their board for 12 years.
“Me and Dr Pan van Zyl started at the same time. Pan at the top of course and me right at the bottom. But my job at that stage was in the table wine cellar, and it had a German head winemaker, Willie Akker – a wonderful man and great mentor.
“Others in that environment were Charl Theron; Oom Pietie Theron, Piet Lourens, the chemist; Jan Booysen, viticulturist; Dr Beukman; Gawie Kriel. You can’t say thank you enough for that exposure.
“It was only during the middle of my second year that I decided I could do this work I would want to continue with this career.
“A few years later I got the job at Groot Constantia and the first person I told was Willie Akker. All he said was: I knew you’d get it, but now you must tell Dr Pan.
“Of course, he already knew. I was shaking when I went.
“He asked: ‘What this I hear?’ I said: ‘Well, doctor, you’ll remember when you and I arrived here on the same time, you at the top floor and me at the bottom, it was clear that both of us had achieved the top of our careers here!’
“He wasn’t very impressed, but we laughed about it much later.”
On wine and regions
“I was in the Constantia Valley for a several years. It was my first work exposure to the so-called cooler production areas and Constantia with its – I want to almost say – magical stature. It was a very, very important experience for me because what I learnt was the importance for a winemaker to get closer to vineyards.”
On technology and winemaking
“In the 60s and 70s, there was an obsession with technology and imitation of styles. Especially California and Australia almost had an obsession to imitate Burgundy and Bordeaux.
“We can speak very philosophically about the old production areas of Europe, but despite new technology, the practice was still based on centuries of experience.
“The more you try to imitate, the more you realise it’s impossible. I started getting involved towards the end of those lab-coat years.
“Cold fermentation had arisen in the late 50s. The Germans were the best people to use it on the respective wine styles and they could show us, but we didn’t have a lot to work with. In white wines, there was Chenin blanc and a little Cape Riesling.”
On finding a new way
“What I experienced in my time at the KWV was that you could clearly see differences between warmer plantings of a variety like Chenin blanc to cooler areas like Durbanville.
“I also had the privilege to spend some time in Europe and learnt quickly that no single piece of soil is good enough for all cultivars.
“The Western Cape, of course, has larger farms so the plant philosophy was probably early season, middle season and late season otherwise you wouldn’t get through the harvest. It’s not to say that it was the right cultivar for your farm, but that’s how the system worked in those days.
“It took a few years however before I had my own say. There are no Cape Dutch gables in my family.
“First I had to decide which varieties I wanted to work with and where my passion lay. Where do I see that site? And I need to identify the farmer who understands my thinking. In many ways, it remains a great challenge.
“The project began with Cabernet and Cabernet from two vineyards in Stellenbosch – one in Banhoek and the other near Firgrove. Everyone said forget about red grapes in Banhoek, but there was an old vineyard on Pieter Grasie’s farm that made beautiful wine. I think that was one of the stimuli that led Giles Webb to buy Thelema.
“Now you’re making a red and it involves buying barrels. And suddenly, because you don’t know what you’re doing, you come to realise the money is used up. I needed to do something to earn more, so white wine was clearly an important part. At that time, I looked in the Elgin Valley and identified people who would plant for me.
On cool climate
Neil was the first winemaker who bought grapes in this cool climate regions like Elgin and Darlin.
“I needed to buy a farm, establish a vineyard and build a cellar. My father offered his house as security for a bank loan. When I told my bank manager, he was furious. He said, ‘How can you do that to your father? I’ll give you money for the simple reason that you know about a little about wine.’
“’If the mighty Sol Kerzner came to ask me for money for a wine project I would have said no, you know nothing about wine, but you know a lot about hotels.’
“Bankers were very different at that time.
“Important for me however was the European experience and tastings of great wines of the world that I did regularly with a handful of guys.
“While the climate of places such as Elgin was had not been very scientifically assessed, I went on gut-feel.
“I thoroughly covered the Elgin area. At a time when Chardonnay vines were as rare as chicken teeth, I came across viticulturist Paul Wallace. Paul made a few vines available. A friend of mine, Henry Hall, decided he’d take a chance on me – this madman from other side the mountain – and plant the vines. So, on his farm was a patch of Sauvignon blanc.
“Many people say Chardonnay can be planted anywhere. Yes, probably, but the distinctive Chardonnays only grow in certain places.”
On being first
The first wine I made and released under Wine of Origin Elgin was a Sauvignon blanc.
Around the time, I was the first to plant vineyards in the hills of Darling with the late Alex Versfeld, a good friend. People said we were mad, but I had a another gut-feeling that this was on the right track. At that time, all the plantings were bushvines. That is what the people understood and what they did well.
“It’s important to have a goal. None of us will say we make the best wine in the country, but we do however want to make some of the best wines, and want to express the environment correctly. So, I always say, and especially for my team, it takes a minimum of 10 years to understand a site and 10 years before you can even think of a winemaking philosophy.
“Many guys will say, Neil Ellis, you’re on the wrong side of things, but if you want to bring things to a logical conclusion, you must test for 10 years.
“Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot. The best wines in the world are not driven by the winemaker, but by the vineyard. The winemaker and the team, however, develop the ability to interpret it correctly. Every year there are small adjustments because we’re dealing with nature. I think the important thing is never to follow a recipe. Recipes don’t work. They’re merely a guideline.”
“Everything points to vineyard balance.
“You can’t pull a blanket over a farm. It is location versus location. Stellenbosch with the best will in the world will never be a high yield area. There are too many things against you, but for good reason.
“People will be angry with me, but there are too many production areas that are still tied to old political borders. It has nothing to do with vineyard planting.
“Vineyards in those districts don’t actually belong there because you’ll never get quality wine from such a thing, such a farm. but with resources such as water, they will be able to farm with other things that they may well fare better with. So, I think the big thing is that it revolves around the knowledge and experience of the area.”
On venturing into the Piekenierskloof
“There was a time that water was never used on vines. Experts of that time sought varieties that could handle particular situations. Grenache was one of them. I have a good friend in the PIekenierskloof, Willie Marais, whose father planted these vines in that area in ’45. He followed up again in the mid-‘60s.
“As many will know, the Piekenierskloof is probably known more for rooibos tea than wine grapes. I remember going to look at the Grenache vines in the late 1990s; Willie said he has these vines and he’s considering their future.
“The Piekenierskloof mixed farming a lot. A bit of tea, fruit, probably cattle and some sheep. But I would say that in the past 20 or 25 years, citrus has emerged strongly. In the water stakes, vineyards played second fiddle. I told Willie that between the two of us, we don’t own the vineyard, but we must make it worthwhile for the owner, which means he must deliver the wine with us.”
On the industry
“We are still so fragmented. Personally, I think that we would have been much further down the road, if we could work and stand together.
“In old Europe, if you and I were neighbours, there wouldn’t be a natural or logical reason why we would set foot in each other’s cellar, but when wine leaves our winery, we stand together because we have a joint pride in the environment and our region. So, for that you stand stronger.
“There must be a communal vision that everyone needs to buy into, and we’ll get much further.”
On lessons about family
Neil’s son Warren has taken over the task of winemaker.
“I had a few years where we could work together, but there must be a day where the line is drawn. And then you must allow mistakes to be made otherwise you don’t learn.
“I encouraged him strongly to follow post grad studies, especially in viticulture, because you need to know what good grapes are. I only realised it late in my life.”
This feature was derived from a series of interviews conducted by radio personality Martelize Brink. It was compiled in co-operation with Wineland Media, part of the Vinpro Family, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2021.