This is extreme viticulture. Vines grow in Agulhas on the edge of the African continent, facing howling sea gales and rooted precariously in marginal soils. The primordial soils are said to date back over 300-million years, remnants from the ancient formation of the Cape Fold mountains. These include layers of undisturbed laterite, sandstone, shale, with pockets of quartz and limestone. These most southerly vines find themselves located between the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, where the two giant masses meet. The ominously named Black Southeaster is a constant presence, the harbinger of storms.

Farming anything on these windswept plains is a challenge, let alone the finicky vine. It’s the people who make it work.

“The Overberg is crammed full of self-starters and resilience,” says one such grower, Bruce Jack of the Drift Farm, situated in the Overberg Highlands. “Farmers here, partly due to their isolation, are often very open, friendly and good to be around. There’s a different vibe and it benefits the wine.”

What also benefits the wines he adds is the unique terroir. “The winds are beneficial for natural acid retention in grapes, aroma and flavour development, but also dry out moisture in the canopy, meaning fewer chemical sprays are required to keep grapes and vines healthy. Wind dominates the climate and plays a further crucial role in devigorating vineyard growth, forcing the plant to focus on producing delicious grapes rather than vegetation.”

The majority of these maritime vineyards are situated in the Elim ward. However in 2019, some producers got together and drew a figurative triangle, which set Elim and Napier on the western side, Malgas and Swellendam to the east, and Cape Agulhas at the southernmost point. They called this delineation the ‘Agulhas Wine Triangle’, a producers’ organisation to promote the wines of the area. (Agulhas also falls under the broader Cape South Coast wine region.)

It’s a helpful visualisation. Follow the twisting Breede River from Swellendam, you’ll find Malgas, its own Wine of Origin. There is one winery here, Sijnn, which is a Khoisan word meaning riverbank. Apt, as the bushvines crowd on the banks around the mouth of the Breede, supported by large round river stones, the sight not dissimilar to the galets of the Rhône.

This terroir is ancient. Close to Sijnn Wines is Blombos Cave where the first recorded instance of cognitive thought was found in the form of cross-hatching on stones and is said to date back 80 000 years.

In more recent history, winegrowing in Elim began 150 years ago, when Moravian missionaries who had settled in town needed wine for their services, known as nagmal wyn. Founded in 1824, the entire village has been declared a national monument. Commercial winemaking however only saw the light in the 1990s.

As rules governing viticulture opened up with the dawn of democracy, outlying areas began to be prospected for vine growing. The wheat farmers of Elim saw the opportunity and galvanised their cause with the expertise of winemaker Charles Hopkins, viticulturist Johan Wiese, accountant Pieter Ferreira and Hein Koegelenberg.

“In winemaking circles, they were referred to as the ‘A team’,” shares Bruce Jack. “The brand they started was Lands End and is now owned by du Toitskloof cellars. The three pioneering farmers were Johan de Kock, Francis Pratt and Dirk Human. Alongside the Hamilton-Russells and the Newton-Johnsons of Hemel-en-Aarde, and the Cluvers of Elgin, and so on… they placed South African wine on a new, energising trajectory. It is impossible to underplay their collective prescience, courage and influence in driving quality wine.”

The speciality in Elim is sauvignon blanc, a vine that struggles in the extreme conditions – yet produces the most distinct and elegant fruit for it, as does its common bedfellow semillon. Syrah from here is also fast gaining a reputation for high quality, cool climate renditions.  

“The culmination of the different soils, the wind, the cold winters and moderate summers results in a thread of elegance running through all wines made in the Agulhas area,” explains Jack. “And because of these factors, yields will never be high, so wines are naturally better balanced and of premium quality.” 

By Malu Lambert

The members of the Agulhas Wine Triangle 
Black Oystercatcher Wines, Ghost Corner, Land’s End, Lost Boy, Strandveld Vineyards, The Giant Periwinkle, Zoetendal Vineyards and Trizanne Signature Wines from the Elim wine ward; Sijnn Wines from Malgas; Olivedale Private Vineyards from Swellendam; Lomond from Cape Agulhas; The Berrio, The Drift Estate, Skipskop Wines, and Fortes Family Wines from Napier.