Elgin Vintners founding partner Dr Max Hahn is a fount of knowledge on the history of the Elgin Valley and the Elgin Orchards farm that sparked his interest in owning an apple farm “one day”.
Now living in what is believed to be the oldest house in the valley, the tollhouse at the bridge over the Palmiet River that runs through the valley, he knows the stories of the farm’s original owner Edward Syfret, neighbour Jack Green (and the foefie slide, or rope-and-pulley system used to transport apples over the river to his packshed), and the Denniston family who offered recuperation in the Ridgelands manor house on the farm for injured troops returning from World War II.
Those families are remembered in the names of the guest bedrooms in the stately manor house that is now home to Elgin Vintners, luxury accommodation for visitors and a scenic venue for special events.
Max’s father was one of the injured troops nursed to wellness at Ridgelands and became friends with the Denniston family – many visits to Elgin Orchards and the Ridgelands manor house sparking the young Max’s dream of one day retiring to an apple farm in the area.
But, he says, “I never dreamed I would own THIS farm”.
That opportunity came about many years later in 2001, after a science degree in geology and chemistry, a degree in medicine, and a long career in business. Through a combination of fate, the right timing and the right price – and confidence from knowing the history and people of the farm, he acquired Elgin Orchards and its business of farming and packing apples and pears in 2001.
For many, there is a romance about growing vines and making wine. For Dr Hahn, the diversifying into grapes was a business decision prompted by a downturn in the apple industry, increasing signals of global warming, and expert views that the cool climate and unique terroir of the Elgin valley had the potential to make excellent wines.
His passion is for the industrious effort of agriculture and the reward in agricultural products, rather than for wine per se, although he has since travelled the world experiencing the viticulture and wines of various regions.
“I love the vineyards. They’re open and rolling (a much nicer place to ride your bike than through the orchards that obscure the views) and the scientist in me is fascinated by the soil profiles and their impact on the vines, and the chemistry that goes into making wine.”
An initial 30ha of the 800ha farm, with its 250ha of fruit orchards, was put under grapes, on a wedge-shaped piece of ground along the river.
Elgin Vintners, a partnership of farmers in the area who entered into grape-growing and wine-making, was one of the early players in what grew into a small, but significant industry, over the next decade.
“My heart is in agriculture – and agriculture that is done exceptionally well. I love to see the process and effort that goes into agriculture, the work in the orchards and vineyards that changes with the seasons, the crops slowly developing to harvest.”
“Most people don’t like being woken up by the noise of a spray cart in the orchards in the morning, but I do! It’s a sign of things happening on the farm, and that makes me feel good.”
“I’m a perfectionist and I don’t do things half-heartedly – not a weekend farmer type of person. Things must be done properly, and that goes for wine too.”
For James Rawbone-Viljoen, the excitement of the wine business is about personal interaction with wine lovers and growing Elgin Vintners’ global family of loyal followers.
“I often say that, for me, growing apples and pears is a very scientific process, as it is with grapes, but once you’ve grown that apple or pear, packed it and sent if off the farm, you have nothing more to do with it.”
“The real attraction for me, with grapes and with wine, is having that personal interaction with the consumer. To sit across the table and share a glass of wine, a product that I love, with people and see their satisfaction in enjoying your product – that’s what I get a kick out of.”
Not content with simply growing grapes to harvest, James’s passion is for the making and the selling of the wine, opening up new markets for Elgin Vintners through personalised wine tasting experiences and giving the brand a face and a personality.
“Through private tastings and personal experiences, we’ve developed a strong following of people who we have touched and have an appreciation for what we do, and we appreciate their loyalty.”
James’s Elgin roots run deep – he grew up in Elgin Valley, on Oak Valley, the farm owned by his family for more than a century.
His career took him on other paths, though, until he decided to try his hand at apple- and pear-farming in the early 1990s and then, as many others did, diversified into grape and wine production, on Blauwkrans and Helderfontein and became a founding partner in Elgin Vintners.
“Elgin had long been known for its potential as a premium wine-producing area, due to its cool climate, altitude and abundant water,” he says
While partner Dr Max Hahn has “more of an international palate”, he says, “I can’t find a wine in the world that’s better than our Elgin wine.”
“Local is lekker (great) for me and local is Elgin. I struggle to find the same quality anywhere as that produced in our valley.”
He is optimistic that Elgin Vintners is on a solid footing to continue making premium wines and has the stage to showcase what this unique appellation is capable of.
On a lighter note, he says, “when you have a bad day at the office, you could come home and eat an apple and that’s great. But compared to opening a bottle of your wine? That’s completely different!”
We have a deep connection with and understanding of our vineyards and terroir. Meticulous care is taken of our vineyards which produce well-balanced grapes packed with flavour. This process takes a whole season and our role as vintners is to capture this flavour in every glass.
Only an hour east of Cape Town, the high-lying cool-climate Elgin district, cradled in the ancient sandstone Hottentots Holland mountains, was traditionally an apple-growing region. Now award-winning wine showing exceptional poise, finesse and elegance are produced here, with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz doing particularly well in this later-ripening, cooler terroir. Due to vineyards elevated between 260 and 600 meters above sea level and the unique terroir, the grapes ripen on the vines for longer than local in-land and many of the world’s most famous wine regions. The average annual rainfall is 1011 mm with 366 mm falling in summer, and parent soils comprise of Table Mountain Sandstone and Bokkeveld Shale.