Shannon Vineyards is one of South Africa’s premiere cool-climate vineyards, the source of fruit for some of South Africa’s best wine, including a rare 5 Star ranking from Platter’s Guide for the Catherine Marshall 2008 Pinot Noir. To get there I drove over the Hottentots up to the high plateau where Elgin is located. Then it was down a long country road until vineyards appeared among the fynbos and a sign saying “Shannon Vineyards” pointed to a long driveway. Finally I arrived in the most idyllic setting I’ve ever seen for a vineyard—a lazy river meandering through rolling hills covered with vineyards and apple and pear trees. Recognizing the label that graces the bottles of Shannon Vineyards, I quickly took a picture.
Actually, the journey to Shannon Vineyards began an ocean and continent away in Chile where we met Stuart Downes at the Quintay Winery in the Casablanca Valley. Stuart and brother James are partners in 15.5 ha Shannon Vineyards. The quality of the vineyard reflects its terroir—especially, the long, cool growing season without the heat spikes common at lower elevations. Perhaps even more important is the meticulous care with which James Stuart (pictured here) has applied his scientific training—and his experience working with winemaker Martin Prieur in Burgundy—to the growing of grapes. One can find iron, shale, clay, granite, quartz and Table Mountain sandstone in varying portions throughout the vineyard. James selects clones and rootstocks for specific soils and microclimates, often experimenting and keeping detailed records. Trellising is also adjusted for microclimates, raising canopies where morning humidity is high to facilitate air circulation and lowering them where winds are particularly strong.
The Shannon vineyard is so clean that other growers take clippings from his vines to avoid the virus that sometimes comes with nursery stock. If leafroll virus does infect a vine, James immediately digs out the vine and eradicates the mealy bugs and ants that serve as vectors. A member of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), Shannon is a sustainable vineyard, and James sprays only the minimum amount and when absolutely necessary. There’s a healthy population of flora and fauna, including a nearby troop of 65 baboons kept out by a high fence; they can be seen on camera at http://www.shannonwines.com/camera.htm
Shannon sells 80 percent of its grapes but produces a small (2000 cases total) amount of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The wines are made at the Newton Johnson Winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus by Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson. The wines are good now, but they’re going to get much better as the vines age and as James continues to learn about his terroir. The wines will soon be available in the US through Southern Starz of Huntington Beach, CA. Only 2000 cases total are produced for the entire world.
Shannon Vineyards 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Elgin 89
The 2009 Sauvignon Blanc shows grapefruit, lime zest and minerals on the nose and palate. The addition of 15 percent barrel fermented (3 months) Semillon lowers the acidity somewhat and contributes to a fleshier mid-palate than one finds in most Sauvignon Blancs. It’s a blend of five different clones from different parcels in the vineyard. Absolutely delicious!
Shannon Vineyards 2008 Rockview Pinot Noir Elgin 91
It’s the silky mouthfeel and balance that I like about this wine. There’s dark cherry with earth and raspberry notes on the nose and that beautiful silky palate of red cherries with nicely integrated oak and good balancing acidity. It finishes long with silky tannins. Clearly one of the best Pinots currently being made in the country. Made from a blend of clones and on five distinct parcels and aged 10 months in 40% new French oak. It’s likely to improve with time in bottle. James recommends with wild mushroom risotto.
Shannon Vineyards 2008 Mt. Bullet Elgin 90+
Tasting this wine one wouldn’t guess it’s 100 percent Merlot, which is why the name Merlot doesn’t even appear on the label. The dark ruby Mt. Bullet reveals an impressive nose of earth, licorice and black fruit with a violet note. Dark fruit and black pepper also show on a lush, full palate with fine tannins. Doesn’t taste like Merlot, but it sure is good now and will be better with a couple years on bottle. Made from three French and three Italian clones of Merlot. Aged 20 months in 40 percent new French oak.