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The View from the Hill

As a food writer, I really should know more about wine. After all wine is the inseparable companion of a great meal. Alas though, I tend to leave the palate and the choice from the wine list to my wife who is a chef and knows about these things. 





It took great vision and some careful analytical thinking by proprietor Andrew Gunn to turn a dilapidated, struggling apple farm into the model wine estate it is today. It’s a contentious issue at my own table, but many will agree that their favourite cool climate varietal is the Pinot Noir.

Imagine her surprise when I was talking to fellow photographer Claire Gunn about her gorgeous work on the Iona Estate in Elgin. We’ve both been working from home during the ‘rona, so when my wife overheard the term ‘cool climate varietals’ in a zoom chat with Claire, she was full of questions. 


“Don’t tell me Claire’s been shooting on Iona,” she growled when the rituals of signing off the call were complete. “I’m jealous. Their wines are super-delicious! That chardonnay they do, wow!” 


That is great praise, believe me, and she’s not alone in her regard for the wines of this unique South African wine farm. Personally, I highly rate their pinot noir, but it’s really not a good idea to argue the point in these cases. Suffice it to say, any Iona Estate wine is always a welcome visitor on the wine list when we are eating out in Cape Town. 


With cool onshore winds wedging in under the warm landbound air, Iona enjoys average daily temperatures considerably cooler than those of the Elgin valley which it overlooks.

What sets Iona apart is the very thing that came up in my chat with my favourite photographer. The ‘cool climate’ is a quirk of the location and the microclimate of the farm which owner Andrew Gunn bought in 1997. After a long and successful career in Johannesburg as an engineer, Gunn thought he’d like to try his hand at farming and started searching for a place to build his dream.


To hear it from his memory of the process, he visited something like 40 farms before he found ‘the one’. Back then it was a run-down apple farm. The Elgin area, about 100 km to the east of Cape Town was, and still is, well known for apple and pear farms. It’s days as the source of momentous wines were still ahead of it, but Andrew Gunn could already imagine them.


He never set out to be a wine farmer or produce wine at all, he just fell in love with the farm. To begin with, it was beautiful. The land sits on a mountain top 420 meters above sea level. It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by the Kogelberg Biosphere and Forestry with no agricultural neighbours. 


The discovery of an historic Herbert Baker homestead on the property with its view over the Elgin Valley made up his mind. If apples weren’t working here, he’d find a way to make the little farm profitable, but he was determined that this would be his new home.


From small beginnings in 1997, with not a single vine present, Iona now produces around 24,000 cases of wine a year from roughly 48 hectares of vines.

Having always been a lover of wine, the newly minted farmer applied his engineer’s mind to investigating climate and soils with a view to trying his hand at the vintner’s art. He had a hunch that the onshore winds that reach the farm from the Atlantic Ocean a few kilometres away would result in the perfect conditions for growing cool climate wines.


To test this, Gunn put temperature loggers on the farm. Over a three month- period he compared hourly temperatures with a weather station in the nearby town of Grabouw. They were consistently lower at Iona. This information was used to build a model of what he thought might be the long term climatic conditions on the hilltop. 


His uncle, a Professor of Geomorphology from England, helped him compare his data to great wine growing regions of the world. They concluded that Iona’s climate was somewhere between Burgundy and Sancerre in France. Cool climate varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc might do very well indeed here.


Sustainable farming methods and the careful handling and early morning hand-picking of the precious grapes means that only fruit of exceptional quality goes into Iona’s wines. Wine, after all, is made in the vineyard.

The apple trees were duly uprooted to be replaced initially with Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These were followed by Chardonnay, Semillon and Pinot Noir and the first vintage was produced in 2001. Today, production stands at around 24,000 cases a year (75% white, 25% red), produced from about 48 hectares of vines.


The finest Chardonnays in the country now come from the Elgin region. Farmer Gunn was definitely on to something. He saw potential in an area traditionally given over to apples and pears and followed a hunch. Through his pioneering work Elgin is today recognised as a distinct Cape wine region with a character of its own, producing “wines with highly expressive fruit and character.”. 


It’s not just the cool climate that makes Iona’s wines exceptional. Andrew Gunn is a true believer that a good wine is made in the vineyard. He and his wife Rozy live according to a philosophy guided by the principle that they are merely custodians of the land they work. They are committed to sustainable farming which will leave it in better shape than they found it. 


He’s hard-pressed to choose, as he describes each of the varietals he’s introduced on Iona as his ‘children’, but – like Iona Estate itself – the Chardonnay does occupy a special place in his heart.

Iona’s Monopole Chardonnay is also a favourite on the wine lists of Cape restaurants for its delivery of rich fruit and fine mineral character.

“Healthy, alive soils are so important for the vine so we focus on natural practices as far as possible. This includes not using insecticides or herbicides. We don’t use synthetic fertilisers and have a herd of eighteen Hereford cattle on the farm, using the dung to make our own compost,” says Gunn.


Winter cover crops planted between the rows are a combination of legumes, oats and clovers which nourish and mulch the vineyards in turn. These natural methods of feeding, mulching and protecting our vineyards are an ongoing quest to nurture and express the individuality of the site and soil in a sustainable way.


When pressed to choose his favourite wine from the varietals that have taken happy root here, Gunn is slow to commit. You can almost see the analytical mind at work before he answers that if he were forced to choose, he hopes his last ever glass of wine is an Iona Chardonnay.


He’d find a willing supporter of this choice at a dinner table with my wife. Although, now that I know more about the quality of fruit and character in cool climate, coastal wines from this region, I might be inclined to argue the case for my choice of his Pinot Noir more strongly.


It should be noted that Claire Gunn and Andrew Gunn are not related. It’s just a quirk of fate that the best photographer and one of the finest wine producers in the region share a surname.

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