PORT Elizabeth lawyer Michael White is no gentleman farmer. Visit him at his Highlands Road Estate in Elgin, and you're as likely to find him muddy and gum-booted among the vines as hosting visitors over a tasting of his elegant wines.
With a love of wine and a thirst for knowledge, White jumped boots 'n all into transforming a derelict apple farm in 2004, with grapes first planted in 2005 and a "tiny" production two years later, into an estate likely to harvest 90 tons of grapes and produce about 80000 bottles this year.
While the wines benefit from slow ripening in Elgin's cool climate, successes have been notched up relatively fast. Last year, the current vintage 2009 sauvignon blanc was rated fifth in South Africa, missing gold by just one point, in the Old Mutual Trophy, and it was recently chosen by an independent selector to feature on all Hilton Hotels' wine lists across sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles. It's the coolness, slow ripening fruit and the acidic Elgin soil that lend these wines their "age-ability with freshness" appeal – the trademark quality that White and wine-maker Howard Booysen try to achieve in all their wines.
It's a quality very evident in the 2008 MCC bubbly that kicked off our tasting.
Made from 100% chardonnay, it balances yeasty, lemony and biscuity flavours (White says it's like "drinking a lemon- cream biscuit") and made a happy sushi companion. A perfect special occasion bubbly to drink now, it could also be stored away for future celebrations.
That Elgin soil also lends the whites a flinty, mineral quality, as opposed to the more tropical fruits from warmer regions, but then there's the 2008 sauvignon blanc. With four stars from Platter, described as a "delightful double debut", with its partner, the Free Run Sauvignon Blanc earning 4½ stars, this has matured into something unexpected from a sauvignon – a golden, very French, very food wine. If you can get your hands on it, pair it with something rich – slow-roasted pork belly, braaied crayfish with loads of garlic butter or a creamy pasta.
Wanting to distinguish the straight sauvignon blanc more strongly from the estate's Bordeaux-style semillon-sauvignon blend, White has slowly upped the semillon content and will start introducing a wooded component in the next vintage.
The 2009 is sold out, the 2010 sees the semillon's green fruit and veg rounding off and adding complexity to the sauvignon, and a sneak preview of the predominantly semillon 2011 promises a silky, complex blend highlighting gooseberry and a hint of citrus.
Watch out for that one to hit the shelves.
Via the reds – including a stand-out 2010 pinot noir, which balances organic, forest-floor mustiness with lush, ripe red fruits, not something we are used to in South Africa, but definitely worth trying – we end with a "dastardly dalliance" of fruit and wine.
Plums from the estate are poached in a goodly splash of the MCC plus olive oil, honey, lemon juice, ginger and cloves to accompany the sweet sauvignon blanc. Yes, sweet – loads of honey, sugar and spice, and not as stickily sweet as some dessert wines. This one is well worth hunting down.
You may have a better chance of finding the wine than finding the farmer – in between a busy commercial and property law practice in Port Elizabeth, White heads for Elgin every three weeks or so to get stuck into the business of wine farming.
Locally, you'll find Highlands Road at Prestons in Main Road, Walmer, Tops in Third Avenue, Newton Park, selected restaurants, Stanley Street's For Love of Wine, and directly from White.