Shannon Vineyards: Farming for Flavor in Elgin, South Africa

James Downes met us in the tasting cottage at Shannon Vineyards on a crisp spring morning. The cottage was James’ home in his bachelor days and looks out over a beautiful garden, vineyards and waterway. All of it had been washed clean by early-morning rains.

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Shannon Vineyards is part of the impossibly pretty Dunmanway Farm set in South Africa’s Elgin Valley. The valley has long been home to pear and apple orchards, but vineyard acreage is increasing. The farm, which reflects that mix of apples, pears and vineyards, lies only 12 km from the ocean. 

James’ father purchased the 75-hectare property in 1997. James subsequently returned from Scotland, where he studied and worked as a marine biologist, to help his father convert it to a working farm. Today James manages the farm, but he considers himself a viticulturists not a winemaker, and his brother, Stuart, manages marketing worldwide. Shannon Vineyards wines are made at Newton Johnson Family Vineyards by Nadia and Gordon Newton Johnson. James in closely involved in winemaking and blending decisions. In fact the day after our visit he was headed to Newton Johnson to taste and blend Shannon Vineyards Merlot and Pinot Noir.

A Soft Climate

Elgin is a region defined by cool, wet weather in both summer and winter. Wind is a factor as well. During winter, strong northwest winds blow clouds over the area. In summer, lower-altitude winds blow coastal clouds into the valley. The combination of cool and cloudy conditions produces what James called, “a cool, soft climate. The softest in South Africa.”  

These growing conditions result in a long, slow growing season. Rather than ripening quickly due to very warm temperatures, grapes ripen slowly (in third gear rather than fifth gear, as James put it.) That means sugar, and therefore potential alcohol, rises slowly and acidity drops off gradually. All of this means more time for complex flavors to develop in the grapes and time to pick on flavor without worrying about high alcohol levels.

Elgin Valley soils include two major soil types — Koue Bokkveld shale, which is clay based, and Table Mountain sandstone, which is sandy. James told us most farms in the valley contain both soil types. Clay soils tend to yield wines that are darker and have more structure, while sandy soils result in lighter, more aromatic wines with higher acidity. 

Vineyards on the farm are planted in both soil types to give the winemaking team blending components to build layers of flavor in the wines. 12 hectares of vineyards include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Clonal and rootstock choices have been matched to each vineyard block. If all of this sounds very scientific, it is. James has put his selective breeding experience in the salmon farming industry to good use in the vineyard. Farming for flavor is how James describes every decision he makes in the vineyard. 

The first vineyards were planted in 2000 and until 2007 Shannon sold their grapes to other wineries. This gave James time to evaluate how each grape variety performed before making wine. As we tasted through four of Shannon Vineyards’ main portfolio of wines we came to understand a bit of the detail behind each of them.

A Taste of Elgin’s Elegance

Our tasting began with a side-by-side tasting of Shannon Vineyards 2017 Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc and 2016 Semillon. James likes to taste these wines together because the Semillon is a blending component of the Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on the vintage, 6 to 10% Semillon is added to broaden the palate and soften the acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc. As the Sauvignon Blanc vineyards have matured the percentage of Semillon has decreased.

2017 Shannon Vineyards Sanctuary Peak Sauvignon Blanc, Elginpale yellow in the glass with only delicate herbaceous aromas followed by flavors of white peach, pear and hints of spice. The flavors are layered with roundness in the mouth and clean finish. This is a gorgeous Sauvignon Blanc that makes wine drinkers like myself, who aren’t big fans of overly-herbaceous styles, love the variety. 13% abv. 

10% Semillon, aged in French oak, was blended with stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc. Two clones of Sauvignon Blanc and one Semillon clone were blended. All are Bordeaux clones. As James observed, if his goal is to make a Bordeaux-style Sauvignon Blanc (but one that uniquely reflects Elgin) then it’s logical to use Bordeaux vine material. 

2016 Shannon Vineyards Semillon, Elginpale yellow in the glass with subtle spicy oak aromas, stone fruit and gravely minerality. The wine is round in the mouth with a long, complex finish and lively acidity. It just gains complexity with time in the glass and will accompany a meal beautifully. 14% abv. 

This wine is a reflection of Shannon Vineyards’ half-hectare Semillon vineyard. It is a 100% wild yeast ferment with only partial malolactic fermentation and wood aging. James describes this wine as fresh with citrus, tangerine peel and minerals. He expects good aging potential for this Semillon.

We have little experience tasting Semillon as a varietal wine. It was interesting to hear James describe Semillon as a cornerstone variety in South Africa. It, along with Muscat and Chenin Blanc, comprise some of the oldest vineyards in South Africa.  

Based on the critical success of the Semillon over the past two vintages (five -star Platter’s ratings) the 2017 Semillon is labeled Triangle Vineyard moving it up to the premium tier of Shannon Vineyards wines.

2017 Shannon Vineyards Rockview Ridge Pinot Noir, Elgin translucent ruby in the glass with red fruit aromas and flavors with notes of bramble and earth. Tannins are smooth and the body on the light side of medium. This just-released Pinot is still very young. Expect it to gain flavors of forest floor with savory and gamy notes with time in the bottle. 13.5% abv.

This elegant Pinot Noir is a blend of three vineyard sites planted to four Dijon clones. Its translucent color caught my eye and the flavors did not disappoint. We couldn’t leave without purchasing a bottle. We’ve yet to open it. . . we’re trying to be patient.

2015 Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet Merlot, Elginruby in the glass with generous aromas of savory dried herbs, red and dark fruit and substantial, but well integrated tannins. Juicy acidity and barely-medium body. Lovely sipping with plenty of complexity and freshness. 14% abv. 

James told us tasters often think there is a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc blended with the Merlot. It is 100% Merlot and you won’t be surprised to discover it is a blend of multiple clones. James chose two Bordeaux clones and three Italian clones to plant in his 3 hectare Merlot vineyard. I was surprised to hear he chose Italian clones, but James reminded us that Merlot is the fifth most planted variety in Italy.

In James’ view his white wines drink their best at 3 to 5 years of age and the reds at 5 to 8 years. The premium range of Shannon wines are are wild ferments with very low sulfur. James believes wild ferments yield more flavorful wines initially and, as he told us, “they take you on a journey as they age.”

Shannon Vineyards

To say we were blown away by these wines would be an understatement. They are elegant, bright and fresh. But, we aren’t the only ones impressed them. Shannon Vineyards wines are highly regarded by wine critics as well.

Annual production is small, about 70,000 bottles, with distribution to 29 countries. Shannon Vineyards is truly a family business. In the US you will find Shannon Vineyard wines under the Downes Family label.

James chooses not to follow any particular vineyard certification. He uses sustainable, organic and even biodynamic practices in the vineyard. He uses cover crops between vineyard rows and mows as necessary. Fertilization is accomplished using compost teas. 

He is in tune with the seasons and his environment. He is happy to see, and hear, the raucous toads and their countless offspring. He recognizes they provide food for puff adders that in turn control the rodent population on the farm. And he has forged a relationship with two local baboon troops who know they have free run of the orchards, but not until after apple harvest, to clean up the remaining apples.

Our tasting experience at Shannon Vineyards was very personal and full of interesting details. James knows every clone planted to every one of his vineyard blocks. This is his manner and a reflection of the time he has spent working the farm. He told us his family used to have a Guernsey dairy on the farm and that each of the 220 cows had a name. Why am I not surprised?

Just as James farms for flavor in the vineyard he is also farming for the future. He has two sons and his brother has three children. “We are the custodians of our patch of dirt,” he told us. If the next generation wants to farm, he wants Dunmanway Farm and Shannon Vineyards to be there for them.


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