Wine: Sheffield star on the Cape

The Iona vineyards, source of terrific Sauvignon Blanc
The Iona vineyards, source of terrific Sauvignon Blanc
  • Christine Austin meets a Master of Wine with white rose origins in the cool South African hotspot of Elgin.
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Richard Kershaw’s wine doesn’t say “Made in Sheffield” on the label, mainly because it comes from South Africa, but this Sheffield-born Master of Wine gives plenty of clues to his Yorkshire origins on the bottle. For a start there is a rose on the capsule that looks pretty much like the Yorkshire rose, although it also incorporates the rose emblem of Elgin, in the Cape’s Southern Coastal region. This is where Richard has bought 40 hectares of land ready to be turned into a vineyard.

Other clues are the silver colour of the capsule, and a couple of “hallmarks” that include his own birth year as a date-mark and a figure eight knot to indicate his love of sailing. “Sheffield is famous for its steel and silver and I wanted to give the wine an echo of home,” said Richard.

It was not a straightforward journey from being a Sheffield schoolboy to making wine in South Africa. First of all there was a period as a chef, followed by a couple of short stints behind the counter in Majestic and Oddbins. “I was fired from both jobs after just a few weeks, mainly because they didn’t think I was good with customers. In fact, I started to think I was unemployable,” said Richard when I met up with him in Cape Town. Eventually he settled down, selling wine from an up-market shop in London and that is where he really began to get interested in wine.

“I decided I wanted to get into winemaking, so I set off for California to help with the harvest.” He must have worked hard because from there he was offered various other training opportunities – in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, France, Germany and Hungary, working two harvests a year in the southern and northern hemispheres and at each place he learnt more about making wine. Eventually Richard made his way back to South Africa and landed a job as winemaker at Mulderbosch, famous for its clean, fresh-tasting Sauvignons, and that’s when he decided to have a go at the extremely difficult Master of Wine qualification. There are only 340 Masters of Wine in the world, and you only get to be one by knowing a lot about wine and being extremely good at tasting. “I think I am the only one from Sheffield,” he said with a smile.

Now Richard is concentrating on his own wines, using bought-in grapes from vineyards that are “no more than 10 minutes from where I live”. That way he can keep a close eye on quality. Eventually he wants to plant up his own land, but at £10,000 per hectare for plants, posts, wires and labour he needs to sell some wine first.

“Elgin is a cool area and I really think that Chardonnay is the signature variety for the region.” I tasted through his range and certainly Richard’s wines have a freshness of style, with purity of fruit and a rounded texture that comes from careful winemaking, not from overuse of oak. He peppers his conversation with talk of whole bunch pressing, wild yeasts and Burgundian barrels. This is a quality operation. Richard also makes a pepper-dusted, savoury, black cherry style of Syrah that nods in the direction of a Rhône-style St Joseph rather than a typical southern hemisphere Syrah.

For now, the only way you can find Richard’s wines is through Naked Wines (www.nakedwines.com) which is a crowd-funding operation supporting independent winemakers. His 2014 Chardonnay costs £13.99. Richard also made Krisemma Chardonnay 2014, a wine produced for John Lodge of the Moody Blues, which is available at £40 from www.krisemmawine.com

While Richard’s wines are difficult to find right now there are other producers in the Elgin area who are making the most of this blustery region’s cool climate.

The Cluver family have a 100-year head start on Richard at their extensive property in the Elgin region, half of which is devoted to maintaining the natural wildlife and vegetation of South Africa. They have 1,000 hectares of preserved landscape which forms part of the Unesco biosphere reserve. Whilst looking after the landscape is important, they also focus on their wines and I particularly enjoy their elegant, rounded Paul Cluver Chardonnay which carries a clear thumbprint of the cool climate of the region. Aged minimally in old and just a small amount of new oak, the wine has a clear citrus character, with touches of buttered toast and a rounded, food-friendly texture. Team this with salmon, chicken and creamy pasta. Harrogate Fine Wine has the 2013 vintage at £14.99. Another surprising varietal grown on this estate is Gewürztraminer, made from vines planted almost 30 years ago, and this has such clean fresh acidity among the rose petal and lychee flavours that it is difficult to spot the tiny edge of sweetness on the finish. This is a perfect wine to match with Thai-spiced dishes. Find it at Halifax Fine Wine and Martinez Wines at around £12.

On a particularly breezy ridge top in Elgin, Andrew Gunn is now one of South Africa’s leading producers of Sauvignon Blanc. His grandfather was Scottish and so he has named his wines Iona. This simplistic label is such a surefire winner for Sauvignon that it is well worth tracking down (2014 vintage available at Halifax Wine Co, £11.35). There is just a tiny splash of Semillon with the Sauvignon, to add texture and persistence, but essentially this is a knife-edge, bright and breezy herbaceous wine that can challenge anything that might come out of New Zealand. Andrew also makes an elegant, pear and peach-edged, nutty Chardonnay (Halifax Wine Co, £13.55.

For too long South Africa has relied on just a countrywide designation to demonstrate its wines. Now the regions are emerging, and the cool area of Elgin is definitely one to watch.