We were slightly apprehensive about driving the last few kilometres from the main road up to the Iona Winery, which is perched at an altitude of 420m on a ridge above the breathtaking scenery of the Elgin Valley. The turn off was at sea level, there had been recent rains and the road was narrow, steep and twisty and – this being a rural road in South Africa – untarred. But the car made it, and we parked beside Iona House, a beautifully restored homestead, home to Andrew & Rozy Gunn, with the Tasting Room close by.
The story behind Iona
Andrew had a successful career as an engineer in Johannesburg, but in 1997 decided that it was in farming where he wanted to spend the rest of his working life. After an extensive search he discovered an old 100 hectare apple farm in the district of Elgin, about 120km south-east of Cape Town. He fell in love the beauty of the place and decided to name the “farm” and winery Iona, after the island off the West Coast of Scotland where he had ancestral connections.
Apple production was fast declining at that time. But his initial hunch, later backed by expert soil and climate analyses, showed that the area had the potential to grow and make great wines – in particular wines from sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
The apple trees were uprooted, several varieties of grapes were planted and the first vintage was produced in 2001. Production is now around 24,000 cases a year (75% white, 25% red), produced from about 48 hectares of vines.
Tour of the Vineyards
We transferred to Andrew’s 4×4 for a tour of the vineyards, during which he explained his philosophy of making wines that express the local soils and climate as closely as possible, using sustainable farming methods and maximising the use of natural products throughout. Organic and Biodynamic practices are used, and the small herd of cattle we encountered grazing by the reservoir provide all the fertilizer for the vines.
The vineyards are divided into about 20 blocks of single varietal grapes, of which over half are sauvignon blanc – the wine that first put Iona on the world wine map. Each block of sauvignon is fermented separately and the final bottled vintage is a blend of the year’s blocks. Other grapes cultivated include chardonnay, pinot noir, semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.
It was a lovely sunny day in South Africa’s summer, but the breeze from the cool Atlantic Ocean, which we could clearly see just 4km to the South, reminded us that we were high up in a cool climate area. While temperatures rise up to 30 – 35 degrees at their near neighbours, here at Iona it rarely gets beyond a pleasant 24C with cool nights of 14C.
Winemaker – Werner Muller
We met the highly respected winemaker, Werner Muller, among the stainless steel fermentation tanks. Even before we were introduced we knew he must be the winemaker as he was wearing what we are convinced is the winemaker’s unofficial uniform – old T-shirt, faded cargo shorts, and battered, undone leather boots!
Werner has been the winemaker at Iona since 2009; he shares Andrew’s passion for continual improvement. Werner gets the very best out of the cool climate of Iona where there is a long ripening season. Iona’s grapes ripen late, sometimes as much as 2 months after its more sheltered neighbours in the Walker Bay area.
The longer ripening gives much of the fresh and full – but subtle – nuances and high quality found in all Iona’s wines, as we discovered during the Tasting.
We even got to taste and vote on an aspect of a sauvignon blend that was work in progress! (an experience much enjoyed by Chrissy!)
Tasting the Wines
Unusually, we tasted the red wines before whites – not just because Andrew liked to show the pinot noir first, which he considered to be his best wine – but because the whites were better tasted with the delicious light lunch that followed. Andrew and Rozy (a sculptress and artist in her own right) are terrific hosts.
France is the obvious influence on all of Iona’s wines – South Africa may be “New World” in wine classification but don’t expect New Zealand or South American styles from the top producers.
We tasted several wines but these were the highlights. The 2017 Iona Pinot Noir was very Burgundian in style and quality, as was the 2018 barrel-fermented Iona Chardonnay (see below) and the 2017 Solace Syrah (the latter from grapes grown in Rozy’s farm). Fruit, balanced by refreshing acidity, complex layers, hints of French oak and excellent length were the hallmarks of all these wines. We also tasted “Mr P” Pinot Noir 2017 made from younger vines, with an abundance of strawberry fruit and oak nuances and this easy-going, good value Pinot is now in our Wine Shop.
Iona Elgin Highlands Chardonnay 2018
This beautifully poised, outstanding Chardonnay was such a highlight of our Tasting that it had to join Bush Vines portfolio! With aromas of white peach, minerals and hints of hazelnuts and limes, it has complex, layered flavours with touches of almond and biscuit brioche which combine with a wonderful purity of fruit and terrific length. The oak is perfectly integrated. Jancis Robinson MW has scored this vintage at 17/20 points advising drinking between 2020 – 2027; Greg Sherwood MW tasted it in April 2020 and scored it at 93+ points. Iona Elgin Highlands Chardonnay 2018 is in our Wine Shop at a competitive £18.50 (sells in some Independents £19.95 – £21.99)
Iona Sauvignon Blanc
The new 2019 vintage of Iona Sauvignon Blanc (which has a touch of barrel-fermented semillon in the blend) was well up to the usual high standard, comparable to a very good Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. Tim Atkin MW scored the 2018 vintage at 92 points, advising drinking 2019 – 2022. Jancis Robinson MW has given the 2019 vintage 16.5 points advising drinking 2019 – 2023. The 2019 is now our current vintage and is stunning and great value (from us) at £12.99 (sells in some Independents £14.99 – £16.99)
You can find out more about this wine in the Wine Shop; we agree with views expressed by both Jancis Robinson MW Purple Pages, Tim Atkin MW South Africa Report and Greg Sherwood MW:
“At this price in the UK, this Sauvignon Blanc has a quality–to–price ratio that far outstrips most of its peers, be they from the Loire, Marlborough, Chile or anywhere else.” Richard Hemming MW
“There is good reason that Iona Sauvignon Blanc enjoys a premium over many of its competitors: its consistent quality since 2001…. it’s complex, assertive, nettley and bone dry with thrilling palate length.” Tim Atkin MW
“The aromatics are filled with lemongrass and tangerine peel complexity, this wine has mouth-watering vigour and enthralling allure and focus. … This is benchmark cool climate Elgin Sauvignon Blanc, that really ticks all the pleasure boxes.” 92+ Points, Greg Sherwood MW: April 2020
South Africa’s Future – Cool climate wines?
Not far from Iona in Elgin is another well-respected wine area called the Hemel-en-Arde Valley, which translated, means “Heaven on Earth.” This wine area rightly gets a lot of accolades.
However, Iona has to be one of the most beautiful vineyards we have visited, surrounded by mountains and sea views; it is indeed a special place where special wines have made it’s own heaven on earth!