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‘Ernie Els faced a challenge when he moved into wine production in 1999′

Published Date: 03 May 2011 –  Brian Elliott – Scotland on Sunday

SINCE not all “celebrity” wines are as impressive as the names they bear, South Africa’s golfing legend Ernie Els faced a challenge when he moved into wine production in 1999.

Serious drinkers needed to be persuaded that this was much more than a blatant branding or endorsement exercise. The pricing strategy could have proved a major hurdle too.

Reflecting the other side of what we see as the good value of South African wine, influential voices there contend that their top wines are seriously under-priced.

Els seems to accept that view. Premium prices are legitimate, his portfolio appears to say, when you are producing quality products.

Nevertheless, in the decade from its launch, Ernie Els Wines became a serious player, producing wine that – like Els himself – were big in stature but gentle in character.

At the outset, a threesome was formed, bringing in a long-standing friend Jean Engelbrecht and the brilliant winemaker Louis Strydom. Success quickly followed along with a series of awards and rewards.

Eventually, Els wanted to expand the range (who would want repeatedly to play just the one hole?) and that would not fit easily with Engelbrecht’s other interests.

So, splitting the business yet preserving the friendship seemed the logical way forward. The resultant clarity about direction seems almost as beneficial as the results of South Africa’s internal debate about its own place in the world of wine.

After a dozen years trying to emulate other parts of the New World, especially Australia, South Africa seemed to recognise it was perfectly placed to sit at the crossroads between the old world and the new.

Its wines can combine the sophistication and subtlety of Europe with the fullness and ripeness of California, Oz et al.

Although there has been uncertainty whether shiraz or cabernet is the better option at that crossroads, no one seems to doubt South African growers’ aptitude with Mediterranean reds.

Given the predominance of cabernet sauvignon in his winery’s home territory – Stellenbosch – it is no surprise to see Bordeaux blends figure prominently in the Els portfolio.

A blend of five “claret” grapes goes into the Signature wines while the Proprietor version goes one better by adding a sixth to that line-up – shiraz, as you may have guessed.

The range needed something nearer to an entry-point wine and the answer – the “Big Easy” blend – draws its name from its patron’s celebrated golf swing.

Interestingly, the wine draws its inspiration not from Bordeaux but from the GSM (grenache, syrah and mourdevre) blends of southern Rhone – although viognier and, of course, cabernet are added.

2009 Ernie Els Big Easy is a rich red with ripe cherry and blackcurrant fruit, nicely balanced acidity and touches of liquorice and mocha on the finish.

Among the varietals, diversity comes not from blending but from the clones (up to eight of them) used for both the cabernet and the merlot.

 I particularly enjoyed the 2009 Ernie Els Proprietor’s Syrah.
It has smooth and intense mulberry fruit, an attractive violet aroma and a long finish embodying black pepper and other spices. The use of the name syrah rather than the more usual Southern Hemisphere alternative, shiraz, is a deliberate statement intended to underline the gravitas of what they are producing.

There have been suggestions that these wines are aimed at international markets rather then seeking to reflect the local terroir.

Marketing manager Lynton Kaiser refutes that and, reasonably, points out that the winery’s high proportion of cellar door sales would just wither away if local influences were ignored.

With no fewer than six reds in the portfolio there is an acceptance, however, that more balance is needed. Kaiser reveals, therefore, that a predominately chenin blend should hit the UK market in August. Longer term, a Stellenbosch sauvignon blanc also seems a real possibility.

In this age of “celebrity everything”, it is good to see a wine carrying a famous name that is seriously good when you taste it and very clear about where it wants to go.