Elegant (and otherwise) in Elgin

Can one describe Sophia Loren as elegant? There was considerable demurring about this at my end of the table, but no-one doubted Katharine Hepburn’s claims (and Pamela Anderson served for joke candidate). A pretty obvious kind of contrast, but later, much later, a speech by clever and witty economist Michael Power introduced a whole range of elegancies, from Pythagorus’s theorem to the I-pad, via much else. Power instanced, for example, Coco Chanel, who apparently once claimed (presumably only in relation to women’s appearances rather than to wine) that “Elegance is soap and water”.

The occasion was a rather splendid and lavish tasting of wines (and then a great dinner at Aubergine restaurant, with more wine) organised by wine impresario Jörg Pfützner for the Elgin Valley producer’s association. Their slogan is “Elegantly Egin”, and to argue their point they were bravely putting up some of their best alongside notable French exemplars – and provoking discussion about the probably over-used but seldom defined term, elegance.

Clean lines, a kind of formal simplicity, and an element of restraint – or at least an absence of egregious decoration or excess in any direction, must be invoked in any definition of elegance. In wine, such characteristics tend to be more associated with cooler areas, at least when grapes are grown and then vinified in proper accord with the climate. Such wines eschew, in favour of refreshing gracefulness, the obvious power that comes from ultra-ripe flavours, high alcohol levels and heavy, thick extraction.

Elgin is a high, mountain-ringed plateau, much of it indeed cool in South African terms – particularly the parts close to the Atlantic. It is only in the last decade or so that it has become at least as well known for its wines as for its apples and pears – but its prestige grows continually, as do the numbers of new wineries, and of famous “foreign” wineries, such as Stellenbosh-based Thelema and Tokara, with outposts there.

Of the Elgin wines we sampled, it was the best whites that were most palpably candidates for elegance: Iona Sauvignon Blanc (we had a 2003, showing just how attractively a good sauvignon can mature); the arguably more complex and interesting Oak Valley OV blend of sauvignon and semillon; chardonnay from Paul Cluver. Red grapes have a less happy record of success in Elgin – except for pinot noir, well represented here by one from Catherine Marshall.

We may well have resolved, with the predictable “yes and no, sometimes” the question as to whether “elegantly Elgin” is a fair-enough slogan. But, of course, our drinking and increasingly slurred debate (it was a long afternoon and evening) didn’t necessarily answer an unspoken question: whether elegance is what we want. All of us? Always? If Sophia Loren is perhaps more voluptuous than elegant, there have been undoubtedly enough people who would find her more, er, fascinatingly drinkable than Katharine Hepburn.

The afternoon tasting had ended with a trio including the Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet Merlot from Elgin and two merlot-dominated Bordeaux wines. I am sure that this excellent Elgin wine is as impressive as the others, but the French pair are more elegant.

More questions than answers, as so often. If there weren’t, what would we have to argue about as we sip and sip and sip? But let winelovers be, at any rate, unquestionably pleased that we have Elgin.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 5-11 August 2011

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