The Helshoogte Pass area has become an interesting destination, with strong restaurants (Delaire Graff Restaurant, Indochine and Tokara), and even more so with the opening just over a month ago of the new Neil Ellis Wines tasting room and cellar, at the start of the pass which links Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, and which is already home to the Delaire Graff, Clouds, Thelema, Alluvia, Camberley and Tokara wine estates.   A visit to the tasting room a week ago was disappointing, the staff seeming hesitant to provide information.

I was particularly interested in visiting the Tasting Room, when I noticed the brown tourism sign, as I had the luck of being in the same class as Neil at Huguenot High School in Wellington many moons ago.  He was the quietest person in our class, and we never would have guessed that Neil would become the best-known class member one day!

The Tasting Room and cellar is a generous sized building, rather industrial and functional looking from outside, quite unlike most other such facilities.  Ample parking is available.   One can see the effect of the strong southeaster on the plants outside the building, and although chosen to be hardy, many have perished due to the wind.

On the 40°C day, the airconditioning inside was wonderfully cool.   The interior space is extremely large, with a tasting desk in an L-shape, which leads one down the passage to a large tasting room.   The high chairs around the tasting desk are made from a Scandinavian-looking wood, with interesting red mesh seating.  The many awards won are displayed on a wall.   Behind the tasting desk is an interesting ‘drawing’ painted on the wall itself, running almost the full length of the wall, by Lorenzo Nassimbeni, and depicts the mountain and the Neil Ellis Wines building.   

I asked for a brochure and more information, and the two ladies on duty seemed quite hesitant about providing it, blaming this on their move to the Tasting Room about 6 weeks ago.   Previously the tasting facility was on a property in Jonkershoek, which belongs to Hans-Peter Schröder.  Neil Ellis started making wines in 1986, and his association with Schröder started in 1993, with the establishment of Neil Ellis Wines.   The new tasting venue and cellar is on another Schröder property.   To make his wines, Neil sources grapes from Stellenbosch, Elgin, Darling and Somerset West, and I did learn that he was the first winemaker in South Africa to source grapes from other regions.  Neil’s son Warren is the viticulturist and is following in his dad’s footsteps as a winemaker.

At the tasting room one can taste out of a selection of seven wines at R25.   These are the red range – Neil Ellis Aenigma 2007, Shiraz 2009, and Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2008, all costing R90, and Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (R120).   The white range available for tasting and buying is Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (R75), Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2010 (R85), and Elgin Chardonnay 2009 (R120).  Neil Ellis Werner Näkel, a partnership with a German winemaker, selling for R200, was marked as sold out.    Other wines to buy, but not available to taste, are the Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Syrah 2006 and Pinotage 2008, all costing R200, and the Sauvignon Blanc 2009, at R120.   Some export wine brands are also made, called Left Bank, a Bordeaux Blend exported to the USA; Inglewood, exported to Europe; and Sincerely, also exported to the USA.   Mr Schröder does the international marketing of Neil Ellis Wines, I was told.

If I was just a visitor driving in due to the signage, and did not know better about the calibre of the wines Neil Ellis makes and his stature in the wine industry, I would have found the visit disappointing due to the lack of energy of the staff in providing information or in encouraging me to taste the wines.  

Neil Ellis Wines, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021) 887-0649.   www.neilellis.com  Open  Monday – Friday 9h30 – 16h30, Saturday 10h00 – 14h00.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com   Twitter: @WhaleCottage