Iona goes up a gear under new agent

Elgin producer Iona is due to launch a series of wines into the UK next year, including a number of "second label" options as the estate builds a new partnership with importer Alliance Wine.

Highlighting the existence of "some very good examples" of South African Pinot Noir, "mainly from the Cape south coast," Iona owner Andrew Gunn nevertheless noted: "they're quite expensive."

In order to fill a gap for good quality but more accessible Pinot Noir, the 2012 vintage saw Gunn and his wife Rozy supplement their Iona estate expression, which retails for nearly £20, with a separately branded version of the variety called Mr P. The 2013 vintage is due to arrive in the UK next year with an RRP of just over £10.

"Not many people can buy a Pinot for a reasonable price," remarked Gunn, who told the drinks business that he introduced this wine "so the man on the street can be exposed to a good Pinot Noir for a friendly price."

Following the switch to Alliance Wine from Enotria, the UK is also due to receive the Iona team's similarly light-hearted approach to Sauvignon Blanc. This is presented under the brand name Sophie te'Blanche – a common nickname for the variety among South African winery workers who struggle to pronounce the French grape.

Already available in the US and South Africa, "it has been unbelievably successful," according to Gunn, who noted that Sophie te'Blanchefar from cannibalising sales of the estate-grown Iona Sauvignon Blanc, "it has increased demand."

For all this focus on strengthening the estate's mid-priced offering, Rozy Gunn argued that many of South Africa's wines deserve to command a higher premium. "When it comes to agricultural products from Africa, people still think that we can do it on the cheap," she observed. "But if you're going to pay people properly and farm properly the it's going to cost more. South African wines are undervalued."

Despite plans for these new additions to the UK market, as well as a renewed distribution focus on existing lines, Gunn stressed: "We don't want to try to do too many things at once. First of all we've got to effect the transition from Enotria to Alliance and really bed down Iona."

While the Elgin estate is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc and also produces a Chardonnay, recent years have seen significant development of its red wine production.

Having bought the former apple farm and founded Iona in the mid-1990s, Gunn initially planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. "We thought we were more similar to Bordeaux than Burgundy," he recalled.

Until 2007 the estate produced a Bordeaux blend, but since then Gunn has been gradually pulling up his leaf roll-infected Merlot, which appears for the final time in his 2013 vintage. Noting that this left him with "proportionally too much Cabernet," some of these vines have now been grafted over with Pinot Noir and more of this variety is being planted "as we speak."

Having produced his first Pinot Noir in 2009, although the first commercial scale release was not until 2011, Gunn emphasised the importance of Elgin's cool, coastal conditions to allow this variety to mature slowly. "We're about 95 days from flowering to harvest," he told db, drawing a parallel with the growing season in Burgundy.

Nevertheless, Gunn noted the Cape's lower rainfall and warmer temperatures at either end of the growing season as he argued the importance for South African producers to focus on developing their own style of Pinot Noir.

"A few producers are aspiring to make Burgundy, and you can't make Burgundy in South Africa," he remarked. "It's about having the confidence to make the wine your property gives you."

By way of example, Gunn recalled a recent visit to Central Otago, where he tasted a number of the New Zealand region's Pinot Noirs. "I was blown away by them, but there was a lot of fruit – they're not Burgundy, they're Central Otago," he remarked. "That's what we've got to find in South Africa."

As for his own approach to Pinot Noir, Gunn highlighted a focus on gentle handling of the harvested fruit, which is hand-picked and fermented in whole bunches. "We're very gentle with the grapes," he said. "There's no punch-downs, just a couple of pump-overs per day."

In short, summed up Gunn, "it's generally about being confident as a winemaker," relating this in particular to the pale colour that results from his light-handed treatment of the grapes. "A lot of winemakers who are working with all these other varieties can't bear to see so little colour in the wine," he remarked.

One Man BandLooking to the future, Gunn indicated that Pinot Noir could have a further role to play as a component in the estate's One Man Band red blend. First produced in 2008, the wine is currently a Shiraz-led combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre and Viognier, which come from the warmer, lower farm belonging to Rozy Gunn, although production has now been amalgamated with his own estate.

Having spent 24 months in barrel, One Man Band then matures for a further two years in bottle prior to release as a result of Gunn's concern that "many wines, particularly seriousred wines, are often drunk well before their best."

With the Merlot component now being phased out, Gunn suggested: "It's not inconceivable that we would add Pinot in the future" as the estate continues to explore its still recently discovered affinity for this variety.

Gabriel Savage

the drinks business

Posted. 2013-12-09