Another drive through the Franschhoek Pass, this time turning left at the end and heading towards Hermanus.
Our day in the Hemel-en-Aarde area started at Restless River, where we met Craig and Anne Wessels. In a very ‘Grand Designs’ adventure they designed and built a beautiful homestead amid some vineyards already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Not content with the tribulations of a two year house building project they decided to have a go at winemaking, and ten years of experiments later they have got pretty good at it, winning many awards and now appearing on winelists in various Michelin starred restaurants in London as well as outlets such as Harvey Nicholls!
Craig explained his journey from TV commercial director to winemaker, using some interesting similes, and Anne hosted a tasting of their Ava Marie Chardonnay and their Main Road and Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon, which if anyone wants to take up winemaking offers fairly comprehensive instructions on the label!
It was a wonderful start to a wonderful area, and we left with some serious house envy.
Our next stop was Newton Johnson. The vineyard manager Dean (who also had a fairly unconventional cv) talked to us about their approach to growing vines as we looked out from the deck of their restaurant across a block of Pinot Noir towards the bay at Hermanus, 13km down the valley. A philosophy of minimal intervention underpins their approach to vineyards and to the winery, which is part of the same building. A relatively benign climate with cooling breezes from the South East is assisted by releasing predator insects and adding to soil fertility by interplanting with oats, beans, radishes and peas.
Our lunch displayed similar variety – a beautiful mixed salad of leaves and root vegetables, followed by a melting sirloin steak and a chocolate pudding – all prepared before our eyes in kitchens behind us. Before and during the meal we tasted a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, a fresh and rather maritime 2016 Albariño(they were the first to grow this variety in South Africa), their top of range Family Vineyards Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both 2016 and both super), and their Granum 2015 blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre. All the wines were lovely, and we were treated to more family history from Bevan (son of founders Dave and Felicity) who heads up Sales & Marketing. His brother Gordon and sister in law Nadia are the winemakers.
We finished the day in Hemel-en-Aarde where winemaking started – at Hamilton Russell. Anthony Hamilton Russell, son of the founder Tim, and his wife Olive were incredibly generous with their time, and we were treated to an introduction to the region and their vineyards in the old farm cottage by the dam. Hamilton Russell is the middle of three properties they now own, and the place that was originally bought in 1975 to make cool climate noble varietals. Southern Rights to the south and Ashbourne to the north are where other varieties than the flagship Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of Hamilton Russell are grown. All three have north facing slopes rising up to natural vegetation on the clifftops above the ocean.
Anthony took us through the cellar, where we learnt about their approach to making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
In the lower level of the cellar, amid the barrels of Pinot Noir, we were treated to a masterclass tasting of consecutive vintages of the Pinot Noir (2014, 2015, 2016) and Chardonnay (2015, 2016), in that order – during our visit Anthony challenged a number of our preconceptions about wine tasting and wine making, ensuring we ended our day alert, focussed and learning! And enjoying some beautiful wines, very much old world in style. We finished with their Southern Right Pinotage, which is actually their biggest seller – and surprised several of our group with its complexity and quality.
A day of discovery!