Introducing Hemel-en-Arde
Visiting one of South Africa's most interesting wine regions, Hemel-en-Aarde, part 1

‘Heaven on earth’ is the English translation of Hemel en Aarde, and this is certainly one of the most beautiful of South Africa’s wine regions—which, with the stiff competition, is saying something. The valley stretches inland from the coastal town of Hermanus, famous for its whale watching. It may be a reasonably long drive from Cape Town, but you can combine a visit to Hermanus with a visit to some very pretty wine country. More than worth the effort, I reckon.

If you haven’t heard of Hemel en Aarde before, it is probably because this is a fairly new region. The current appellation names were only implemented as recently as 2006. Prior to this, the region was known by the name of Walker Bay. But in 2004, Walker Bay was promoted from Ward status to District. This left room for the designation of further Wards within the Walker Bay, and in 2006 two different Hemel en Aarde wards were named. In 2009 a third was added.

This is where it all gets a bit confusing. Rather than call this whole valley Hemel en Aarde, it has been split into three, largely on the basis of soil type, but also with a slice of politics in the mix. As you drive inland from Hermanus to Caledon along the R320, you will pass through all three of these appellations.

The nearest bit of the valley to the coast is called Hemel en Aarde Valley, and this is home turf to the famous Walker Bay pioneers Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson. Soils here are clay-rich Bokkeveld shales, which are distinctive low vigour soils ideal for the production of quality wines. 

Then, travelling further inland, the next portion is known as the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley. The soils here are chiefly composed of Table Mountain sandstone and decomposed granite, and they can be a bit more fertile. Finally, we have the third appellation: the Hemel en Aarde Ridge. Depending on who you talk to, this is technically a different river valley system (Klein River Valley) and there’s more diurnal variation in temperature here. It’s the coolest and smallest of the three wards.

The first modern grapevine plantings in the Hemel en Aarde were in 1976, by Hamilton Russell, and the first vintage was 1981. ‘We used pretty much all the noble varieties,’ says current proprietor Anthony Hamilton Russell. ‘But we didn’t have Chardonnay initially. We smuggled Chardonnay in.’ Nowadays, Hamilton Russell specializes in just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They were joined in 1991 by Peter Finlayson who had been winemaker at Hamilton Russell for a decade, and then struck out on his own with Bouchard Finlayson. Both producers are highly respected, and make some very nice wines.

Over the last few years, winegrowing in the region has expanded significantly, with lots of newcomers. Many of them are making great wines.

Hemel en Aarde has a particular talent for Pinot Noir.  ‘Where Pinot Noir is concerned there have been more accolades and honours taken from the wineries in the Hemel en Aarde valley than anywhere else in South Africa,’ says Peter Finlayson. ‘It is a combination of heavy clay soils with a very soft climate. We are very fortunate to have the cold ocean running past us and this moderates temperatures nicely.’

‘Pinot Noir does well here,’ he states. ‘It is one of the few areas outside Burgundy where one gets good structure in the Pinot Noirs.’

‘We are incredibly proud that by accident of fate and terroir our soil and site affords us a chance to produce unusually classically style Pinot and Chardonnay near the southern tip of the African continent,’ says Anthony Hamilton Russell. ‘Our Pinot noir has a degree of savouriness and structure that goes beyond straight varietal expression. People say it is hard to work with Pinot Noir. I don’t think it is. It is not how to make it, but where to make it, and if you get where to make it wrong then you can try as hard as you like  but it will never be good.’

‘It is an uncomplex variety without much tannin our colour, but it shines in some sites and transcends the variety. We are lucky to get that here, with some tannic structure and depth, a degree of savouriness to augment the beautiful fruit perfume you can get.’

Peter-Allen Finlayson, of Crystallum, also thinks the region is well suited to the Burgundy varieties. ‘It’s proving to be THE area for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in South Africa,’ he claims. ‘The wines from the area are showing wonderful minerality and purity of fruit—and elegance. We are new world, but the wines are less forceful and in your face than a lot of new world Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays can be.’

This is a cool climate region by South African standards, and the maritime influence is key to this, with cool breezes blowing up the valley. Rainfall is higher here than in many other Cape wine regions, which makes irrigation unnecessary. But some perspective is added by Kevin Grant of Ataraxia: ‘In the context of the country we farm in a relatively cool area. But internationally, we would like to believe we are cool, but this is a figment of the imagination. Facts show we are not as cool as we would like to believe.’

I spent a couple of days in the region, my second visit here, and came away really impressed. There’s a lot happening here, and the wines are improving fast, in part through experience, but also with vine age. Here’s a film about the region, including interviews with some of the key people. Over the next couple of weeks I will add the producer profiles and tasting notes.

Visiting Hemel-en-Aarde

Bouchard Finlayson
Newton Johnson
Hamilton Russell



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