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

Carolyn and JC Martin, Creation
JC and Carolyn Martin

Creation is right at the end of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, in the sub-appellation known as the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde. We visited on a Sunday morning, while harvest was nearing its close. 2017 was looking like the third year in a row of good vintages here. We didn't have to plan around the weather,' says winemaker JC Martin. 'It was an easy harvest. There was just one rainfall in February which freshened things up.' He was also pleased with the yields. 'We need a reasonable crop size as well,' he said. 'We are not doing this for fun, and in 2017 we got this.' Syrah came in at 8 tons/hectare, and Sauvignon at 7 tons/hectare.

creation  vineyard


JC Martin hails from Neuchatel, Switzerland, where his family had a wine estate. They sold this, but have kept a family smallholding. His first experience of South Africa was in 1995 when he worked as an intern at Glen Carlou in the Paarl region. He came back in 1998, and ended up marrying Carolyn, who is the niece of Peter Finlayson, of Bouchard Finlayson, the second winery in Hemel-en-Aarde after pioneer Hamilton Russell. Peter showed them the farm. 'There was just sheep grazing here,' says Carolyn. 'it was a huge project.' It fitted the bill: JC was looking for virgin ground so he could start the vineyard virus free, and he also wanted a cool climate, and so Creation was born, in 2002. 'At that time virus-free vines were first available from VitiTec,' he recalls. 'It has been 15 years now and there is no virus on this farm.'


They have convinced neighbours La Vierge and Domaine des Dieux to be equally vigilant when it comes to leaf roll virus, which is common in South Africa's winelands. Although some have argued that virused vines can produce excellent wine, in part because they delay ripening, the general view is that it is detrimental to quality and is best avoided. 'From a quality point of view you don't want to pull the vineyards after 15 years,' says JC, which is what often happens when there's lots of virus around. The vineyards struggle to ripen reds and gradually become less productive. And then, when you have pulled out the virus-ridden vineyard, you need to leave the soils fallow for 5 years because they are contaminated, or else the whole cycle will start again (the virus can spread through mealybugs and also soil nematodes). It carries with it a huge economic impact, which is why many producers simply haven't been able to tackle their virus problem.

creation wine


Creation recently purchased the farm next door, and so are up to a sizeable 65 hectares of vines. 'Next year will get some Roussanne, and we are planting Grenache blanc,' says JC. 'We've also planted quite a bit more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.'


The upper Hemel-en-Aarde is able to grow a wide range of grape varieties. 'We have an amazing window of ripening here,' says Carolyn. 'I go mad from a marketing point of view,' she adds, because the story of Creation isn't a simple one, with the range of grapes they work with. 'We can do Chardonnay and Pinot, but the weather allows almost all the Rhone cultivars to ripen here.'


Over the road from Creation, Martin Prieur of Domaine Jacques Prieur in Burgundy (who consults with Paul Cluver), has bought a 7 hectare vineyard in conjunction with JC. They will be working on making a wine together.


The soils are decomposed bokkeveld shale with some loam. They are 450 million years old. There are seven different types of clay/loam here. The heavy clay soil becomes very hard if it is compacted. It's possible to grow vines without irrigation because in dry weather the clay helps retain moisture in the soil. 'All the plants now are pretty self sufficient,' says JC.


Creation just works with estate grapes. 'We believe we need to have 100% control of the grapes,' says JC, admitting that this can be a bit painful from a cashflow issue. They have also invested in a winery that's big enough for their needs. 'When you have more space you can make later releases. You don't want to make decisions that aren't in favour of the quality. You want to do things when it is right, so you need enough red wine fermenters and barrel space.'


Carolyn agrees that the estate model is important. 'Grapes are going to become scarcer in South Africa,' she says. 'Quality grapes in the market are scarce already. There's not much quality Chardonnay in the market.'


'For a long term sustainable brand building exercise you need to be the owner of your land. It's not very pleasant because you need a bit of capital.'


JC gave an example of the economics of grape growing. You have to wait four years for production after planting a vineyard. It costs 70-80 000 Rand per hectare to farm at the high end, and yields are around 6 tons/hectare. This means you have to sell the grapes at 12-14 000 Rand a ton, just to break even, and plantings need to be amortised plantings over 15 years. And grape prices haven't kept pace with inflation. In 2004 good Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon cost 8000 Rand/ton. If you were to take the 2004 figures and increase them in line with inflation, you'd expect to pay 20-25 000 Rand/ton, but the price is still 8000 Rand. Good Swartland Chenin can sell for 15 000/ton but yields are very low, in the region of 2 tons/hectare.


I'm impressed with Creation. 'It's a young farm and it's quite exciting,' says JC. 'We are still learning. There are lots of things we are tweaking around, and it's helping that every year the vines are getting a year older. A young vineyard is basically a fruit attack, but with age it gives much more complexity. Vineyard age makes a difference to the quality of the wine.'

creation mcc




Creation Elation Brut Nature MCC 2012 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa

80%Chardonnay, 20% Pinot, Brut Nature, 2 years on lees. Very fresh and tart with bright, herb tinged lemony fruit and a bit of subtle toastiness. Has some apple character, too. Very attractive. 88/100


Creation Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
There's lovey taut fruit here with herbs, lemons, some wax and pith. Nice grapefruit freshness on the finish. Lovely fruit character here, but also has some nice savouriness. Very stylish. 91/100


Creation Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Tight, nutty and citrussy with lovely lean, mineral-tinged lemony fruit. Has presence and acidity here. Linear and stony with nice precision. 91/100


100% malolactic for these, because the wood integrates better when you do malolactic in the barrel


Creation Estate Chardonnay 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Very fine and expressive with clean, subtly bready, toasty citrus and pear fruit, with a bit of peachy richness. Refined and delicious with some ripeness. 91/100


Creation Reserve Chardonnay 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa

No press juices. Fine, delicate and refined with lovely mineral and spice notes as well as pear and citrus fruits. This is sophisticated with attractive fruit and good acidity. 93/100


Creation Art of Chardonnay 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa

10-12 barrels. Taut and refined with lovely acidity and dense citrus and pear fruit. Really expressive and detailed with great acidity. Lovely wine. Really well integrated wood. Such a lovely wine. 95/100


Creation Estate Pinot Noir 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Clean, pure, floral and fine with nice direct, supple, sweet cherry fruit. Very red fruits in character with nice purity and some structure. Youthful and quite delicious. 91/100


Creation Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
There's some herb and undergrowth detail lurking in the background of the floral red fruits. Nice grip here with lovely focused fruit and a silky texture. Nice purity here with lovely finesse. 92/100


Creation Art of Pinot Noir 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa

There's wonderful balance here: it has fine cherries and plums with a nice spiciness. Structured and refined with spice and a hint of tar. Lovely precision and structure here: a serious effort. 95/100


Creation Syrah 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Concentrated, fresh and with lovely floral black cherry and spice notes. There's some peppery freshness as well as lovely lush sweet fruit. Real finesse here. 93/100


Creation Syrah Grenache 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Bright and fresh with lovely well defined black cherry and plum fruit. Lovely clean, pure, fresh black fruits here. Very convincing. 93/100


Creation Sumac Grenache 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
There's richness here as well as some fresh peppery red and black fruits. Good structure and a hint of cedary oak in the background. Polished and fine. 92/100


Creation Reserve Merlot 2015 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Lovely fresh black fruits here with some blackcurrant and some cherry. Fresh and supple with a chalky, gravelly edge. Ripe but fresh and really convincing. 92/100


Creation Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Petit Verdot 2015Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Generous and fine with sweet, textured, gravelly, spicy blackcurrant fruit. Fine and floral with nice freshness alongside the ripe fruit. Quite lovely with a hint of seriousness. Lovely. 94/100


Creation Viognier 2016 Hemel-en-Arde, South Africa
Bright, fresh, pure and floral with nice lemony acidity keeping things bright. Very pretty and juicy with some pear and peach notes, but with citrus freshness driving things. 91/100


Visiting Hemel-en-Aardebr>
Bouchard Finlayson
Newton Johnson
Hamilton Russell
Restless River

Wines tasted 04/17
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