Tasting the current releases from Restless River

Restless River is a small, but mighty, family-owned winery in the cool Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Goode and I first visited the farm in March 2017, resulting in this background article, short film, and tasting notes.

Hundreds of years ago, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley was known as Attacquas Kloof. In 1760 the elder Wessel Wessels arrived with his family and set up home, becoming the first European settler to live and farm in the valley. Some historians say it was Wessel who called the valley Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth). Fast forward a few hundred years, when husband and wife Craig and Anne Wessels started planting part of the family farm in 2004, launching the Restless River label in 2012 to continual critical acclaim. They quickly made a name for themselves, and the cool climate, higher altitude Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, with their coveted, world class wines. 

Restless River Ava Marie 2018, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
The farm has some of the oldest Cabernet sauvignon and Chardonnay in the Hemel-en-Aarde, with vines first planted in 1999. This Chardonnay bears the name of its single 2.06 hectare vineyard, named after their daughter. The slopes are south and east facing, with shallow top soils with iron-rich rocks and sandy gravels over decomposed granite clays. This was whole bunch pressed, settled overnight, and then native fermented into various sized French barrels (7% new) as well as two terracotta amphorae, from Tuscany. Post ferment, this rested on lees for 11 months prior to moving to stainless for a 3 month tightening stint prior to bottling. Once in bottle, this rested for 18 months prior to release. Alluring from first flint-kissed whiff, this chardonnay is riveting with ample salinity, lemon, wild herbs and fresh hazelnuts racing the length of the finessed palate. The chiselled structure comes easily via the granitic soils and altitude, guided by gentle handling in the winery. The finish lingers long with light toast and ample mouthwatering salinity. Such a stunner, and up there with top chardonnay made anywhere. 9342 bottles made. 95/100

Restless River Le Luc 2019, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
This Pinot Noir, planted in 2013, was named for their son, and rooted in sloping, well-drained gravel granite loam and iron rich koffieklip soils. This was partial whole cluster, native fermented in small open top vats, without punchdowns or pumpovers. Post ferment, this moved into French barriques (25% new) for a year long rest. It was then racked into stainless for a couple of months’ tightening stint before bottling, without fining. Fragrant and alluring with wild cherries, black raspberries, plums, tea leaves threaded with iodine and iron running the slender, finessed palate. Tannins are long and fine and firm, housing this through a saline finish. Hints of quality Mornington Peninsula, and Volnay, but very distinctly H-e-A, which is thrilling. Beautiful now, and with ample time ahead. 3554 bottles made. 93/100

Restless River Main Road & Dignity 2017, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
They have the oldest plantings of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the valley, dating back to 1999, and still one of the only working with Cab Sauv in this cool region. Main Road and Dignity are two single vineyards, with slopes of gravel and koffeklip soils over decomposed granite clays. This was destemmed and native fermented in small open top oak vats, with a lengthy maceration followed by basket pressing. This then went into French barriques (20% new) where it rested undisturbed for 21 months. It was then racked from barrel to stainless for a short tightening stint prior to bottling, and 2 more years’ rest prior to release. Iron-laced black cherry, wild blackberry, blackcurrant, anise, tobacco, graphite race through this medium+ red, structured with firm, long tannins, and effortlessly lifted with a stony, saline rise, carrying this to a lengthy salted liquorice and forest bark finish. Powerful, yet energetic and finessed, this is a striking cab that can compete with the world’s best. 7973 bottles made. 94/100

Wanderlust 2019, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
The Wanderlust project allows Craig the freedom to make a one-off wine each vintage. The 2019 is a medium-bodied blend of pinot noir and pinotage from neighbouring north-facing vineyards, around 215m, on granite soils with gravelled rocky loam over decomposed granite clays. The grapes were whole cluster, native fermented separately, partially carbonic, before being pressed off in their basket press, with the pinotage being pressed off after 7 days, before dry. The wine then moved into older French barrels (allowing the pinotage ferment to finish), where it remained for one year prior to a 2 month stint in stainless before bottling, without fining. Opening with a puff of reduction that quickly dissipates, this lighter red is tight and grippy, woven with green branch and fresh green herbs throughout bright cherry, green raspberry, with crunchy acidity, and light, downy tannins. Balance is brill on this glou-glou wine. Take now with a chill. 2520 bottles made. 90/100

Treve Ring

Treve Ring is a wine writer and editor, judge and speaker, and perpetual traveller. [She is also Correspondent Anorak.]