Restless River, one of South Africa’s most singular and interesting wine projects

Treve Ring and I visited Restless River for the second time in October 2022, on a sunny but cool and blustery late afternoon. It’s a really interesting project, and now the vines are established and well on their way to becoming mature (Ava Marie, the top Chardonnay block, and the two parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Main Road and Dignity, are now 23 years old), the focus in both the vineyard and cellar is becoming sharp.

Craig and Anne Wessels (pictured above) came into wine from the outside. Craig founded an animation and design agency called Wicked Pixels, while Anne was an international model. Perhaps this has helped them forge such a unique – and now highly respected – project. They bought the vineyard in 2004, in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde, which at the time was really getting going as a wine region. They didn’t intend to make wine, but the farm already had 5 hectares of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon on it that were planted in 1999.

Craig is self-taught as a winemaker. First vintage was 2005, and along with the following vintage, this was made in a tiny hut, as a sort of hobby venture. The development of the vineyard was slow. ‘Every now and then we’d have to stop because we’d run out of cash,’ says Craig, ‘and then we’d carry on again.’ They moved to live here in 2008.

The Restless River label was launched as recently as 2012, and the vineyard has continued to expand since then. The latest expansion has been a vineyard block over the road from the farm, bringing total area under vine to 20 hectares. ‘It’s basically a third, third, third of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir,’ says Craig.

A film from the visit:

Ava Marie has been a fantastic block for us,’ says Craig. ‘It has produced fantastic Chardonnay for us year after year.

The ocean is 5 km over the mountain, so they have no problems with spring frost here.

Management of the vineyard is gentle, with no herbicides. A varied cover crop is sown, and this is then crimped as the growing season progresses to provide a mulch. In the vine row, weeds are dealt with manually using a power hoe.

He’s worked with wood mulching, where a whole pine tree is fed into a mulcher which then turns it all into chips. They created 2600 m3 of mulch this way. ‘It’s the size of four Olympic swimming pools,’ says Craig. This covered 6 hectares of vines, in the actual vine row. It’s worked well to keep the weeds suppressed, but the sustainability of being able to repeat this application when it’s needed depends on the availability of trees that have to be removed because of non-native clearance.

Soils are quite rocky, and are granite based, but have some clay. The vines struggle at first but once the roots are in the clay, they get going nicely. ‘The moisture content is quite low, so we use dripper lines,’ says Craig in front of a 10 year block, ‘but now they have hit the clay we can turn the water off.’

The newest planting is across the road. ‘Hemel en Aarde is supposed to all be on granite,’ says Craig, ‘so when we started looking to plant here we assumed it would all be granite.’ But what they found surprised them, and the geologist who confirmed it: they have some Cederberg Shale, which isn’t supposed to be here. It will be interesting to see how the Cabernet Sauvignon planted on this performs.

The new plantings

Restless River made its name initially for a grape you wouldn’t associate with Hemel-en-Aarde, which is one of the coolest climates in the Cape. It’s Cabernet Sauvignon. With low yields and careful farming on good soils, the Restless River Cabernet has developed a loyal following. ‘I’m happy for Cabernet to taste like Cabernet,’ says Craig. ‘I’m not scared of greenness. I’m committed to 100% varietal character. I’m the only idiot in the valley who takes Cabernet seriously.’ The low vigour of the vines results in open bunches with small berries, and the result is superb.

The other wine that has established the winery’s reputation is Chardonnay. Craig looks for freshness in his Chardonnay, and picks with high acidity. He also likes old barrels, and when he buys new ones, he often lends them out for a year before using them. A new addition to the cellar is a pair of amphorae, from Tuscany, which are used to ferment Chardonnay. A newer addition to the range is Pinot Noir, first made in 2016 from vines planted in 2013.

And the other wine is a bit different. ‘Wanderlust’ is the label for a special one-off wine made each year as a sort of experiment. Initially this was under the label DILLIRGAF label, which is a biker acronym for ‘do I look like I really give a ****’. Wanderlust is probably easier to explain.

Then there are the labels, which are inspired by old whisky, which Craig is a fan of. They have lots of detail. ‘If you understand what is on the label, then you are the sort of person I am making wine for.’

Restless River

Le Luc, the Pinot Noir block, was planted in 2013 on granitic soils, and it’s tricky to know when to pick it. ‘The most difficult decision I face is when to harvest,’ says Craig. He takes clone 115 off and then a few days later harvests 777 and 113. There’s a sorting in the vineyard, a sorting on the table with whole bunches, and then berry sorting (it’s mostly whole berry). 100% destemmed and then infusion approach in open-top oak fermenters with the odd punchdown. Natural yeasts. If it gets a bit reductive he’ll punch over. When fermentation finishes it is basket pressed, settled overnight, and then racked off heavy lees into barrel for 12 months, and then 3 months in stainless steel before bottling.

Le Luc Pinot Noir 2021
13.5% alcohol. Floral and expressive on the nose with cherry, raspberry and a hint of beetroot on the nose. The palate is concentrated and has lovely density of strawberry and raspberry fruit with a silky edge to the palate. Broad and expansive with generosity, but also some freshness. There are some nice green sappy quality too in the background. A lovely Pinot Noir with depth and character, and it’s quite a unique Pinot for Hemel-en-Aarde, with some darkness and depth, and lovely silky richness. 94/100 (JG)

Lovely fragrant wild raspberry, morello cherry are tightly knit with white pepper and wild herbs, and threaded with a fine roiboos tea. Long, fine tannins stretch through the lingering saline, perfumed rose finish. Effortless acidity lifts this finessed red along a classic granitic buzz underneath. 94/100 (TR)

‘Doing single vineyard wines, my mission is to express this vineyard,’ says Craig. ‘There is very little winemaking: it is more about yeast husbandry, just making sure everything stays healthy and clean, and then respecting it through the elevage process, hopefully coming up with something that is consistent each year while allowing vintage variation to show.’

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2020 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
13% alcohol. This is from a two hectare vineyard harvested in tranches. ‘I pick over a long period: here, over a month. I know there are different parcels within the vineyard that are coming on at different times. I’m sometimes looking for fruit, for elegance, for texture. I’m waiting for these different parcels. I have restored two old Vaslin presses, which he has used since 2015, and since then he’s allowed the juice to oxidise. When it is whole bunch I can do 1.5 tons. If I do a 1.5 ton pick and press, the juice that comes out is 1000 litres. I seldom do two presses in a day. We start harvesting at about 6 in the morning and finish at 8 or 9. It’s a four hour press cycle. We generally keep it down to one cycle a day. You can give every parcel a lot of attention and focus on the detail. Whole bunch pressed, no sulfites, settled overnight. I like to oxidise the juice so it looks like coffee, but I’ve had coca cola every now and then. Wild ferment in barrel and I just let it do its thing. Once the wine has gone dry I give it its first sulfites. Sometimes the malolactic will kick in, but I’m not keen on malo. On average there’s 20-40% malolactic. It stays on its lees for 11 or 12 months in 500 litre barrels, with some amphora (two times 400 litre) and some stainless steel barrel (1000 litres, so both 5-8%). This is really expressive: bright and focused with refined citrus fruit, a hint of pineapple, and lovely chiselled acidity under the fruit. Subtle hints of toast and a little spiciness, with some chalky structure. Pure, refined and textural with lovely depth and precision, and good acidity. 95/100 (JG)

Super textural, with a flicker of flintiness, this Chardy was planted primarily in 1998/99 in a granite-soiled, low pH block of the 2 hectare vineyard. The 2020 was picked over a long period (Feb 5-Mar 6). This was whole bunch, with no sulphur, and native fermented over 2-3 weeks in barrel. Once dry he adds a little bit of SO2, but isn’t a fan of MLF (20-40%, depending on year). This spent 1 year on lees in a mix of 400L amphora and 1000L stainless barrel, and was then blended into tank for 3 months to settle before bottling. The finely creamy base is infiltrated with lemon, lemon pith, wild herbs, salted almond, oyster shell, and flax along a tight core and across a lightly textural palate, finishing with ample flake salts. So young, and so much time ahead. 95/100 (TR)

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2021 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
13% alcohol. Beautifully fresh and intense, and quite linear, with powerful lemon and lime but also subtle spice, toast and nut notes. But this is all about concentration allied with precision. Crystalline and taut and really youthful, with high acidity. Should live a long time. 95/100

Occasionally Craig will add acidity to the later harvested grapes. For example, 2019, the last harvested Chardonnay needed to have the acidity tweaking. Yields for Chardonnay are 5-6 tons/ha, with Pinot coming in at 3 tons/ha, and Cabernet at 1.5-3 tons/ha.

Main Road and Dignity 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
14% alcohol. Cabernet Sauvignon, harvested 10 March to 7 May. Destemmed, a portion of whole berry (c 30%), and then aged for two years in barrel. Concentrated and dense with firm blackcurrant fruit and some crunchy raspberry brightness. Lovely floral aromatics balance out the earthy tannic structure, with a fusion of sweet, liqueur-like fruit with a bit of spicy, grippy character providing a foil. Finishes quite dry. Has real intensity and concentration, and manages to fuse power and finesse. 95/100

Very low yielding, this Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1999. Mostly destemmed, with 20-30% whole berry, this was harvested long, through early May, and all in small parcels. It was native fermented in open top wooden fermenters, over 3 weeks on average, then into barrel 2 years, before a stint into stainless prior to bottling. Wild cherry, black raspberry, tobacco and graphite are wound around a structural frame, with ample ferrous infiltration throughout. Grippy fine tannins are met with ample lifted acidity, resulting in a structural wine with alluring texture. The lengthy finish lingers with iron / ferrous grippiness, and subtle black cassis perfume. Powerful and finessed, with effortless intensity. 8124 bottles. 94/100 (TR)


‘Every Wanderlust has a purpose in my mind,’ says Craig. ‘The important thing is that they are good wines. There is a lot of thought that goes into them.’ Production is 3-4000 bottles a year. ‘Now my focus is on my single vineyards stuff, but this is a great creative outlet and it’s also a learning experience for me.’

Wanderlust 2017 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
This is Grenache, 66% carbonic maceration. Some carbonic then pressed straight away, some carbonic then pressed and fermented on skins. Vineyard planted east-to-west, just harvested the southern side of the vines, which was the cooler side. Supple and juicy with brightness and some elegance, developing some aged slightly earthy characters. Lovely poise here with nice detail. It’s beginning to develop but it still has freshness, with a fair bit of structure balancing out the fruit. Drink now. 91/100 (JG)

Craig had been driving past this vineyard for 14 years. The Grenache was planted E-W, so when Craig finally got to harvest, he took only the southern facing fruit (pissed off the farmer a bit). This was 66% carbonic, with 3 ferments: one fully carbo; one carbo and then macerated on skins; and one traditional red fermentation. Pouring a pale red, with bright freshness and lifted acidity. Long, finely grippy tannins draw roiboos tea and dried florals to a saline finish. Still showing vibrancy. 91/100 (TR)

Wanderlust 2018 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
‘What if I tried to make Sauvignon Blanc in a style I might like?’ asks Craig. After this was harvested this vineyard was ripped up. Full carbonic, sealed in a tank for two weeks. Then broke the bunches and fermented like a red wine on skins for 5 days. Pressed and then let it continue in old barrels, where it stayed 16 months. This is concentrated and full flavoured with some green pepper hints and some pear fruit. There’s a bit of orange peel and some spicy structure, with nice depth. So textural and expressive, finishing a bit chunky and grippy with some saline notes. 92/100 (JG)

Craig doesn’t much like Sauvignon Blanc, so he thought he should try and make it in a style that he might like. This was the last harvest of this single vineyard on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge (Domaine de Deux). Rooted in Bokkeveld Shale, this streams wild lemon, grapefruit, crushed stones, thistle, chamomile, and verbena along a round palate, with some medicinal tangerine through the saline finish. It was processed full carbo, sealed in stainless tank for 2 weeks, with some berries still green, then stomped on stems and left on skins 5 days before pressing into old barrels for 16 months. 91/100 (TR)

Wanderlust 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
‘I wanted to explore texture: I discovered the tastevin where you concentrate on the textural element of the wine. I wanted people to think about the texture.’ says Craig. This is very fresh and textural with a chalky, grainy weight. It’s two vineyards: Pinotage and Pinot Noir, next door to each other, 50/50 blend. There’s silky fresh cherry and plum fruit with nice depth, some smoothness, and real elegance with a bit of drying grippy tannin on the finish. 93/100 (JG)

From the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, this is sourced from by neighbouring vineyards and blends 50/50 Pinotage and Pinot Noir. A wave of reduction rolls into perfumed florals, downy violets, boysenberry, and cracked pink peppercorn, framed with sticky / grippy tannins, atop buzzy granite texture. 90/100 (TR)

Wanderlust Pinot Noir 2020 Walker Bay
This is Le Luc (not made this year) plus also some Pinot Noir from the ridge. Made mostly without electricity. Whole cluster, open fermenters, and a component in amphora. Lovely floral aromatics with some dried herbs. The palate is textured with a lovely savoury with some darkness and also some lightness. There’s lovely silkiness, with a bit of grip too. 94/100 (JG)

Craig’s Ode to the Cistertian Monks, made without electricity (mostly). Le Luc wasn’t make in 2020, so this used Pinot Noir from his and other farms from the HeA Ridge. Entirely whole cluster, mostly in open top fermenters, with some fruit going into terracotta. Tobacco, wild raspberry, wild herbs, and fynbos are framed with sticky fine tannins, finishing with a wash of flake salts. Both light and dark, with lifted acidity throughout making this quite smashable. 12.8%. 92/100 (TR)

Wanderlust Red Field Blend 2020 Hemel-en-Aaarde Valley
This is 8 varieties grown together from the Bosmans who have mother stock to field their nurseries. On one day, I went and harvested everything that I felt had the similar level of ripeness, of which Roussanne was the only white. The main varieties are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet and Cinsault. Plus Malbec, Barbera and Tinta Barocca. Fresh, intense and sappy on the nose with sweet cherry and berry fruit. This has lovely presence on the palate, with some grainy detail as well as bright cherry and plum fruit, with a wall of flavour: berries, black fruits, some blackcurrant, and notes of strawberry, dried herbs and a touch of mint. Lovely density. 93/100 (JG)

A curious field blend from Bosman’s clone garden, with 8 cofermented grapes, including 3 Cabs (Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Ruby Cabernet, the latter being a cross of Carignan x Cab Sauv). The others making up the blend, all chosen for the similar levels of ripeness when Craig visited, are Cinsault, Malbec, Barbera, Tinta Barroca, and Roussanne. Somewhat disjointed at this stage, with notes of peated whisky, wild herbs, and juicy black plum dominating, with an herbal green edge bracing. Will try again. 90/100 (TR)

The 2021 is ‘Chenotage’, which is 85% Pinotage and 15% Chenin

A film from an earlier visit:

Older notes:

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
13% alcohol. From a 2.06 hectare plot planted in 1999 on granite and clay soils, this is a truly remarkable Chardonnay – one of the best I’ve had from South Africa. Pressed, settled and then fermented in a mix of barrels (just a small proportion new) and unlined amphora, it has a complex, mineral nose with ripe citrus fruit, a touch of pear and pineapple, and some spice, honey and hazelnut. It’s chiselled and linear, although there’s a touch of richness. In the mouth this is concentrated and quite intense with good acidity, and notes of lemon, mandarin, white peach and cashew, finishing spicy and vivid. This is a really beautiful, multidimensional expression of Chardonnay with potential for development, even though it’s compelling now. 96/100

Restless River Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
14.5% alcohol. From two blocks (1.59 hectare Main Road; 0.71 Dignity; both planted in 1999 on granite/clay soils). Many questioned the choice of Cabernet Sauvignon for the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, but Craig Wessels’ viticulture is impeccable, and the winemaking sympathetic. The result is intense and structured with powerful blackcurrant and berry fruits, supported by firm structure, with some savoury gravelly and ashy notes. This is powerful, concentrated but has freshness. Slightly drying finish is the only distraction. Layered and sturdy, and really good. 94/100