On August 18, the world celebrates Pinot Noir.
The month was also chosen for a competition dedicated to South African Pinot Noir wines, driven by Cape Wine Master Hennie Loubser. “It’s a niche category, but growing,” he says, adding that entries for the Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir competition have exceeded their expectations.
Many of these entries will be from an area historically tied to Pinot Noir in South Africa and producer of some of the country’s most highly regarded examples – Hemel En Aarde. Since 2013, the region has feted the grape with its annual Pinot Noir Celebration.
There are different versions of how it came by that name, but the occasional mispronunciations of the place as “Hemel op Aarde” (heaven on earth), are not far wrong. The narrow, steep-sided valley through which the Onrust River flows, descends toward the coast until the fynbos-covered, bookend hills give way to a spectacular ocean view.
It still has that sense of remoteness, despite being minutes from the world-famous whale watching mecca of Hermanus. Hemel En Aarde was once called the Attaquas Kloof after the indigenous people who once lived here. Change came with the establishment of a leper hospital in the early 1800s, specifically located here for the isolation of the valley.
Edmund H Burrows writes in his Overberg Odyssey (1994, Swellendam Trust) that the name Hemel En Aarde is sometimes attributed to the leper hospital, because that was all “the inmates” could see. He says another possibility is that of a land surveyor who had measured up the valley. “He had an assistant was called Engel, and for the rest of his life he told all who cared to listen that, while surveying heaven and earth, he had an angel to help him.”
Be that as it may, the hospital closed in 1846 and the remaining inmates transferred to Robben Island.
Years later, however, Hemel En Aarde’s acclaim would rise again thanks to pioneering wineries. Today, with Elgin, Hemel en Aarde is one of the Cape’s regions associated with the most sought-after cool climate wines. And it has been the Burgundian grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir most at its prow.
There are numerous locations to enjoy Pinot Noir in the region. We include a selection below.
Among the pioneers of Hemel En Aarde is Peter Finlayson at Bouchard Finlayson, although when he came to the valley in January 1980, it was as winemaker for neighbouring Hamilton Russell. He established the cellar there and stayed until 1990 when Bouchard Finlayson was launched.
Today, half of the 125ha farm’s vineyards are devoted to Pinot Noir with its most renowned wines including Galpin Peak and Hannibal. There are 25ha under vine, with the wines being made by Chris Albrecht who took over from Peter in 2016.
In addition to wine tastings, there are nature walks guided by a resident botanist. Deli platters are served and including vegan alternatives.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards
The winery was established in 1975 by advertising executive Tim Hamilton Russell, who is credited with the founding of the wine valley. At the time, he flouted regulations that limited wine production to certain areas. With the help of Hungarian viticulturist Desiderius Pongracz, Hamilton Russell planted his vines. Its first Pinot Noir was released in 1982.
Tim died in 2013 and today, his son, Anthony, is at the head of the enterprise. One interesting note for visitors is that all vineyard blocks are named after women who have married into the family. Hamilton Russell also owns neighbouring properties, Southern Right and Ashbourne. Wines are made by Emul Ross.
Apart from wines, the farm produces olive oil and honey too.
www.hamiltonrussellvineyards.com; 028 312 3595; email@example.com
A natural segue from an introduction to Hamilton Russel, is Tesselaarsdal. An exciting addition to Hemel En Aarde wines, the label belongs to longstanding Hamilton Russell Vineyards employee Berene Sauls. Her first wine was a Pinot Noir 2015 with grapes sourced in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and made by Emul Ross. Today, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make up her portfolio. She grew up in the hamlet of Tesselaarsdal and had set her mind to joining the army before taking up a position as au pair on the farm. Within a month, her talent was spotted and she found herself working in the marketing department, and eventually getting to know every aspect of the business. She launched her enterprise after encouragement from Hamilton Russell and quickly gained international acclaim. Relatively small volumes produced mean the wines are rarely offered for tasting, but are available through online platforms and local wine retailers. She recently acquired a 16ha farm that will eventually be the home of Tesselaarsdal Wines.
Few wineries match Creation in the mix of contemporary luxury, design and innovation that pervades its restaurant, winery and guest accommodation. The farm lies on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and was established in 2002 by Jean-Claude (JC) and Carolyn Martin. It has led the development of tasting experiences, which these days even includes selecting your own personal “shopper” by personality and language, to take you through an online presentation wherever you are. The offerings include non-alcoholic pairings for adults and children too. Creation periodically showcases the works of leading South African artists. There are walking and cycling trails. As for the wines, winemaker JC is a Pinot Noir specialist having honed his skills with the grape in his childhood home of Switzerland. In addition to the still versions, Creation also applies its Pinot Noir to an MCC, Elation; and, a Pinot Noir gin.
The 130ha Spookfontein is owned by Mike Davis and opened in December 2013. The name – translated as “ghost fountain” – hails from a mountain spring where morning mists lend it an otherworldly appearance. The farm has 13ha under vine, including Pinot Noir. Winemaker Sol took over from Hannes Storm and has been involved over the past year. She’s from Mandoza, married to Pieter-Willem Eksteen, son of Bartho, who she met doing harvest in California. One of the new projects that came about during the change-over of winemakers is Spookfontein’s Pinot Noir MCC, which was bottled earlier this year and to be released next year. The visitor centre comprises an independently run restaurant and adjoining wine-tasting lounge, with views across the valley. A function venue in similar arresting style is also nearing completion. Self-catering cottages allow visitors to use the farm as a base while there are also mountain walks and links to the valley’s MTB trails.
The small tasting room at Seven Springs reflects its scale of production. Single variety wines are the focus here. UK-born winemaker Gus Dale honed skills in both viticulture and winemaking after studying and working in Burgundy, France – spiritual home of Pinot Noir. He moved to South Africa in 2007 and managed Babylon Farm (La Vierge) in the Hemel en Aarde before taking up winemaking duties in Stellenbosch. He returned to the greater Hemel En Aarde region in 2018, as winemaker for Seven Springs, which is owned by British couple Tim and Vaughan Pearson. The first vintage was 2010. The 12ha Vrede Farm where the vines grow has 8ha under vine; the wine is made on Sandfontein Farm. “My predecessor was very strong with Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, but it is my intention to make the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir our flagship wines,” says Gus. To this end, this year the use – for the first time in the abel’s history – of wooden vats for fermenting the Pinot Noir. He has four different clones of Pinot Noir at his disposal and each was vinified separately to examine their individual nuances.
Other venues to try Pinot Noir in and around Hemel En Aarde
- Ataraxia: www.ataraxiawines.co.za ; 028 212 2007; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bosman Hermanus: www.bosmanhermanus.com ; 076 3000 819; email@example.com
- Domaine des Dieux: www.domainedesdieux.co.za; firstname.lastname@example.org; 028 313 2126
- La Vierge: www.lavierge.co.za; email@example.com; 028 313 2007
- Sumaridge: www.sumaridge.co.za; Tel: 028 312 1097
- Whalehaven: www.whalehaven.co.za; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Newton Johnson: www.newtonjohnson.com; 028 312 3862; email@example.com
- Hermanuspietersfontein: www.hpf1855.com; 028 316 1875; firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Wine Village: winevillage.co.za; 028 316 3988; email@example.com
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