Wine writer Emile Joubert was one of the lucky few to attend the recent 2020 Pinot Noir Celebration in Hemel-en-Aarde, witnessing an unsurpassed level of quality, style and identity. When it comes to producing top Pinot Noir, Hemel-en-Aarde is where it’s at.
A country that’s been calling itself a wine-producing nation for 361 years, South Africa has been struggling to market itself as a geographical entity, comprising of pockets of regional wine excellence. After all these centuries the country is – in wine terms – mostly still seen as one sprawling southern mass at Africa’s tip producing a diverse mix of wines from vines grown on homogenous land space.
This is, of course, not the case. Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson, Elgin, Durbanville, Constantia and the Swartland – among others – have boundaries within which unique natural traits ensure vines, grapes and wines expressing a regional identity. Respective marketing bodies are working, at various levels of success, in propagating this. As they should: if there is one factor that separates wine from any other beverage it is the importance of an individual set of geographical characters that determines the quality, style and identity of its potable offering.
After attending the 2020 Pinot Noir Celebration in Hemel-en-Aarde, I left with not a shadow of a doubt that this region is ahead of any other local wine area in its ability to harness a true sense of excellence in its wine showing. The one day and two night affair, meticulously organised for a limited selection of wine lovers, was an occasion that, in every sense of the word, made me truly proud to be a part of the South African wine industry as well underscoring my conviction that the country’s time as one of the world’s great wine nations has arrived.
Of course, what gives Hemel-en-Aarde an edge is its specialising in two of the world’s most famous and respect-generating grape varieties, namely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Both varieties has captured the imagination of the wine world for over 800 years due to the magical wines made in the Burgundy region in eastern France. Burgundy is also the entity where the importance of vineyard site in its exposure to topography, soil and climate was born and where to this day it remains the be-all and end-all in any wine discussion there.
Being the most revered – and expensive – wines in the world, it is generally accepted that if you can make good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you’ve arrived. South Africa has an enviable richness in its offering of Chardonnay, a grape that has find a suited home in many a local wine region from where fabulous world-class wines originate. But when it comes to top Pinot Noir, Hemel-en-Aarde is where it is at.
Whilst not skimping in the partaking of the spirited activities involving eating, drinking, talking and kicking-back, the celebration part of the recent Hemel-en-Aarde event had me enthralled by the sheer quality of the wines presented.
This occurred on the Saturday where guests were taken to three wineries, each situated in one of the Hemel-en-Aarde’s sub-regions, namely Vally, Ridge and Upper. The establishing of these pockets of excellence within the greater Hemel-en-Aarde is to my mind a master-stroke. Not only does it offer a discernible terroir-driven diversity expressed through the region’s wines, but validates the Hemel-en-Aarde producers’ activities of giving their wines a close-cornered typicity. This is something the marketing of Pinot Noir needs, as no other red grape’s relies so much on the signature signed by earth, air and slope on the end-product in the bottle and the variety’s image.
My Pinot Noir Celebration party began our journey at the bottom-end (geographically speaking!) with a showing of wines made in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Only two producers here: Hamilton Russell Vineyards, the name synonymous with South African Pinot Noir, having planted the first vines in the region in the late 1970s and introducing Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir to South Africa with a maiden 1981 vintage.
The two vintages of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noirs on show were complemented by a brace from Bouchard Finlayson, the other winery who can claim Valley status.
When it comes to describing Pinot Noir, I refer to Robertson Chardonnay icon Danie de Wet who once told me: there are only three kinds of wine in the world – namely white wine, red wine and Pinot Noir.
The Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak wines reminded me of these words. The Hamilton Russell exudes those Pinot Noir characters of sour-cherry, nutmeg and dark autumnal fruit, with the older 2015 vintage showing a slight edge of mushroom-evoking forest-floor. The Bouchard Finlayson is polished and elegant, but with an encapsulating sense of power coming through, something of adventure and almost feral.
Although the wines spoke for themselves, it was an honour having Anthony Hamilton Russell and Peter Finlayson, the region’s Pinot Noir pioneers, on hand to talk one through the wines, imparting both wisdom and knowledge along with a sense of true conviction and palpable reverence for the grape and their region.
Back in the bus, and my party’s next stop was up the valley to Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and the home of Restless River, the property of Craig and Anne Wessels. This sub-region’s wines include Newton Johnson, Sumaridge, Bosman and those of the host, Restless River. Less clay and more shale sees the Upper valley’s wines show a broader character with a brightness in the fruit. The Newton Johnson wines have gained a cult following due to their perfumed, feminine texture – classic Pinot Noir characters – while Sumaridge produces a fynbos, earthy character. Bosman is textbook Pinot Noir with strawberry, cherry and a touch of wet stone. And Restless River’s Le Luc Pinot Noir 2017 does justice to the name of the property. Juicy, firm and exciting, Craig’s Pinot Noir has a charming touch of sage-brush and wild-flowers, the result of him using some stems during the fermentation process.
Finally, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. And Creation, the place JC and Carolyn Martin built, although in more than seven days. The Ridge wines presented were from Ataraxia, Domaine des Dieux, La Vierge and Creation, with winemakers being questioned by Rosa Kruger, the First Lady of South African viticulture.
Again the uniqueness of the specific region came to the fore. These Pinot Noirs are characterised by a text-book, precise interpretation and varietal purity. A bevy of deliciousness portraying red-fruit brightness and dense dark berries, with the slight spice and waft of wild wilderness adding intriguing beauty.
It was a day in which the Hemel-en-Aarde producers were not out to prove anything. They merely wished to share that part of their personal being which is committed to growing grapes and making wine from one of the world’s greatest vinous offerings. But in the process, the overwhelming collective brilliance of the wines proved that between heaven and earth, these folk have it pretty much covered.