Spring has sprung on the Cape, so Christine Austin samples new vintages in intoxicating Hemel-en-Aarde

As Yorkshire heads into autumn the southern hemisphere is at last waking up to springtime. Here in South Africa where I am visiting for a few days to check out new vintages, there is blossom on the trees and the vines are just beginning to burst into leaf.  Even so, evenings are cold and the tops of the tallest mountains still glisten with a dusting of snow.

One of my favourite parts of the Cape is Hemel-en Aarde and here the weather is already definitely warm.  The name translates as Heaven and Earth and this region of rolling hills, small wine estates and fabulous Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays is exactly that.   It is just a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, over the mountain pass and much as I love the bustle of Cape Town, there is something quite relaxing about beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde.

Take a tour of the wineries – without driving

This whole grape growing area used to be referred to as Walker Bay but it is gradually being changed to Hemel-en-Aarde to truly reflect the valley which winds between the hills, providing a range of slopes, soils and aspects to the sun. They have even divided the area into three parts, The Valley, Upper Valley and Ridge, all of which helps identify particular soils and styles within this area.

As well as stunning scenery, just a mile or so away on the coast there is Hermanus, an old fishing port, now taken over by tourism, but only at weekends.  During the week it relaxes back into its normal quiet existence apart from the calls of the Whale Crier who spots whales in the bay. Between September and December is peak whale watching time, and in Hermanus you can just stand on the cliffs to spot them, although there are boat tours if you want to get closer, but not too close.

The water shortage in the Cape is more or less over, although in the city of Cape Town everyone is very aware of the shortage of last year.  A couple of weeks of serious winter rainfall have helped filled up dams so with luck and careful management the water crisis has disappeared.

But Hemel-en-Aarde was not really affected by shortages last year.  ‘We get more rain here than London’ said Anthony Hamilton Russell, owner of Hamilton Russell and that rain has filled up the aquifers so grape growers are looking forward to the new season with confidence.

Tasting the wines of Hemel-en-Aarde I was struck by the sheer elegance and precise flavours of the Pinot Noirs and the clean, fresh, concentration of the Chardonnays. This area has a maritime climate with some vineyards actually looking at the sea.  And since the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet just a few miles down the coast, there are sea breezes coming at this region in two directions. This keeps temperatures down and retains fresh flavours in the grapes. ‘It is our own, free, air conditioning system,’ said Hamilton Russell.

The soils of this region have been shaped by over 300 million years of drifting, uplifting, seas and erosion.  These are some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world, and in composition come fairly close to those of Burgundy.  And it is Burgundy that is in the sights of the wine growers of Hemel en Aarde as a comparison for their Pinots and Chardonnays.

One of my favourite producers in this region is Newton Johnson, and not just because the family hailed from Yorkshire a generation ago.  They make affordable, elegant wines that really do settle alongside food and provide delightful, complex flavours. They also have a fabulous restaurant overlooking the vineyards where you can eat great food and match it against their own wines.

Harvest at Newton Johnson

Head to Harrogate Fine Wine for the 2015 Newton Johnson Pinot Noir (£19.99) that really does gather up the true flavours of the grape, all raspberry and strawberry notes with silky, velvety tannins and a long, fresh finish that will go perfectly with grilled duck or lamb.  It really does give many Côtes de Beaune wines a run for their money.  Roberts and Speight have the Newton Johnson 2015 Chardonnay (£22.99) which is fresh and vibrant, with flavours of stone fruit and a definite crunch of minerals.  This has been fermented and aged in oak but there are no hefty, oily oak flavours. The oak is there purely to underpin the fruit and is hardly noticeable amongst the complexity and freshness.

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir has become a thing of legend since this was the property that started to focus on Pinot Noir back in the 1980’s. The wines have a style which straddles old and new worlds, with texture, elegance and complexity.  The 2017 vintage that I tasted is still far too young, but it has deep cherry and herb-tinged fruit, with a savoury backbone and a long vibrant finish that will evolve beautifully.  House of Townend in Hull has the 2016 vintage (£29.99) which is just starting to hit its stride but will age much longer.

Anthony Hamilton Russell, producer of excellent Pinot Noir wines

Bouchard Finlayson is right next door to Hamilton Russell and while Peter Finlayson is not actively involved in winemaking anymore, the methods and style he put in place ensures a distinct quality of wine.  Head to Martinez Wines for Galpin Peak 2015 Pinot Noir (£28.99) that has dark cherry fruit, structure and complexity.  It should be matched with more delicate meats but I drank this with steak straight off the braai (barbecue) and it was delicious.

Also well worth a taste is Bosman Walker Bay Chardonnay 2017 (Majestic £12.99, down to £9.99 on a mix six deal).  Bosman is a family estate, established over 200 years ago who decided to put one-third of their whole business in a trust for all the workers on the farm.  In Fairtrade terms this is one of the most inclusive, supportive projects I know.  With a school, healthcare and even a club for their senior people, they look after their workers as well as their wines.  The Chardonnay for this wine comes off newly purchased vineyards in the cool climate of Walker Bay and it is packed with pear and peach fruit with a fresh citrus finish.


About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

Let us know what you think