Vineyards in Hemel en Aarde are carving out a global reputation among wine lovers seeking a fresh, distinctive flavour.
South African wine maker Anthony Hamilton Russell samples a young Chardonnay inside his barrel room at his 52 hectares wine farm in Hemel en Aarde, on 23 February 2021. Picture: MARCO LONGARI/AFP
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HEMEL EN AARDE – Heaven and Earth – that is the name in Afrikaans for this valley nestled between arid mountains and the cool ocean, a location that makes it a paradise for winegrowing.
Not for nothing are vineyards in Hemel en Aarde carving out a global reputation among wine lovers seeking a fresh, distinctive flavour.
Winemakers here do not try to imitate the big European names, which can often be a stifling benchmark.
Instead, they produce wines with a strong South African identity – wines whose savour tells the story of their distant birthplace and bring with them the heritage from the first Huguenot plantations in the 1600s.
“We are not really New World and not Old World,” said 35-year-old winemaker Emul Ross, flanked by his boss Anthony Hamilton Russell.
“We are not trying to be Burgundy, we are closer to that style of pinot noir than New Zealand or Oregon, which have more sweetness, more fruit.”
Russell bought 52 hectares of land from his family in the early 1990s.
The estate produces a red and a white wine from Burgundy grape varieties of eastern-central France.
The soils have high clay percentages, similar to those in Cote de Nuits, and “in blind tastings sometimes, our wines are thought as Burgundian,” said Russell, despite very different climatic conditions.
At the end of his vineyards are a few fynbos, or local shrubs, a cliff and then the Atlantic, close to its dramatic confluence with the Indian Ocean.
“I like to think there is nothing between us and Antarctica. Very clean air,” said Russell.
In the middle of the golden-green Chardonnay vines, dozens of workers in overalls move forward, expertly snipping bunches off the plant and taking boxfuls to a tractor.
Weeds grow between their feet.
“No herbicides. If it’s bare ground, it’s dead ground,” said the elegant 58-year-old Russell, sporting a large cream-coloured Indiana Jones-style brimmed hat.
Harvest this year has been late, taking place in southern hemisphere’s early autumn.
NO CHEMICALS, NO CHEATING
For South African winegrowers in general, it has been a terrible year, marked by the coronavirus pandemic and several government-imposed national bans on the sale of alcohol.
But Hemel en Aarde has suffered less than others, thanks to its reputation for quality – firmly established abroad – and less dependence on volume compared to other regions.
Pascaline Lepeltier, a French sommelier based in New York, said the region had enjoyed “spectacular success” thanks to “fresh, fine wines that are less orientated towards exuberant fruit and strength”.
She singled out their choice to respect the environment and limit additives – the key to “the true shine of a terroir”.
Chris Alheit, a mischievous 39-year-old winemaker donning a T-shirt and dark shorts, is another local celebrity.
When he talks about wines, he speaks enthusiastically about a “real Cape identity, a South African DNA”.
“We are not trying to copy a French wine,” he smiled, slipping in a few words of the language he gleaned during harvest on the old continent.
His Chenin, a white grape variety characteristic of the western France’s Loire Valley, is of great purity.
His exported cuvee, Cartology, aims at a broad swathe of the market for wines that are easy to drink and suitable for most palates.
At 6 am, the sky turns pink. Alheit brings boxes to be loaded into a refrigerated truck. Birds chirp away, bringing a joyful lightness to the repetitive noise of pruning shears.
“The big sprint is finished already,” he says, of the annual task of figuring out the right moment to harvest.
“I already have plenty of good acidity, not too much sugar. Now I need a little sex appeal, to add some curves.”
Chenin gives a vast palette, from very dry to tropical.
“I don’t want my wine to be a pineapple bomb,” he says, in a burst of laughter.
No irrigation, no chemicals and no cheating – his wine is “natural” even if he is reluctant to have it classified as such.
“For a wine to grab your imagination, as it should, it needs to be pure. If you sense dishonesty, it becomes less exciting,” he says.