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Savouring sublime creations of the Valley

A country that has been calling itself a wine producing nation for 361 years, South Africa has been struggling to market itself as a geographical entity comprising pockets of regional wine excellence. But 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.

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.

While not skimping in partaking in 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.

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. There are only two producers here – Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Bouchard Finlayson.

Hamilton Russell, the name synonymous with South African pinot noir, planted the first vines in the region in the late 1970s and introduced 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.

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.

Hamilton Russell exudes those pinot noir characters of sour cherry, nutmeg and dark autumnal fruit, with the older 2015 vintage showing the slight edge of a mushroom evoking forest floor. Bouchard Finlayson is polished and elegant, but with an encapsulating sense of power coming through, something of adventure that’s almost feral.

Back in the bus, my party’s next stop was up the valley to Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, and the home of Restless River, property of Craig and Anne Wessels. This sub-region’s wines include Newton Johnson, Sumaridge, Bosman and those of our hosts, 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 owing 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 Wessels’ pinot noir has a charming touch of sage brush and wildflowers, the result of using some stems during the fermentation process.

Finally, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. And Creation, the place JC and Carolyn Martin built in, suffice to say, more than six days.

The Ridge wines presented were from Ataraxia, Domaine des Dieux, La Vierge and Creation, with winemakers questioned by Rosa Kruger, First Lady of South African viticulture.

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 on which the Hemel-en-Aarde producers were not out to prove anything.

They merely wished to share that part of their personal being that 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.Emile Joubert is an independent wine marketer and writer, and a weekly visitor to Onrus.

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