There was a tremor of tension and excitement as we crested the ridge that separates the Hemel en Aarde Ridge ward from the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley (having left the Hemel en Aarde Valley some kilometres before). Would we be required to show some sort of identification? Sign a declaration that we respected the distinctions of terror and history and above all of geography?
In fact, no. It’s a while since I last penetrated this far up and beyond the Hemel en Aarde Valley, as the road runs through it from Hermanus to Caledon. There were no grapevines here then. And I can understand better now the reasons for the fuss by the wineries on the sea side of this ridge about those on the other side considering themselves part of the Hemel en Aarde Valley (see my earlier account of the resolution of the tensions in the area). Very clearly, as you cross the ridge, you become aware that you are in quite a different valley. (The chapel-like tasting room of Kevin Grant’s Ataraxia wines and his young vineyards, glimpsed though the roadside pines, announce the new ward.)
There are important continuities as well as differences, and this is acknowledged by Hemel en Aarde Ridge having the well-known bit in its name, but not referring to itself as part of some general Hemel en Aarde Valley. The area encompassing all three wards, I and the other few dozen people in the world who care must remember to say, is the Hemel en Aarde area, or region, or perhaps just “Hemel en Aarde”.
Whew; I just wish, as I type, that all the names were shorter! But the important point is that there are some very promising new wineries in Hemel en Aarde Ridge that are already bringing lustre to the name. Add how lustrous that generic name is was reinforced at a splendid event this last weekend focusing on pinot noir, and including at its centre a blind tasting of 50 highly reputed wines from Burgundy, New Zealand and South Africa (just Elgin and Hemel en Aarde).
The whole thing was organised by our great impresario of fine wine events, Jörg Pfützner, to help get an understanding of what is happening with pinot locally. You’ll no doubt have the opportunity to hear more about the tasting and associated events, as fellow Grapistas Angela and Cathy were among the small handful of invited winewriters there, as was Christian Eedes, who will be reporting later in the year in Wine mag on the separately conducted tasting of the wines by a small panel operating under normal Wine mag conditions.
Here my focus is on the H&A Ridge, but I can’t resist reporting that my highest-rated local wine at the tasting was the excellent (even in the illustrious international company of the tasting) Newton Johnson Domaine Pinot Noir, which I last tasted happily in the Platter five-star line-up and liked just as much then.
Back to the Ridge, and the six-year old vines and somewhat younger wines of Creation. The virgin land was bought in 2002 by Swiss winemaker and viticulturist J-C Martin (in the pic) and his wife Carolyn – daughter of Walter Finlayson, and fortunately able to get advice from Peter Finlayson of Bouchard-Finlayson, who of course knows these valleys extremely well and had long noted the viticultural potential here. Swiss viticulturist and friend Christophe Kaser joined the project a few years later.
They grow a remarkable range of grape varieties, convinced of the area’s potential for just about everything from grenache and viognier to sauvignon blanc and semillon – and, of course, taking in chardonnay and pinot noir on the way. This is not the specialism that one might have expected from Europeans – though perhaps the liberation from the legal and climatic restrictions of Europe is precisely what leads to this exuberance when it’s climatically possible to indulge in it.
The wines are all worth trying – and will no doubt become even more attractive as the vines get a few more years on them. I enjoyed the whites particularly: a ripe and stony Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (R80), and the Chardonnay 2008 (unfortunately already sold out – the 2009 will be available early next year): subtle pear and hazelnut notes, and a lively, fresh and harmonious balance. Of the reds, the Syrah Grenache 2008 appealed most; it balances rich generosity of flavour and breadth with an elegant, focused firmness in a very winning way – and you’d never guess the 14.5% alcohol. Not exactly a bargain at R125, but good stuff.
There are a few wines from red Bordeaux varieties, which I found rather less successful; I preferred the blend, which, at the same price as the Syrah Grenache is cheaper than the varietal Merlot. A maiden Pinot Noir 2008 will be launched in January (at R145), and those who think that pinot is what the Hemel en Aarde is all about will not be disappointed, especially if they like the more modern styling adopted by J-C Martin. Lots of sweet fruit, with a firm tannic, slightly oaky structure. It will undoubtedly benefit from a year or two harmonising in the bottle.
The very attractive tasting room offers interesting and convincing food-and-wine pairing (as far as the few examples I could try are concerned – there’s little provision for vegetarians – but the meaty ones seemed to work well for the other tasters). Food did wonders for the Semillon, for example, adding greatly to its complexity and interest. It’s another reason to take to the road through the Hemel en Aarde, to not falter when it turns from tar to gravel, and to bravely cross the Ridge. It’s well worth crossing, and those in the Hemel en Aarde Valley (and its Upper extension) will happily allow you back; and that too is cause for delight.
It’s never been a better time to seek out this particular conjunction of heaven and earth, and at places like Creation Wines it’s just the beginning.