At last I get down to jotting a few notes on the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration held on the cusp of January-becoming-February. The main tasting was on what Anthony Hamilton-Russell announced as a “flower day” – or was it a “fruit day”? I think that both are supposed to be conducive to wine expression in the biodynamic calendar – the surprise for me was Anthony apparently taking this sort of nonsense seriously. Well, it seemed to me he was, though I’m never entirely sure with the laird of Braemar!
Anyway, there was no question that in fact the wines we tasted in the raging heat of Friday afternoon were tasting much better when we had a chance to taste them cooler, later that evening, by which time we were moving into a less propitious time in the lunar cycle. Conditions trumped all else, as they are wont to do. I’ll come back to the tasting, after a few general remarks.
I do hope the Hemel-enAarde producers are satisfied with their Celebration – as satisfied as all those attending it seemed to be. I thought it a great success. There’s no point in making the obvious comparison with the more established Swartland Revolution weekend. To the pinot guys’ credit it was a very different affair. Particularly successful, it seemed to me, was the programme of ancilliary events on the Saturday, where different producers could, and did, offer splendid add-ons. I attended a fantastic breakfast at La Vierge, where the main feature was a tasting of a group of New Zealand pinots, and a fascinating lunch-time tasting through the history of Hamilton Russell pinots back to 1982. Crystallum hosted a great anything-goes party in the evening which was predictably so cool that I left it fairly early.
My only criticism of the whole event was that the organisers should have offered, for the great international part of the affair, something more eloquent of burgundian greatness than a small 2010 selection from the negociant Bouchard Père et Fils. The wines were OK, but not very special.
The main tasting
Despite the wines warming up in the glass rather too much (hardly the organisers’ fault that this cooler-climate region didn’t play along), it proved to be an excellent and interesting tasting. The pinots, all 2012s, were arranged according to the three wards of the Hemel-en-Aarde area – so that we could, hopefully, see the different terroirs expressed in the wines. I don’t think that many people could, in fact – partly because there were such clear winemaking differences apparent, and few commonalities of the type that one could ascribe to terroir. As Burgundy expert Remington Norman remarked in his useful summing up, it is really still too early to come to even tentative conclusions about terroir here; it’ll take some time to reach conclusions about what the Hemel-en-Aarde’s different areas will deliver at their best.
Happily, there were good wines shown from each of the wards (generally as well as less impressive ones). From the H-en-A Valley, I think my favourite was a wine not yet released on the market: the first offering under his own label from Hannes Storm, winemaker at Hamilton Russell. I liked its fragrant freshness and purity of fruit, with some deeper, more vinous notes lurking; fairly concentrated, and with maybe a little more tannic firmness than some. Crystallum Bona Fide also showed very well (seeming particularly youthful); Bouchard Finlayson’s Tête du Cuvée was much more appealing than the Galpin Peak; Hamilton Russell was controversial among the tasters, many unhappy at finding a lean green element – this was a one of those that I found more convincing when I tried a much cooler glassful that evening.
Favourite from the Upper H-en-A Valley was a no-brainer, seeing that’s where Newton Johnson is based. They showed, first, the Walker Bay version from younger or lesser vines, and that is particularly lovely drinking now – while waiting, I hope, a few years for the Family Vineyards Pinot to give its best. Someone later remarked to me that perhaps even the Family version is just a little too pretty, at the cost of seriousness, but though I see the point, I don’t agree with it. It’s a confident, fine wine, harmonious and very satisfying. Sumaridge and WhaleHaven, from the same ward, were less so.
Most people seemed to find the flight of Hemel-enAarde Ridge wines the best overall, and certainly there wasn’t one wine here that was less than satisfactory, and I found it hard to have a clear favourite. Perhaps Crystallum Cuvée Cinema – but that’s the one I know best, and I am always won over by its fresh, ripe, pure fruit expression. It’s perhaps the most overtly New World of all these pinots (that is, it is arguably more reminiscent of New Zealand examples than of Burgundian ones, but that is not a safe generalisation to make, especially for one as insufficiently experienced as I am).
The surprise for me in this flight was how much I liked the two from Creation. I haven’t tasted Creation’s pinots for a few years, and the standard and Reserve were both much subtler, restrained and elegant than I remember the earlier vintages being. Something has happened, and it’s wonderful! The two were pretty similar, really, but if anything I rather preferred the standard version, which was a little less rich, a touch more elegant. Domaine des Dieux and La Vierge were also impressive.
I had a chance to also taste the 2011 and 2013 La Vierge Noirs the next day at one of the day’s smaller events scattered through the valley. The 2013 is even better than the 2012, and it is marvellous to see the progress being made here by Gerhard Smith, returned to South Africa after a lengthy stint in New Zealand. Gerhard also presented a tasting of half a dozen New Zealand pinots, all of them excellent and, I confess, the highlight of my two days in the Hemel-en-Aarde.
Altogether, this event was a great addition to the Cape’s wine culture, and I wish it well, and look forward to the 2015 iteration.