Ripples of revolution in the Hemel-en-Aarde

Cape wine continues its exciting development. It stirs, expands, burgeons, leaps, and a recent visit to the Hemel-en-Aarde area, inland from whale-watching Hermanus, proved it to me once more.

First stop was Klein Hemel farm where Craig and Anne Wessels carefully make two Restless River wines. Tiny yields off vineyards where the fruit lingers into autumn (they’re still, on 9 April, only a third through their cab harvest), natural fementation in the rudimentary cellar (with no pumps – only gravity and human muscles) pulls and pushes the wine, and restrained oaking gives a pure-fruited, soft but structured Cabernet Sauvignon that speaks its origins in a different language from most Stellenbosch equivalents. The current 2007 is good, the 2009 to be released soon is even better.

As far as I know this is the only varietal cab from the Hemel-en-Aarde – and proves it can be done, with the right approach. Chardonnay is a more typical of the area, and the Restless River version (currently a nicely maturing 2008) is full, rich and characterful. Tasting forward through as-yet unreleased vintages shows steady progress, as the Wessels team learn to understand their vineyards and how best to express them, with minimal intervention.

The current vintage, 2013, for example was mostly picked at a lower ripeness than previously (and lower than the norm), but this to me just added to the finesse without detracting from the flavour. A few barrels – the only new ones – contain the richer wine from a later picking, as a sort of insurance, and I reckon the blend will work very well.

On the ridge

A little farther along the Caledon road, at the crest of a high ridge is a small, hospitable winery on Hans Evenhuis’s Hemelrand olive farm (where a small vineyard should produce a crop next year). Here three young winemakers each do their own thing, and the place fairly crackles with excitement, comradeship and endeavour.

There’s John Seccombe, formerly of Iona in Elgin and now striking out on his own – he wasn’t there the day I visited, but I sneaked a taste of a splendid semillon still in barrel.

Peter-Allen Finlayson was there, wine-stained, and happily hard at work. He has the longest-established label of the Hemelrand trio. He once abandoned winemaking in youthful disillusion, but rediscovered the “richness and depth of the wine world” among the vineyards of Europe. Now here he is, making chardonnays and some of the Cape’s loveliest pinot noirs under the Crystallum label. His Peter Max Pinot is surely one of the most simply sensual pleasures available in a bottle (the 2012 I tasted on the day was hard to spit, even when I remembered the drive home), while the grander Cuvée Cinéma adds a touch more serious complexity.

Peter-Allen remains restless and intent: this year sees a new, single-vineyard pinot from the spectacular, high and hidden Elandskloof valley near Villiersdorp. And his 2013 Clay Shales Chardonnay promises even greater elegance and finesse, with less of a winemaker’s oaky thumbprint.

Perhaps he’s pushed a little in this direction by the third denizen of the Hemelsrand cellar, for whom non-intervention (as little as is compatible with a human being nurturing a vine and its fruit) is a profound commitment. In fact, altogether, you’d expect to find this venture located in the Swartland rather than the Hemel-en-Aarde (and that is certainly where a lot of the inspiration comes from). Chris Alheit is actually half of a fine winemaking team, but wife Suzaan has made her baby a priority for now. The Alheit name emerged in spectacular fashion last year when their maiden Cartology was released to local and international acclaim – a blend of chenin and a little semillon off genuinely old vineyards ranging from the Skurfberg in Olifants River to Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Hills.

Old vines is what the Alheits are besotted with. (You can read more about their approach on their very good website.) To be released in a few months is Cartology 2012 (beneficially drier and more penetratingly focused than 2011), and a straight chenin blanc from those high-lying, formerly neglected Bottelary vines. Harvest 2013 sees the birth of another old-vine white, but there don’t seem to be plans for further expansion – let alone a red. I reckon the world is going to be clamouring for more, however, and I hope the Alheits comply.

The Radio Lazarus 2012 chenin can simultaneously send shivers up your spine and delight down your throat. An even greater wine than Cartology, I think – unique, and certainly one of the Cape’s supreme expressions of this variety. It’ll be available only in small quantities, and fairly pricey, incidentally, but this reflects the costs of farming this absurd and wonderful vineyard whose abandonment before the Alheits came along is pretty understandable. (On the website, there’s a great description of how they found it and what it’s like.) To me, the Radio Lazarus and the Sadie Family Mev. Kirsten are the Cape’s supremely fascinating examples of chenin blanc at present – interesting to note that both are from Stellenbosch, both on shale soils.

This wine, and the 2012 Cartology, are surely bound to confirm that Chris Alheit is among the most exciting talents and Cape winemaking visionaries to emerge here since Eben Sadie reinvented the Swartland at the turn of the century.


First published in the Mail & Guardian, 5-11 April 2013, but this is an exapanded version

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