Nearly two years back I reported on a visit to four cutting-edge producers in the Hemel-en-Aarde. Three of them made wine in the one cellar, on the crest of the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. All these have reached great critical success already (John Seccombe with his youthful Thorne & Daughters wines, Peter-Allan Finlayson with the established Crystallum range that some clever people regard as now offering maybe the best local pinots and some very special chardonnays, and Chris and Suzaan Alheit, at the peak of Cape white wine production), but only the Alheits remain in that cellar and are, happily, filling it very satisfactorily, though maybe feeling a bit lonely on occasion.
Just a few kilometres away was the fourth producer I visited on that April day in 2013, as I wrote: “Klein Hemel farm where Craig and Anne Wessels carefully make two Restless River wines. [The label, by the way, is a translation of the name of Onrus River which flows through the valley.] Tiny yields off vineyards where the fruit lingers into autumn (they’re still, on 9 April, only a third through their cab harvest), natural fermentation 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.”
Well, I’m happy to say the current release, 2011, which I tasted the other day, is the best Restless River Cabernet Sauvignon so far (I had some of the older vintages, which we opened and tried alongside the 2011, and in fact on this occasion preferred the 2007 to the 2009). I think if I’d been given it blind, I’d have guessed at a proportion of cab franc being responsible for some of the lovely herbal fragrance that accompanied the subtle blackcurrant character of ripe but not over-fruity cab sauvignon. Natural fermentation of whole-berry grapes, unfiltered and unfined and generally unmucked-about-with, with a third new oak that informs but doesn’t draw attention to itself, the wine is fresh and pure, but with some of the sombre notes that good cab should have. There’s flavour, but not obvious fruitiness, supported by a satisfying acidity and a firm, fine tannin structure.
I would expect some people not to like this wine all that much, if their tastes run to modern, showy, fruity reds with a lot of ripeness and a whack of oak. In some ways its old-fashioned making is reflected in a slightly old-fashioned vinous character: it reminds me both of some Loire cab francs that I’ve had, and of an older, more classic cru bourgeois (or a bit superior than that) Bordeaux. (And I agreed with David Clarke, the local agent, that it was pretty much of the same style as the Arendsig, which I was recently enthusiastic about on Winemag.) I really like it, and approximately R300 seems a fair retail price (a bit less ex-farm).
The current release Chardonnay is the 2012 (same price as the Cab). It’s a rather lovely wine of the kind of chard that makes me think of a Californian blonde with voluptuous but graceful body, tossing her long hair in the wind. More soberly: it’s in the ripe spectrum of things, fairly showy in style, full and rich and ready to give pleasure in youth – like the blonde, perhaps, but with more acidity. The unreleased 2013, which I’ve also tasted, is even more impressive and with added finesse, but this will do very well for now.
Restless River is a label which has improved with almost every vintage, which is really the most one can demand of a young producer. I reckon they’re already adding lustre to the reputation of one of the Cape’s most exciting winegrowing areas, and will continue to do so. The attitude of the Wessels pair is dead right, and it seems that the vineyards are playing along just fine.