Peter Ranscombe selects six of the best wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde ridge in South Africa, which is renowned for its chardonnay and pinot noir.
SUPERLATIVES don’t do Hemel-en-Aarde justice: beautiful, stunning, picturesque – none seem to capture the greenness of the trees, the blueness of the skies or the majesty of the surrounding hills.
It’s little wonder that the name of the ridge translates from Afrikaans as “heaven and earth”.
As you drive north into the valley from the town of Hermanus on the coast – dodging baboons on the road as you go – you pass through the three “wards” that make up Hemel-en-Aarde: valley, upper valley and ridge.
The area was split into the three wards based on the different soils found in different places, with each bringing individual characteristics to the wines.
While some writers say that the different aromas and flavours are in fact due to viruses – with vines on the ridge virus-free, but viruses present in vineyards in other parts of the valley – unless all the plants are dug-up, it becomes a bit of a moot point.
As things stand, there are definite differences between the wines and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast bottles from each part of the area.
Storm Vrede Pinot Noir, 2016 (£40, The Good Wine Shop)
Winemaker Hannes Storm makes three wines using grapes sourced from each of the three wards. My favourite was his Vrede – or “peace” in English – using fruit grown in the valley, which displayed a beautifully-floral rose note on the nose alongside red plum and red cherry, with its ripe raspberry and raspberry jam flavours balanced by fresh acidity, alongside sweet spun sugar and spicier star anise.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, 2017 (£35, Villeneuve Wines)
Hamilton Russell planted Hemel-en-Aarde’s first vineyard in 1975 and is still arguably the most-famous producer in the valley. The nose on its 2017 pinot noir is packed full of floral geranium and chrysanthemum notes accompanying roast meat and raspberry. There’s a sweet and spicy mix on the palate, partnering raspberry jam and red cherry with spun sugar and cloves, with enough tannic grip to make it a decent food pairing too.
Southern Right Pinotage, 2017 (£16, Villeneuve Wines)
It’s not all about chardonnay and pinot noir in Hemel-en-Aarde anymore – Creation has some delicious Rhone varieties, Restless River’s Grenache was one of the highlights of my visit to South Africa and Southern Right is producing this great pinotage, which doesn’t have a hint of the horrible burnt rubber smell you sometimes get with the varietal, but instead has delicious strawberry and blackcurrant jam aromas and fresh acidity to balance its tannins.
Bosman Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnay, 2016 (£13.50, Woodwinters)
Bosman is a big name in South African wine, not just because it owns vineyards in several places but also because it has one of the country’s largest vine nurseries too. There may be heavy woodsmoke on the nose of its chardonnay but look beyond the oak and there’s also plenty of pineapple, peach and ripe pear, with crisp acidity to balance the butter and cream on the palate. Californian chardonnay fans, take note. Keep your eyes peeled for the Bosman Twyfeling Cinsault 2016 (£17.50, Woodwinters) too, which isn’t from Hemel-en-Aarde, but which has a delicious freshness to it.
Creation Reserve Chardonnay, 2017 (£156 for six bottles of the 2016, creationwines.co.uk)
Swiss winemaker JC Martin has a fantastic reputation for both his chardonnay and pinot noir. The reserve chardonnay really stood out for me when visiting Hemel-en-Aarde, with fresh lemon and green apple on the nose leading into a great balance between the gentle creaminess and the green apple and pear flavours on the palate. It’s also a great food wine, as I discovered over dinner with JC and his wife, Carolyn.
Domaine des Dieux, Josephine Pinot Noir, 2013 (£16.95, Stone, Vine & Sun)
There’s a delicious savoury edge to the Josephine Pinot Noir from Domaine des Dieux, one of JC’s neighbours up on the ridge. Woodsmoke and roast meat are joined by red cherry and raspberry jam on the nose, flowing through into more red fruit and vanilla on the palate and leading to that savoury finish, which was even more pronounced on the older 2011 vintage, where the fruit also centred more around redcurrant and cranberry.