Jamie in Hermanus

By Jamie Goode | 9 May 2017


If you are going to drive to Hermanus from Cape Town International Airport, you have two choices. The first is the most direct route: you hit the N2 and just keep driving, over the pass into Elgin and then over the pass out of Elgin, and you'll be there is about 80 minutes. The second route takes a bit longer: head to the coast at Somerset West and then follow the gently winding coast road. I reckon this is one of the world's great drives, with stunning sea views. There's something very special in this landscape, and the real challenge is keeping your eyes on the road. If it's the weekend you'll be sharing the road with a lot of cycles and motorbikes.


The coastal town of Hermanus is one of my favourite places in the Western Cape, and in March I decided to spend several days here with a wine writer friend. We purposely didn't fill our agenda with back to back visits, as is normal on press trips where you are trying to see as many people as possible, but left some time spare to explore this beautiful part of the world.


We stayed in a small village called Vermont, about 9 km from the town, on the coast. The small apartment we rented (with AirBnB) was perfect, and the balcony looked out directly to the sea. There's something very special about ocean views, and especially going to sleep with the rhythmic sound of waves breaking in the background, so I was in heaven. Directly below our apartment, a path led directly to the beach, from where it was possible to walk along the coast for 40 minutes or so to Onrus, which has a very good coffee shop and bistro (MIlkwood). This really was a perfect base for exploring the wine activity nearby.


Back in the late 1970s, when the South African wine industry was still very isolated, a pioneering wine producer did something that, by the standards of the time, was very brave. Advertising executive Tim Hamilton-Russell bought 170 hectares (400 acres) of undeveloped land not far from Hermanus, and planted a vineyard. Viewed from the perspective of the South African wine industry at the time, which was heavily controlled with a quota system, this was utter madness. Back then it simply wasn't legal to do this sort of thing: the industry was rightly regulated. But Tim began Hamilton-Russell vineyards, and for a decade this was the only producer here until his winemaker, Peter Finlayson, left to establish Bouchard Finlayson. When the first wines were released (debut vintage was 1981), the world sat up and took notice: this really was a promising site for making world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


For a long time Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson were the sole producers here, but over recent years the Hemel-en-Aarde has developed and there are now several top quality producers. We visited a few of them, beginning with a very exciting newcomer, Restless River. This is the project of Craig and Anne Wessels. Craig still has a day job, running a successful animation and design agency, Wicked Pixels, but increasingly he's focusing on Restless River, which launched in 2012. They make two wines: an elegant yet powerful Chardonnay, and a stylish cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon. He's also going to launch small parcel lots of interesting things, under the DILLIRGAF label, which is a biker acronym for 'do I look like I really give a ****'. For 2017 it will be Grenache.


Next up was Newton Johnson, who have become one of the most visible and admired of the valley's producers. They make stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and have recently added a stylish Albariño to the range. The Pinots really impress, and there are three top ones, with the Windandsea and Block 6 coming from separate parts of the vineyard, and the Family Vineyards Pinot that brings together all the different elements into a really harmonious wine. Hemel-en-Aarde has a particular strength with Pinot Noir, and with Chardonnay also.


On a quite Sunday morning we went to see Carolyn and JC Martin at Creation. This is a very smart operation, with a wide range of wines, all distinguished by their purity of fruit. JC has worked very hard with the vineyards to make sure they are virus free, planting virgin ground with carefully screened virus-free planting material. Leaf roll virus can be quite a problem in Hemel en Aarde, as it can be in most of South Africa's wine regions. Affected vines have problems finishing off the last stages of ripening, and it requires a lot of diligence and investment to get rid of affected vines and to stop the problem spreading. They now have 65 hectares of vines, which is a substantial size, and their top wines, the Art of Chardonnay and Art of Pinot Noir, are superb.


Also based in Hemel-en-Aarde are Chris and Suzaan Alheit, who make wine from top vineyards across the Western Cape, in addition to a young vineyard planted near the winery at Hemelrand. They began making Cartology, a Chenin Blanc with a dash of Semillon from a number of sites, in 2011, and it was an instant hit. Since then they have added some stunning single vineyard wines, including Radio Lazarus (a Chenin from Stellenbosch) and Magnetic North (a Chenin from Skurfberg), both of which are stunning. The more affordable Flotsam and Jetsom wines – a deliciously smashable Cinsualt and a compelling Chenin – are really worth seeking out too.


This wasn't an exhaustive exploration of the producers in Hemel-en-Aarde, but gave a good cross section of some of the exciting things going on here. Hermanus is a lovely place to spend some time, and as well as Hemel-en-Aarde, this is also a good base for exploring the Botriver and Elgin wine regions, which are close by. 

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From Jamie Goode

Jamie Goode

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