South Africa finds Pinot’s sweet spot.

South Africa finds Pinot’s sweet spot.

Pinot Noir has been fashionable for two, possibly three, decades, but South Africa has taken its time to identify where this delicate grape has the best chance of prospering. The country now seems to have found its sweet spot: on the south coast west of Cape Agulhas, Elgin and particularly in an underpopulated valley that is known as “heaven on earth” — Hemel-en-Aarde in Afrikaans — in the hinterland of the whale-watching resort of Hermanus.

At the turn of the century there were just six wine producers in the valley. By 2004, the year the Pinot-promoting road-trip comedy Sideways was released, there were eight more. Today there are about 20. Such is the region’s reputation that quite a few of the younger, smaller producers who have revitalised the Cape wine scene are buying fruit in Hemel-en-Aarde and trucking it out to vinify elsewhere.

Reino Thiart is winemaker at the Whalehaven winery, which is just outside the boundary of Hemel-en-Aarde, but has always sourced its grapes from there. It owns no vineyards but is a popular tourist destination. Thiart told me during a recent visit to the area, “If you want to make good Pinot [in South Africa], you have to come to Hemel. We have fantastic growers in the valley and the price of Pinot grapes has, justifiably, risen massively — to R25,000 to R30,000; approximately £1,000 to £1,250 a ton.” As a reference point, Stellenbosch’s celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sell for about R14,000 to R16,000 a ton. Most Hemel Pinots retail for between £25 and £40 a bottle, less in South Africa.

Only slightly less planted in Hemel-en-Aarde is the white burgundy grape Chardonnay, whose grapes sells for between R16,000 and R22,000 a ton, with wines a bit cheaper than the Pinots — perhaps because, unlike Pinot Noir, there are so many other sources of exciting South African Chardonnay. I would argue, however, that Hemel is currently better at Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Admittedly, it is generally easier to make Chardonnay anywhere than Pinot, but it is taking some time to find exactly the right mix of Pinot’s many clones for each vineyard strung out along the valley, which means that many of the best-quality Pinot vines are yet to hit their mature stride.

This was true for many years of the wines at Hamilton Russell, Hemel’s pioneering wine estate, which was founded by Tim Hamilton Russell in 1975 when he was chairman of ad agency J Walter Thompson in Johannesburg. It was an exceptionally brave punt to imagine that what was once poor sheep-farming country (and so remote that it was chosen as the site of the Cape’s leper colony) would become a fine wine region.

By the time Hamilton Russell died in 2013, having handed over running the property to his energetic son Anthony and his wife Olive, he must have been thrilled to see the valley so recognised. By this point it had spawned three recognisably different appellations: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson started out; Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley a little higher up; and Hemel‑en-Aarde Ridge, furthest away from the coast and actually at the head of the Klein River Valley that extends eastwards.

All three are cooler than most South African wine regions, with a keen breeze blowing in off Walker Bay, chilled as it is by the icy Benguela current from Antarctica.

Still, making wine here is not without its issues. “Load shedding” (planned power cuts) has become routine and hugely disruptive. The country’s wine industry was already on its knees, making pitifully small returns, before the need to buy generators and diesel and/or install solar panels.

Indeed, as soon as I arrived earlier this month for a quick pre-tasting lunch at Braemar, Anthony Hamilton Russell’s house above the winery, I was urged to recharge my laptop immediately, before the electricity went off at 2pm.

Braemar is the repository of a greater number of bizarre collections than I have ever encountered (rolling pins, Stone Age hand-axes unearthed on the property, the shell of every significant oyster Hamilton Russell has enjoyed mounted and captioned in a single long frame . . .). During my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting 18 local wine producers, who each brought two of their wines. They all gathered around the long table in the hall, tasting each others’ wines and made almost as much noise as a gathering of Masters of Wine — until rugby came on the television, at which point they dispersed fairly quickly. The group is well known to be rather more cohesive than those in most other South African wine regions. As one Hemel winemaker told me, “If we don’t make wine they think is good enough, they soon let us know about it.’

The Bosman family have been making wine in Wellington, well inland of Hemel-en-Aarde, for eight generations and have been truly visionary. They decided to establish their second wine farm in 2001 and chose Hemel-en-Aarde as the location. Their visitor centre here is popular with tourists — there are walking trails through the carefully conserved fynbos shrubland — but the wines are still made in the much hotter, drier climes of Wellington, by an all-female team.

That team will be considerably diminished by the loss of winemaker Natasha Williams, who has just been lured away to the new, Belgian-owned Hasher Family Estate. Going with her will be her personal wine label Lelie van Saron — Saron being where she was brought up before studying winemaking in Stellenbosch and gaining experience in the Jura and at Merry Edwards in California. Her Syrah was exceptional, and her wines have so far been based on fruit grown by her ex-employers Bosman.

Another personal wine label named after a home village is Tesselaarsdal. It was created in 2015 by the bubbly Berene Sauls, who started out as the Hamilton Russells’ au pair and now runs logistics for their wine operation. She is determined to establish a flourishing vineyard in the little settlement of Tesselaarsdal, farmed by descendants of the nine servants and slaves of the original settlement founder, who left the land to them. But such are the natural challenges, such as the salinity of the soil, that Sauls admits it may take another 10 years to establish the vines. For the moment, her Pinot and Chardonnay fruit come from La Vierge in Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and the wine is made by Hamilton Russell’s talented winemaker Emul Ross.

Practically all these wine producers showed me Pinots and Chardonnays, usually one of each, the exception being the characterful Bartho Eksteen, who makes a seriously fine oaked Sauvignon Blanc, a style in which South Africa can rival Pessac Léognan. The region is not yet rivalling the best of Burgundy, but seems determined to get there.

Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnays

The three wards abbreviated below — Valley, Upper and Ridge — correspond to Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. UK and then US importers are cited below

  • Bouchard Finlayson, Missionvale Chardonnay 2021 Valley 13.1%
    Seckford, Cape Ardor
  • Cap Maritime Chardonnay 2021 Upper 13.5%
    New Generation, Vineyard Brands
  • Creation Wines, The Art of Chardonnay 2021 Ridge 13.5%
    Bibendum, Cape Ardor
  • Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2022 Valley 13.2%
    Mentzendorff, Vineyard Brands
  • Lelie van Saron Chardonnay 2021 Upper 12.8%
    Indigo, Vine Street
  • Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2021 Upper 13.8%
    Dreyfus Ashby, Vine Street
  • Restless River, Ava Marie Chardonnay 2020 Upper 13%
  • Storm Wines, Vrede Chardonnay 2022 Valley 13.2%
    Justerinis, Broadbent
  • Tesselaarsdal Wines Chardonnay 2022 Ridge 12.9%
    Swig, Vineyard Brands, 11 more countries and via Instagram

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Written by Jancis Robinson, published in Financial Times