Discover South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde with Oz Clarke

You spend a lot of time thinking you’re too hot in South Africa. Well, you need to get to the Coast. The Benguela Current sweeps up from the Antarctic and creates breezes or gales, depending where you are, that can cool the sweat off your brow in minutes. And if you want to feel the full force of this natural air conditioner – head as far south as you can, so that the cliffs face directly out towards the bottom of the world. The whale-watching town of Hermanus is a good place to base yourself.
This is where Tim Hamilton-Russell came to over 50 years ago. At a time when the word “Chardonnay” was virtually unknown in South Africa, he longed to make White  Burgundy In the Cape. He saw that Beaune in Burgundy sits at 47° of latitude North. South Africa doesn’t even get to 35° South – that’s like being in Morocco in Northern Hemisphere terms.
You can climb a mountain looking for cool conditions, and many do, especially in South America. But Hamilton-Russell memorably described that approach as ‘cheating the heat’. No. For him, though he stood on that cliff at Hermanus yearning for South Africa to stretch another 200km south to give him the Burgundian conditions he craved, he knew that the blasts of wind almost knocking him off his feet were what would give him his shot at making a ‘Burgundian’ Chardonnay. And so began the philosophy of exploring the limits of unripeness, not the limits of ripeness, which this area still pursues today.
You won’t see any vines at Hermanus – it really IS too windy at sea level. But if you turn left at the liquor store onto a little road that heads back into the cliffs, you’ll be entering the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. To be honest, you could be in Scotland for the first kilometre or so – chill morning mists are cleared by cold winds from the sea, with cotton-bright clouds scudding above the rows of pine trees and rocky crags. But then eucalypts replace the pines and the vines begin, most notably to your right as they creep up a slope to a clifftop that falls away dramatically to the Ocean, just metres from the vineyard’s edge.
These are the original vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and for a long time this southern end to the Valley was where all the vines were. But now there’s a saddle of rock ahead of you; the road jerks left, then right again, and we’re out into quite different conditions. This is called Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. What were mostly clay and shale soils in the lower Valley are now more likely to be granite or sandstone. In fact, some of the land seems too sandy for vines, but there are enough vineyards facing north, and some facing south, to give the feeling of a prospering wine region along with fruit farms and broad spreads of fynbos. And the Chardonnay here is distinctly different to that grown nearer Hermanus.
And there’s one more section of Hemel-en-Aarde – the Ridge. And as you drive up the Valley – you will see a ridge in front of you. Climb up it and you’re pretty much on the watershed, with a second valley spreading away to the South East. It feels quite exposed up here – and it is. Overall ripening conditions are several degrees colder than further down the Valley, but the Ridge can get the hottest days as well as the coldest nights and this shows in the pinging freshness and focus of its Chardonnay wines.
You might think – does such a small area need 3 different designations for its vines?  But Burgundy would fit a lot more than 3 designations into these few kilometres. And it’s a Burgundian-type Chardonnay – savoury, scented, subtly oaked and led by pure fruit acidity – that Hemel-en-Aarde is determined to make.

Oz recently hosted a virtual tasting exploring the Hemel-en-Aarde appellations and terroir where he was joined by six of the winemakers who each introduced us to their wines and stories.

If you missed it, you can watch a recording of the session here.
And, find out more about Hemel-en-Aarde Wines at their website.

Hemel-en-Aarde Wines

Featured wines: 

Hemel-en-Aarde Valley:

Bouchard Finlayson Missionvale Chardonnay 2021 – Chris Albrecht

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2021 – Emul Ross

Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley:

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2020 – Craig Wessels

Newton Johnson Vineyards Windansea Pinot Noir 2021 – Gordon Newton Johnson

Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge:

Domaine des Dieux Chardonnay 2018 – Megan Mullis

Creation Art of Pinot Noir 2021 – Jean-Claude Martine

In preparation for this event, Oz tasted through a whole line-up of stunning wines submitted from a wide range of producers – you can find his scores and notes for each below.

[Hint: if you click on the producer name it will take you to their website where you can find out more about them.]

Hemel-en-Aarde Scores