Off the Beeten Track – Visit the Hemel-en-Aarde Wine Region

 

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Being a new-found wine geek, I’ve only recently discovered that Walker Bay/Hemel-en-Aarde is renowned for South Africa’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay during my recent  WSET courses. This left me with a curious palate and a sense of adventure to travel to the wine region. Not knowing the area very well, I opted to stay in an AirBnB close-by to the glorious valley and the sea-side town of Hermanus. This is the second instalment of my three part wine-trip honeymoon series. I wish we had more time to explore all of the regions and wineries in each region but alas reality was calling.

Hemel-en-Aarde is a top cool climate for winemaking in South Africa situated towards Hermanus along the scenic and picturesque R320. There is beauty in abundance in the valley, it definitely feels as though you are between Heaven and Earth.

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Hamilton Russell

The most southerly situated wine farm in the region was purchased in 1975 by founder Tim Hamilton Russell. Mr Hamilton Russell is said to have founded the Hemel-en-Aarde region. With his fascination of Pinot Noir as inspiration to bring this soft and delicate gem of a varietal to South Africa. His son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, who took over in 1991 and then buying the property in 1994, narrowed the winery’s range to Pinot noir and Chardonnay only and registered Hamilton Russell Vineyards as an Estate, committing to work only with grapes from their terroir.

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We were in a very laidback kind of mood and thus didn’t make any bookings for wine tastings, which is encouraged especially with this region having lots of boutique wineries that sometimes insist on bookings. I would imagine this is because of the small number of staff on the farms. We were lucky enough to show up and have the tasting room manager assist us in an impromptu and very insightful tasting experience. ladies and gentelmen, this was the day I fell head over heels in love with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay! Something for the fellow wine geeks – this region’s soil is made up of a stony, clay-rich, shale-like minerality and is optimal for the growth of varietals produced in this area.

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The HR 2018 Pinot Noir has elegant balance and structure, elevated length that carries the delicious notes of dark red fruit, alluring spicy and savoury notes on the palate. Reminiscent of a very good burgundy.  The Chardonnay entices with lime, crisp green pear on the nose, has bright natural acid and earthy minerality which the terroir lends to this wonderfully elegant wine. The 2018 Ashborne Pinotage/Cinsault is an unwooded blend of 80% Pinotage and 20% Cinsault and is made from grapes sourced from old vineyards in the Swartland appellation. The richness and depth of the Pinotage is sophistocatedly freshened by the lightness and brightness of the Cinsault. This had me beaming with excitement, as our next wine region stop was the exciting and daring Swartland! With all the wedding gift money we were so lucky to receive ,we left with a few bottles of 2016 Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the 2018 Ashborne Pinotage/Cinsault, and a few rocks I requested from the tasting room manager that was on display in the charming tasting cottage for reference for my next WSET Level 3 course. This was certainly one of a few highlights of this trip for me. (not the rocks, the wine guys!)

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Newton Johnson

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A short drive from Hamilton Russell, is the acclaimed Newton Johnson. Like HR racking up local and international awards with the likes of Decanter and Platters is an easy feat with the quality of their wines and passion of their winemakers. Owned and managed by the Newton Johnson family, the farm is situated in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde valley. Well known for their mastery in producing Pinot Noir at its best, they believe in making wine with purity of flavour and natural expression. They offer three ranges of wines, namely the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Range, The Newton Johnson range, and Felicité by Newton Johnson. The first and second bowled me over. Specifically the Windansea Pinot Noir unfortunately not for tasting and exclusively available only at their winery, originates from a specific block on the Estate, and of course the 2017 Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir which has such bold expressive characteristics and elegant structure.

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Soil samples of the three blocks on the vineyard.

 

Bouchard Finlayson

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Home to the 2018 SA Wine Index 100 point award for the elegant Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, the 125-hectare property only has 22 hectares under vine with the rest left wild to conserve the indigenous Fynbos flora. The winery began as collaboration between Paul Bouchard, celebrated Burgundian winemaker, and locally awarded Peter Finlayson. Together, they built what is today world-renowned as Bouchard Finlayson.

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The Husband taking in the view

When visiting, the tasting rooms were abuzz with wine-influenced bubbly chatter and laughter, with a few groups of tourists and one or two locals indulging in some leisurely wine-tasting on a weekday. Having only tasted a select few, like the Galpin Peak Pinot Noir which was an interestingly structured with a hint of jammy red fruit. The highlight for me was the legendary Kaaimansgat-Crocodile’s Lair Chardonnay.  The Kaaimansgat /Crocodile’s Lair vineyard is hidden away in the Elands Kloof Valley behind the village of Villiersdorp, just 80km from Hermanus. A spot inside a valley nestled amongst majestic mountains. I can certainly see why this winery pulls so many awards! Other cultivars from the farm include Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc and Riesling as well as some newer varieties: Nebbiolo, Barbera and Mourvèdre.

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Ataraxia 

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I adore the architecture of the tasting room building of this invigorating winery, incredibly bold, and at the same time traditional like a majestic old chapel. Greek for “a serene state of mind, free from worry and preoccupation”, Ataraxia certainly lives up to the hype and name. This was our last stop in Hemel-en-Aarde with only so much wine I could consume in one day. Make sure to keep hydrated with lots of water (no, wine doesn’t count) and line your tummies with lots of tasty food to soak up all the wine! Please also make the responsible decision to have a designated driver along with you when wine-tripping, so you can really go all out and have as much fun! 🙂

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In 2004, The Skyfields Farm was visioned into the Ataraxia wine label when husband and wife team, Kevin and Hanli Grant and a few friends purchased this 47-hectare prime vineyard property situated on a steep slope in upper hemel-en-aarde, with views that only can only dream of if not seen with your own eyes! Okay, Wine geeks fix your eyes, there are fourteen soil types on Ataraxia derived from the deposits of Table Mountain Sandstone, Cape Granite and Bokkeveld Shale. Collectively, all of these deposits make up the geology of the Hemel-en-Aarde region and can be traced back to more than 1000 million years. Interesting stuff, right?!

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The 2017 Ataraxia Chardonnay, is an exquisite example of the varietal and this one commands respect, like our insightful wine consultant enthusiastically mentioned. This Chardonnay has bold crisp flavours of green apple peel, lemon zest and vanilla on the nose. The 2016 Pinot Noir is what I had to leave with. It’s intoxicating earthiness, minerality as well as bruised dark fruit made it such an easy choice, but who could choose between these two elegant wines! I adore the ruby red colour, especially glistening in the autumnal sun.

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Another highlight of our trip?

Where to eat:

Fisherman’s Cottage 

This legendary eatery is listed on the Top 100 Eat Out list as a unique dining experience not to be missed. They come highly recommended to all I’ve spoken to in the know. Don’t leave without trying their famous Seafood Curry!

Again, on a very lax and lazy buzz, because I mean honeymoon! We decided to pop in without phoning ahead to see if we were lucky enough to snag a spot in the local seaside eatery. Upon Entry the restaurant was packed to the rafters for a Tuesday evening, however the chef himself warmly welcomed us in and insisted he make space for us at the best seats in the house, in a little nook right next to the kitchen. Something I appreciate being that close to all the action and intoxicating aromas wafting out of the kitchen. Starters was a plate of fresh West Coast Oysters, a glass of Gabriëlskloof Rosebud Rosé which would prove to pair perfectly with both the starters and the mains which of course was the incredibly delicious seafood curry, served with freshly made naan. My Husband had “the best fish ever” which was a dish of succulent Snoek with sweet potato that had been roasted then fried to a crisp on the outside. The salty, smokey and sweet combination is what he loved but more over the texture of the fish was spot on!

Plaaskombuis

A farm-stall diner with delicious home-cooked meals and old-school thick milkshakes and family-friendly garden outside with a play area for the kids. Conveniently situated along the R320 between the wineries for those looking for a pitstop to fuel up on wholesome deliciousness. They have a cute little store on site, where you can stock up on your trip snacks.

 

I can’t stress how much you need to visit the valley between Heaven and Earth and the seaside town of Hermanus! I would suggest going in the off peak seasons to benefit from the fact that accommodation would be more affordable and will be a tad bearable if you’re like me and can’t do crowds.

 

 

I would suggest calling ahead and booking if you’re in larger groups of 5 or more. I think in our case, we were really lucky to just pop in, especially with the smaller boutique wineries.

 

Happy International Chardonnay day! What will you be celebrating with?

Dominique x

 

 

**This post is not sponsored. All expenses were personally incurred**

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