South Africa’s ‘heaven on earth’ wine route
WHEN, IN THE 1800s, Hermanus Pieters and his livestock made their way from the dry hinterland of Caledon in search of summer grazing, history records that he eventually looked down at Walker Bay from the top of a mountain. Before him surely lay the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with its luxurious vegetation embraced by the mountains either side and the bright blue bay glistening in the distance. Once Mr Pieters and his flock reached the bay, they found a freshwater spring and plentiful grazing; the community that grew around there became known as Hermanuspietersfontein, shortened to Hermanus as the coastal town developed.
Today it is a thriving tourist resort, hosting annual events such as Hermanus Fynarts Festival (www.hermanusfynarts.co.za), 10 days of music, wine and art – many famous South African artists lived and worked here – and a whale f est iv al(www.herm anus whale festival. co.za) held annually during spring when the much-loved southern right whales return to Walker Bay to give birth.
Hermanus offers a multitude of activities, the chance to wander along the many sandy beaches, or just be lazy and breathe in the refreshing sea air. Fish and seafood are an important part of life here; a tour through Heart of Abalone (www.heartofabalone.co.za) teaches the history and life cycle of this delicious mollusc, with the chance to taste it served in different ways. Art galleries, guided tours through the beautiful and often unique indigenous vegetation with its varied birdlife, as well as the historic town – the only one with
a train station but no track – restaurants catering to every taste and wallet; and, of course, nearby Hemel-en-Aarde wine farms.
The history of Hemel-en-Aarde as a wine destination of note is more recent, though how it got its name, Heaven and Earth, is unknown. Vines joined the mix of grain, fruit and vegetables cultivated here when Tim Hamilton-Russell bought two farms in 1975, one to gain the right to produce wine in the era when the KWV dictated where vines could be planted. His goal was to produce great wines from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes; from experience, and his Oxford climatology and geology degree, he knew that both require a cool climate. This mountainlined valley at 34° south was as close to his ideal as he could find; a few years later, South Africa’s most southerly vineyards were established near Cape Agulhas.
One of the joys of the valley is that the wineries lie within close proximity – little more than 20km separates them, and all are accessed from the road linking Hermanus and the wheatland town of Caledon. The winery buildings themselves are attractive yet modest in conception, allowing the natural beauty of the area to shine and lending a laid-back feeling. In as little as two days, you can comfortably and enjoyably glean a good idea of the wines produced and the differences between those from the three wards of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-enAarde Ridge. Website www.hermanuswineroute. com is a useful source of tourist information.
Hamilton-Russell Vineyards (www. hamiltonrussellvineyards.com) grew in reputation from its first vintage in 1981. Peter Finlayson, its first winemaker, also recognised the valley’s potential for the Burgundian duo, and this was confirmed when the 1986 Pinot Noir won a local competition at which Paul Bouchard (of Bouchard Aîné) was a judge.
In 1989, Finlayson assembled a group of shareholders, later to include Bouchard himself, to start Bouchard Finlayson (www. bouchardfinlayson.co.za), on a site just above his former employer. While pristine fynbos with indigenous vegetation covers most of the property (guided walks with a botanist are offered), Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the focus in the vineyards, though like others, Finlayson ventured beyond: his Hannibal blend, featuring Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera, offers an intriguing diversion.
He wasn’t the only Burgundy enthusiast to start his own winery after being schooled in Hemel-en-Aarde’s possibilities at HamiltonRussell: Kevin Grant (www.ataraxiawines.co.za) and Hannes Storm (www.stormwines.co.za – open by appointment only) are both building enviable reputations further up the valley.
Others have arrived in the valley, setting up their own cellars: Newton Johnson (www. newtonjohnson.com) was soon acknowledged, both locally and internationally, in particular for its Pinot Noir, but also for quality across its range. Founder and Pinot devotee Dave Johnson, with wife Felicity (née Newton), bought their current property in Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in 2000, establishing the vineyards the following year. Johnson chose a higher altitude site in the belief that it offers greater maritime influence and more complex soil profiles.
Though Pinot Noir has come to be synonymous with the valley – the Hemel-enAarde Winegrowers Association Pinot Noir Celebration held in January is an annual sell-out – other varieties are also successful. Sea-foragers, the Newton Johnsons found a perfect seafood partner in Albariño, producing a South African first in 2013. Craig and Anne
Below: Hermanus at sunset during its annual Whale Festival. The town is famous as a venue for watching the southern right whale
Above: mountain view across the Onrus river, seen from the Newton Johnson vineyards
Above left: Source restaurant in Hemelen-Aarde village
Left: Peter Finlayson, founder and now cellarmaster at Bouchard Finlayson
The Marine Hotel