Travel: Hemel-en-Aarde

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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

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