Of wine and weeds: How Hemel e

Anthony Hamilton Russell samples a young Chardonnay at his wine farm in the Hemel en Aarde valley.
Image: Marco Longari/AFP

Of wine and weeds: How Hemel en Aarde achieved winemaking success

It’s not called Hemel en Aarde for nothing. This fertile valley nestled between arid mountains and cool ocean is a winemaking paradise.

Of wine and weeds: How Hemel e

Anthony Hamilton Russell samples a young Chardonnay at his wine farm in the Hemel en Aarde valley.
Image: Marco Longari/AFP

It’s not for nothing that South Africa’s Hemel en Aarde valley has carved out a global reputation a winemaking destination of note.

The region’s wines have become a hit among wine lovers seeking a fresh, distinctive flavour. And winemakers here do not try to imitate the big European names, which can often be a stifling benchmark.

Instead, they produce wines with a strong South African identity — wines whose savour tells the story of their distant birthplace and bring with them the heritage from the first Huguenot plantations in the 1600s.

Hamilton Russell a Hemel en Aarde success story

“We are not really New World and not Old World,” said Hamilton Russell Vineyards winemaker Emul Ross, 35, flanked by his boss, Anthony Hamilton Russell.

“We are not trying to be Burgundy, we are closer to that style of pinot noir than New Zealand or Oregon, which have more sweetness, more fruit.” 

Hamilton Russell bought 52 hectares of land from his family in the early 1990s.

The estate produces a red and a white wine from Burgundy grape varieties originating in eastern-central France.

Pure air and soil a must at Hamilton Russell

The soils have high clay percentages, similar to those in Cote de Nuits, and “in blind tastings sometimes our wines are thought as Burgundian”, said Hamilton Russell, despite the very different climatic conditions.

At the end of his vineyards are a few fynbos, a cliff and then the Atlantic, close to its dramatic confluence with the Indian Ocean. 

“I like to think there is nothing between us and Antarctica. Very clean air,” Hamilton Russell said. 

Winemaking has taken a big knock

In the middle of the golden-green Chardonnay vines, dozens of workers in overalls move forward, snipping bunches off the plant and taking boxfuls to a tractor. Weeds grow between their feet.

“No herbicides. If it’s bare ground it’s dead ground,” Hamilton Russell said, sporting his trademark Indiana Jones-style brimmed hat.

The 2021 harvest has been late. For South African winegrowers in general it has been a terrible year, marked by the coronavirus pandemic and several government-imposed national bans on the sale of alcohol.

But Hemel en Aarde has suffered less than others, thanks to its reputation for quality — firmly established abroad — and less dependence on volume compared to other regions.

French sommelier lauds Hemel en Aarde winemaking

Pascaline Lepeltier, a French sommelier based in New York, said the region had enjoyed “spectacular success” thanks to “fresh, fine wines that are less orientated towards exuberant fruit and strength”.

She singled out their choice to respect the environment and limit additives — the key to “the true shine of a terroir”.

Making wines with a ‘real Cape identity’

Winemaker Chris Alheit in the barrel room at his winery in Hemel en Aarde. Image: Marco Longari/AFP

Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards is a mischievous 39-year-old winemaker in a T-shirt and shorts. When he talks about wine, he speaks enthusiastically about a “real Cape identity, a South African DNA”. 

“We are not trying to copy a French wine,” Alheit said.

His Chenin, a white grape variety characteristic of the western France’s Loire Valley, is of great purity. 

His exported cuvee, Cartology, aims at a broad swathe of the market for wines that are easy to drink and suitable for most palates.

No irrigation, no chemicals and no cheating

At 06:00, the sky turns pink. Alheit brings boxes to be loaded into a refrigerated truck. Birds chirp away, bringing a joyful lightness to the repetitive noise of pruning shears.

“The big sprint is finished already,” Alheit said of the annual task of figuring out the right moment to harvest. I already have plenty of good acidity, not too much sugar. Now I need a little sex appeal, to add some curves.”

Chenin gives a vast palette, from very dry to tropical. 

“I don’t want my wine to be a pineapple bomb,” he laughed.

No irrigation, no chemicals and no cheating — his wine is “natural” even if he is reluctant to have it classified as such.

“For a wine to grab your imagination, as it should, it needs to be pure. If you sense dishonesty, it becomes less exciting,” he said.

© Agence France-Presse

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