When I met Bevan Newton Johnson, the man in charge of marketing for the eponymously named estate, he was smiling even though his right hand bore the marks of a previous evening’s mugging. Bevan was mildly annoyed at himself, rather than his assailant, suggesting that he had not helped himself by walking alone, carrying his lap top through Cape Town at midnight. His first experience of such an occurrence appeared not to have dented his easy charm and as he talked me through his wines it became clear that they reflected, at least in part, some of Bevan’s engaging personality.
The wines that particularly moved me were the reds and specifically those in their ‘Family Vineyards’ range. Like many in Hemel-en-Aarde, Bevan’s family specialise in the Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, whilst also having some deliciously expressive Shiraz. Pinot Noir for a variety so lauded spends the majority of its existence producing wines that flatter to deceive. Too often they are fruity but gutless with hot tasting high alcohol and a price-tag that reflects the intention of the winemaker rather than the quality of the juice inside the bottle. In Hemel-en-Aarde this is generally less true than in most New World regions I could mention, and at Newton Johnson they have managed to make Pinot of real perfumed purity with just enough mid-palate grunt to suggest that these wines will only get better as the vines mature and their experience of this area deepens. The price is less than most village level Burgundies but the pleasure quotient the opposite.
‘Granum’ is a blend of three quarters Shiraz with the remainder Mourvedre. This has Newton Johnson’s hallmark purity with ripe cherry fruit supported by a clove-like spiciness that makes me want to dig out a thick jumper and warm my toes in front of a fire, even here in the midst of an abnormally warm autumnal Taiwan. Don’t be fooled by the grape being called Shiraz, normally this has come to mean a more intense style of wine, more akin to those made famous in South Australia, but this is more ‘Syrah’ like, hardly angular but certainly elegant.
The beginning of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley lies some five km west of the whale watching town of Hermanus. Being only an hour and a half by road from Stellenbosch, there really is no excuse to exclude this from any wine related itinerary and doing so would leave you with an incomplete picture of the vinous possibilities available in this topographically diverse and arrestingly beautiful country. Having travelled via the N2 as it contours its way eastward, peering down on the magnificent False Bay, a right turn at Bot River begins the gradual descent to sea-level before arriving at the turn-off for the prosaically named R320; the gateway to the valley.
‘Heaven on Earth’ is the literal translation and whilst I cannot speak with any authority about how closely this part of the western Cape resembles God’s home, the scale and splendour certainly verges on the transcendental. For those amongst you lucky enough to have visited the Highlands of Scotland (my favourite place on Earth) there is a similarity that even the coughing of leopards as opposed to the roaring of red deer cannot undo. The sky, however, is uncommonly blue, an observation rarely experienced by the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast, but the wind that chases up the valley having originated from the cold southern ocean, would remind many a northern European of home.
As the valley winds its way skywards three different appellations or wards are traversed. The first is Hemel en Aarde, home to this region’s inaugural producer, Hamilton Russell, whose pioneering former owner, Tim Hamilton Russell, saw the potential in both the soil and climate to produce quality wines, particularly from Burgundy’s gift to the world: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Next is the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde where Newton Johnson, amongst others, has made a name for itself for not only the aforementioned varieties but also for some of those that originate in the Rhone. Lastly the road reaches the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, unsurprisingly the coolest and youngest of the three that sees a climate capable of producing nervy Sauvignon Blancs as well as perfumed Pinots.
Our next post will examine some of the properties in more detail.