Whales of cool wines and cult blends

In search of a wine route with a clear regional identity, Graham Howe explores a wine region with a clear focus on signature varieties and cool-climate wine styles.
The right place to start a tasting tour of the Hermanus wine route is with the Sultan of Sauvignon - big Bartho Eksteen, the incumbent Diners Club Winemaker of the Year (2010) - the Cape’s most exclusive winemakers club. Over a tasting of the new 2010 vintage of his award-winning Nr 5 Sauvignon Blanc, Bartho quips “I was chuffed to win the award with a wooded Sauvignon Blanc up against all those other wines. It stood out like a swart skaap (black sheep)” (the name of Bartho’s Cabernet Franc wine) - and underscored the region’s success with this signature cool-climate variety.

Bartho had just returned from his prize-winning trip to Sancerre, Bordeaux, the Languedoc and Côtes du Rhône. With plans at times frustrated by French wine bureaucracy, the quirky winemaker says he’s thinking of putting up a sign at his own cellar warning, “Appointments to see the winemaker must be made at least two weeks in advance - especially if you come from Chateauneuf-du-Pap!” He’s joking, I think.

Wine writers in South Africa are generally granted interviews with local winemakers at short notice. Bartho, like most of his compatriots, is always generous with his time and corkscrew. In a lesson on Sauvignon, we spent two hours tasting a dozen of his current releases at the popular Hermanuspieterfontein wine and food market on Saturday - including the new Sonner Nommer Sauvignon Blanc 2011 - and a frisky MCC Brut 2007. The 2011 releases of Nr 3 and Nr 7 Bartho are due out shortly - a vintage Bartho calls “a shy, slow starter”. For the first time, one of his Afrikaans labels has appeared in English for the USA - but it’s a one-off says patriotic Bartho.

The number of cellars in Walker Bay has grown like the whales visiting Walker Bay over the last decade. I was struck by the number of newer producers exhibiting at the annual three-day Hermanus Wine and Food Fair at Hermanus Wine Village in August. I enjoyed my first taste of the cool-climate wines of Barton Vineyards (Bot River) Brunia Cold Mountain Vineyards (Stanford/Elim), Domaine des Dieux (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge under new winemaker John Seccombe), Hornbill House (garagiste winemakers in Hermanus), Jakob’s Vineyard (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge), Elemental Bob (brilliant Turkish/Delight blends from Craig Sheard of Spookfontein), and Seven Springs in the Overberg (a stunning maiden Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay 2010).

Tasting your way up the Hemel-en-Aarde - divided into the new valley, upper and ridge wards - takes visitors from HPF and Whalehaven at 22 metres above sea level to the highest vineyards of Ataraxia at 400 metres. Four signature varieties have made the reputation of the valley - with signature Sauvignon Blanc (24% of all plantings), Chardonnay (20%), Pinot Noir (18%) and, to a lesser extent, Pinotage (12%) - pioneered by Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson. The higher you climb the more diverse the wines, with a mixed bag of flagship Bordeaux, Cape, Italian and Rhône-style blends from Ashbourne, Bouchard Finlayson (Hannibal), Ataraxia (Serenity), Creation, La Vierge, Newton Johnson and Sumaridge. The valley divides into left (newer cellars) and right (older) banks on south and north-facing slopes.

Creation has put one of the most remote cellars in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley on the map as a gourmet destination - by offering some of the most sublime food and wine pairings I’ve sampled at any cellar-door. Carolyn Martin, the new chairperson of the Hemel-en-Aarde Winegrowers Association, comments “A few wineries successfully developed their cellar door as a client destination. We’re now trying to grow wine tourism to the whole valley. The surfacing of the R320 to Caledon over the next two years will increase visitors. At Creation we sold 2500 food/wine pairings at the cellar in 2010. Every tasting is tutored, and we make 40% of sales at the cellar-door.”

At Creation I enjoyed a tasting of their stunning trio of new 2011 releases - a single variety Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon - as well as their acclaimed Syrah/Grenache, Bordeaux and Syrah/Malbec blends (under their clever new Whalepod label). Winemaker JC Martin comments, “Yes Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail - but the Rhone cultivars - Syrah (“our star performer”), Viognier and Grenache - do very well at higher altitudes on the ridge. Merlot flies out the cellar. Our virus-free vines, cooler nights and long ripening result in great fruit and natural acidity.”

The cellars in the valley enjoy one of the most spectacular natural settings in the Cape - from Ataraxia, Creation and Sumaridge to La Vierge, Newton Johnson and Hamilton Russell, First-time visitors to Ataraxia get to ring the church bell at the chapelesque tasting centre high on the slopes of Babylons Toren on Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. “I’ve been in this valley all my working life” says owner winemaker Kevin Grant, who has done 17 vintages in the valley he calls “the cradle of Pinot Noir”. The farm track to the cellar takes visitors through Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards.

Kevin Grant recently attended the Cool Climate Chardonnay Conference in Ontario along with 70 producers from ten countries. He says, “Whether you’re truly cool climate shows three months before harvest. Every year we get dealt a different climactic hand. We’re three degrees cooler than the valley - but only six kilometres from the sea.” He creates cool climate Chardonnay and Sauvignon with racy acidity, minerality and texture “like sucking on a river pebble”. Six vintages later, his five-star wines “sourced from extreme, radical and individual sites” are acclaimed for finesse. He says “They whisper, they don’t shout; they seduce, they don’t batter the senses”.

The winemaker at Sumaridge, Gavin Patterson, is another non-interventionist who believes in making natural wines which express the cool climate maritime terroir of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. A wine tasting over a seasonal vigneron platter from the picture postcard cellar with views from the terrace all the way to Walker Bay is an unforgettable experience. Although renowned for the valley’s signature Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, he says it is Sumaridge’s unique blends - Epitome (Shiraz, Pinotage and Merlot) and Maritimus (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon) - rated one of the Top 100 SA Wines - which draw visitors to the cellar.

Gavin Patterson is a philosophical winemaker. He declares, “I take what nature gives me. The blend gives the winemaker artistic license to interpret the terroir; the varietal wines are the link to our ancient soils. Through Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I connect with the land”. He too likes to talk about wines which show a maritime influence in the acidity, purity of fruit and minerality “like sucking on a river pebble”. (I’ve yet to spot a winemaker chewing on a stone but they are men of the soil around here.) “Very few winemakers understand the essence of Pinot Noir - the delicate flavours which require gentle handling, the expression of subtlety, the need for silky tannins.”

Over Sunday brunch at Heaven - where new chef Stefan Louw is wowing visitors - my learning curve in the new Rhône-style blends of the Hemel-en-Aarde continued on the spectacular Newton Johnson restaurant terrace. Marketing whizz Bevan Johnson, comments, “We believe in the future of white and red blends (their new Rhône GMS - Grenache, Mourvedre and Shiraz - and SMG blends showcase the distinct style of varieties grown in cool climate areas). We’re all premium producers in the valley. We specialise in three styles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which express different terroir - but we’re still trying to convince people of the value of other, newer varieties”.

Riding the valley like a roller coaster I finished my tour of heaven and earth - the valley, upper and ridge wards - over a tasting and dinner at Temptation restaurant (under new chef Shane Sauvage, author of gourmand awarded In-Fusion recipe book) at La Vierge. Talented winemaker Marc van Halderen has made six vintages at this winery with dryland vineyards on the ridge and a cellar at the top-end of the valley. If you’re looking for a taste of some of the most original blends to emerge from the valley (along with the only cool-climate Riesling) make sure you drop by La Vierge.

The winery’s motto - “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” (Oscar Wilde) - runs through the “wines of desire” on the most imaginative wine labels to come out of South Africa yet. Designed by marketing guru Krige Visser (Avondale, La Vierge and now Meerhof), the new La Vierge Collection encompasses inspired blends such as Nymphomane (Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec), Satyricon (Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo) and Anthelia (Syrah/Mourvedre) which showcase the new varieties coming of age in the Hemel-en-Aarde. Building on the signature varieties of the valley, Marc also makes superb Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Over a tasting at Bouchard Finlayson, Peter Finlayson, the grand patriarch of Hemel-en-Aarde, concluded, “South Africa needs a formula which will give us a calling card of regional identity like the French - each region should look at its strengths. The new world seems to flounder in terms of developing a sense of regional identity.” After tasting my way through the region, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley seems to have a more clearly defined identity than most - using the building blocks of signature Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to develop flagship blends from new plantings.

For more info on the new Hermanus Wine Route see www.hermanuswine.com.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."

A tasting lounge with a view at Ataraxia the highest vineyard in the valley