HEMEL-EN-AARDE: THE MOST QUALITATIVE NEW SOUTH AFRICAN WINE REGION
Hemel-En-Aarde is undoubtedly the most interesting of the new wine regions in South Africa. It was unknown as a wine growing region until 1975 when the Hamilton Russell family purchased a property and planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
It is located on the south coast 120 kms from Cape Town near the small picturesque fishing village of Hermanus. This is where people come to admire the whales and their calves from July to November. The region is part of the Walker Bay District and covers 450 hectares of vines.
It is a cool climate region, tempered in summer by the winds that blow from the Atlantic Ocean which are known locally as « Southeasters » and also by the Benguela Current which comes from Antarctica. Rainfall (750 mm) is higher than in the traditional wine growing regions of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl and does not necessarily need irrigation.
Hemel-en-Aarde is home to over 20 wine producers (and growing), there are no large producers and the production is on average small and very qualitative. In the number of trophies, ratings, gold medals and 5 stars per case of wine produced, Hemel-en-Aarde is unrivaled. The properties are almost all owned and operated by families who created them from uncultivated land. In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region produces lovely Syrah with northern Rhône profiles.
The region is divided into 3 Wards (the smallest wine denomination in South African law):
1. Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Ward established in August 2006
The overwhelming majority of vineyards in this appellation are planted on the northeast, north and northwest slopes on soil derived from the Bokkeveld Shale, on the south bank of the Onrust River. This soil has an unusually high clay content which ranges from 25% to 55%. The clay content of these soils approaches the clay content of Côte-d’Or in Burgundy, although they tend to be shallower and much rockier. Additionally, they do not have limestone content or limestone bedrock, but have pure clay subsoil and solid shale bedrock.
2. Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Ward created August 2006
This is the second appellation encountered going north-east of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley (geographically speaking) from Hermanus, and is the largest of the three appellations of Hemel-en-Aarde. Ripening is later here than for the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley appellation. It is the second appellation of Hemel-en-Aarde closest to the sea.
The Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley vineyards are planted on both the north and south slopes of the River Onrust. Soils change in this appellation from soils derived from Bokkeveld Shale to lighter soils derived from Table Mountain Sandstone, mainly on the north side of the Onrust River, and a rare occurrence of decomposed granitic soils, in a large part of the south side of the Onrust River. In places, these lighter structured soils cover a subsoil with a significant clay content.
3. Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge Ward established in June 2009.
Ripening generally occurs later than the other two Hemel-en-Aarde appellations, partly due to the high altitudes of the ridge. Soils derived from Bokkeveld shale reappear in the Hemel-en-Aarde ridge and the vast majority of vineyards are found on these soils rich in stony clay. Vineyards are planted with many different aspects from south to north
Hans Storm of the eponymous estate has vineyards in the 3 Wards and produces arguably the best wines in the region with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He worked as a cellar master for Hamilton Russel for a long time.
Storm produces 3 vintages of Pinot Noir:
- Vrede, a blend of Wards Hemel-en-Aarde and Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde.
- Ridge which comes from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
- Ignis which comes from a plot located on the volcanic terrain of Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde.
The valley’s Pinot Noir is the most expressive, the Ridge the finest and the Ignis the most mineral.
Its Chardonnays, Storm Vrede, come from the valley and Hemel–en-Aarde Ridge Chardonnay from The Ridge Ward. They have precise mineral profiles and they are world class wines.