Beyond Burgundy

By Joanne Gibson

Hemel-en-Aarde, which one can loosely translate as ‘heaven on earth’, is the name of the Onrust river valley, which winds its way inland and upwards from the seaside town of Hermanus. But it could just as easily be an Afrikaans nickname for Burgundy. If not for the charming French wine appellation itself, then for the moment a sip of 20-year-old white Corton-Charlemagne moves you to tears. Or the perfumed fruit notes of a red Vosne-Romanée echo through you like a trumpet voluntary in a cathedral.

Most Burgundy doesn’t do that, of course: this is the northern limit of red wine production, all too often resulting in Pinot Noir that is light, thin, sour—and even Bourgogne Blanc (made from the usually forgiving Chardonnay grape) can be harsh, acidic, dull. 

But those occasionally transcendental wines are the Holy Grail for winemakers around the world, the most dedicated of whom soon realise the soaring, dove-winged essence of great Burgundy is the result of not winery craft but vineyard expression. And many believe Hemel-en-Aarde is the place most capable of vineyard expression for the Burgundian varieties in South Africa. 

Thirty years ago, of course, the mere suggestion would have had French vignerons rolling on their precious little patches of terroir with laughter. Burgundy has a continental climate; Hemel-en-Aarde is Mediterranean, and in fact as close to the sea as it is possible for vineyards to be. Even the furthest is within 10 kilometres of the cold Atlantic Ocean.

“But we wouldn’t be able to grow Pinot Noir without the maritime influence,” points out Peter-Allan Finlayson of CRYSTALLUM

“Being within a stone’s throw of the ocean gives us an enormous air-conditioning privilege,” explains his dad, Peter Finlayson of BOUCHARD FINLAYSON, while Sumaridge’s Gavin Patterson likens the cold offshore air being channelled up the valley to “the ebb and flow of cool air along the Côte d’Or”.

JC Martin of CREATION WINES, who honed his winemaking skills on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in his native Switzerland, says Burgundy and the Hemel-en-Aarde have similar summers. “But when it comes to ripening times, Burgundy feels the pinch of autumn more than we do.”

This, needless to say, gives the South Africans one significant advantage: more predictable crops. But the main reason Anthony Hamilton Russell’s father, Tim, planted the Burgundian varieties atHAMILTON RUSSELL VINEYARDS in 1975 was the farm’s unusually clay-rich soils, derived from Bokkeveld Shale. “At 35-55 per cent clay, our soils have very similar clay content to Burgundy,” says Anthony.

However, the clay disappears as you progress inland through the valley (replaced by quartzitic Table Mountain Sandstone-derived soils as well as some decomposed granite), only to reappear on the ridge which effectively separates the Hemel-en-Aarde from the Klein River Valley, a completely different (and less esteemed) appellation.

For this reason, Anthony (not unlike a terroir-obsessed Burgundian) led a passionate and eventually successful campaign to have the Hemel-en-Aarde divided into three distinct wards—namely Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. “For us it is really exciting to have three contiguous appellations, carefully thought out in terms of soil and meso-climatic influences, all specialising in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. All with small, focused producers and—most interesting of all—an emerging set of identifiable, positive, stylistic differences.” 

What all three appellations have in common are wines with higher-than-usual natural acidity, lower-than-usual alcohol levels, and a marked “classic” tightness and minerality. But Anthony believes the clay-rich soils at the bottom of the valley (where HRV and Bouchard Finlayson are located) result in Pinot with “that alluring primal character”. The sandier soils higher up have “more upfront fruitiness”. Although there’s nothing tutti-frutti about the taut, mineral NEWTON JOHNSON FAMILY VINEYARDS, or the SUMARIDGE, whose “balance of power and poise” Patterson has likened to that of a male ballet dancer.

In fact, despite growing on the sandier soils of Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Newton Johnson’s Family Vineyards Pinot has been described as Burgundian-like since 2008, prior to which Elgin fruit was used. “We’re grateful for the comparison even if we can’t entirely explain it,” says Bevan Newton Johnson. “But we’re not doing anything different in the cellar, so our medium-bodied, elegant, mineral style of Pinot must be a natural expression of the vineyards.”

Crystallum’s Peter-Allan Finlayson, who now makes two single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Ridge respectively, insists that there are “discernible differences” between the wines of these two wards, despite their similar soils. “Wines from the Valley are more structured, dry and savoury; wines from the Ridge are prettier, perfumed and more fruit-driven—as indeed are some Burgundies,” he acknowledges. “But although all our wines share some Burgundian traits, I’d say we fall somewhere between the Old and New World. Our Pinot is not as supple, ripe and fruit-forward as New Zealand Pinot, for example, but also not as dry and old school as Burgundy.”

Now bottling no fewer than three Pinots from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Creation’s JC Martin attributes certain stylistic deviations from Burgundy to the fact that there is no limestone in any Hemel-en-Aarde soils. “The calcareous soil types in Burgundy mean the wines are tighter in tannin structure than ours—to the extent that they can sometimes be quite harsh, with aggressive acidity levels. We achieve smoother, fuller-bodied Pinot Noirs which, with their good natural acidity, maintain a remarkable level of finesse, but which some people may prefer to Burgundy Pinot Noirs.”

Of course, limestone-rich soils are often associated with top Chardonnay. “We add lime when we prepare our vineyards,” reveals Bevan. As does Peter-Allan, although he reckons Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnay is more Burgundian than elsewhere in South Africa simply because of the relatively low temperatures. As dad Peter points out, Chardonnay is far more forgiving than Pinot: “Winemaking practices play a significant role in its success,” he says, adding: “It is the easiest wine to be good at, but the most difficult to be really great at.”

Which doesn’t imply a high level of cellar manipulation: “Remember, the classic varieties enjoyed their rise to fame through crude winemaking practices, not through the comfort of the high-tech winemaking approach of today. My philosophy has always been to keep it simple,” says Peter (though he adds there is no skimping when it comes to “a good complement of best French oak each year”).

Peter-Allen takes a similarly hands-off approach at Crystallum, from natural fermentation to minimal sulphur: “My Chardonnay has no added sulphur at all,” he reveals. “So far it’s working well.”

Newton Johnson’s winery practices are also increasingly “minimalistic”, while Gavin Patterson embraces a “holistic” approach in both vineyard and cellar. “I find it helps keep things simple (which suits me) and allows the sense of place to show through.”

For, no matter how flattering it may be for their wines to be likened to or even mistaken for fine Burgundy, these wine growers ultimately want Hemel-en-Aarde to be known in its own right. “Our wines are proudly Estate Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde Valley,” declares Anthony. 

“We are trying to reflect as good as it gets from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge,” says JC. 

“We identify with the Burgundian philosophy and style, but at the end of the day, we want to forge our own identity,” insists Bevan.