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South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Is a Slice of Wine Heaven on Earth

South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Is a Slice of Wine Heaven on Earth

When a wine region is called “Heaven and Earth,” one can expect nothing less than divine wines. Such a place exists: South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde, Afrikaans for “Heaven and Earth,” lies within Walker Bay in the Cape South Coast. It’s a relatively young area, with first plantings dating back to the 1970s. Today, the region is home to just over 20 producers, who primarily focus on cultivating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The red variety thrives in its ancient soils and cool climate. Located at 34º latitude south, Hemel-en-Aarde benefits from its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, which contributes to its cool climate. This is due to the Benguela Current that flows along southern Africa’s west coast, lowering the temperature of the seawater. In the summer, the constant wind from the bay has a cooling influence on the vineyards.

“It’s not latitude or high altitude that cools us down. It’s the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean,” says Olive Hamilton Russell, who, along with her husband, Anthony, owns the vineyards bearing the family name.

Another benefit to the climatic conditions: Average annual rainfall, occurring mostly during the winter season, is higher here than in many other regions in the Cape, enabling dry farming.

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In terms of soil profile, the area has very ancient and decomposed soils that vary in composition across the three wards. Bokkeveld shale-derived clay soils are found in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, while decomposed granite is found in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde. And as one travels northeast and inland, the valley increases in altitude with the higher grounds experiencing more airflow and helping growers fight fungal diseases in the vineyard.

The human factor is just as important when discussing terroir, and this is particularly true in the Hemel-en-Aarde. Winemakers played a crucial role in establishing this area by concentrating their efforts on mainly two grape varieties.

“We do have an unusual varietal focus. By far the focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are a number of other varieties that are performing well, but the focus is mainly on these two,” says Hamilton Russell. Currently, over 30% of South African Pinot Noir grows in the Hemel-en-Aarde area. She adds that there are no large producers; the majority of the wineries are family-run, making a high-end wine portfolio.

South African Pinot Noir Library Wines / Image Courtesy of Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Pinot Noir from the area exhibits a complexity of flavors that includes herbs, berries and spices, along with an energized palate and a solid structure. However, there are slight, although noticeable, differences among the wines from the three wards.

“The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is renowned for producing very spicy and savory expressions of Pinot Noir. Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot is a little bit more perfumed, a touch more open, but also still very much on the savory rather than the fruit-driven side,” explains Hamilton Russell. “The Hemelen-Aarde Ridge Pinot Noir has more dark berry fruit flavors, but with savoriness on the palate.”

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Hannes Storm of Storm Wines makes wines from the three wards and notes that the wines differ in their tannin structure, as well. “Definitely the granitic tannin structure stands out in the Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde wines as opposed to wines from the other regions, which have more fine-grained, silky tannins,” he says. Storm takes a minimal-intervention approach to winemaking and believes that as the vines mature, their age will positively impact the wines of the area. He also emphasizes the importance of having Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as their flagship varieties. “We must strive to perfect what we do,” he says.

Winemakers are still learning about the terroir and how to manage challenges, such as heavy rainfall due to climate change, but are confident that Hemel-en-Aarde has a successful future ahead.

Wines to Try

  • Storm 2020 Vrede Pinot Noir (Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley); 93 Points. This wine was born in the cool-climate Hemel-enAarde Valley near the Atlantic Ocean. Delicate aromas of dried herbs and roses form the bouquet. It has excellent acidity and a savory character, with a good dose of spices enhancing flavors of ripe cherry and mulberry. Earthy notes appear in the lasting finish. $57.99
  • Hamilton Russell 2022 Pinot Noir (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley); 92 Points. The Hamilton Russell winery pioneered viticulture in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and offers an elegant and spicy Pinot Noir. The nose opens with white pepper and nutmeg. An energized palate and tight tannins provide a good frame for strawberries, cherries and subtle dried herbs. Hints of cardamom appear in the aftertaste. $55.99
  • Hamilton Russell 2021 Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge); 91 Points. With grapes from the cool-climate Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, this wine is well-structured and has depth. The nose and palate display lively notes of cherry and cranberry. Vigorous acidity and smooth tannins make for an elegant mouthfeel. It’s a very enjoyable Pinot Noir that finishes with a dash of herbs. $ Varies Wine-Searcher.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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