Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir – the state of play

By , 22 August 2022



In the May 2000 issue of Wine magazine, the late Tony Mossop CWM reporting on that year’s panel tasting of Pinot Noir, wrote: “The perfect [example] is not easy to find… particularly in South Africa it seems”.

Best wine overall in that tasting was Whalehaven 1998 with a rating of 3½ Stars. A further nine wines out of a total of 24 rated 3 Stars including Bouchard Finlayson Tête de Cuvée 1997 and Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1998.

Dave Johnson, who qualified as a CWM in 1986 after writing his dissertation on Pinot Noir in South Africa and founded Newton Johnson Family Vineyards in 1997, is quoted in Mossop’s report as saying that there “most definitely” had been an improvement over the preceding few years. “The newer clones, replacing the BK5 stalwart [a Swiss clone developed for sparkling wine], have made for better ripening, better colour and more complex flavours. The reasons why there is not an even more noticeably quality leap are all the usual ones – incorrect sites, wrong choice of oak, yields too high…”.

“So where to next with South African Pinot?” Mossop was moved to ask at the end of his report. “Perhaps it’s a good thing that local critics have Burgundy as a benchmark in mind when tasting our own efforts – after all, we compare Cap Classique to Champagne, and our Ports with the wines of the Douro. So keep at it, Pinot makers: we love the wine, and want to see SA’s efforts up there with the best of the New World – or even that expensive strip of dirt just south of Dijon in France”.

Fast-forward to a tasting hosted by Hemel-en-Aarde Wines held last Thursday to coincide with International Pinot Noir Day (14 producers in attendance, notable absentees being Cap Maritime, Crystallum and Restless River).

My first observation would be that the past two decades have served this area well. The insights required to make world-class wine take a great deal of both time and effort to acquire and finally we are seeing the kind of quality that Mossop was hoping for.

Maybe the most significant development has been the creation of the division of the greater Hemel-en-Aarde into three distinct wards or appelations. In May 2004, Walker Bay was changed from ward to district – a ward is the smallest unit of appellation after an individual wine estate and is supposed to delimit an area of relatively homogenous terroir. Walker Bay is close in size to Stellenbosch and stretches from Bot River to Stanford.

Based on a more acute appreciation of terroir, most specifically the role of different soil types, the three wards that were created are Hemel-en Aarde Valley and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, both in 2006, and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, which followed in 2009. This respect on the part of producers for the minutiae that are dealing with when it comes to achieving excellence is therefore a fairly recent phenomenon but is clearly informing better and better expressions of Pinot Noir.

Broadly speaking, Valley with its shale-clay soils gives rise to wine of particular depth and tannin; Upper Valley with its decomposed granite soils makes for wines of great fruit clarity; while Ridge, the vineyards again on shale but now at altitude and hence late ripening, seem to combine flavour intensity with structure to good effect. The differences between the wines of the different wards are also much easier to discern than is the case when it comes to comparing Simonsberg to Helderberg Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance.

We tasted knowing ward but otherwise blind, labels out of sight. The line-up with my scores as follows:

Flight One – Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
1. Storm Vrede 2020 – 97
2. Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak 2020 – 91
3. Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2021 – 93
4. Bartho Eksteen Fluister 2021 – 92

Flight Two – Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
1. Newton Johnson Family Vineyards 2020 – 90
2. Whalehaven Conservation Coast 2020 – 92
3. Hasher Family Wines Ernest 2021 – 93
4. Bosman Family Vineyards Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley 2021 – 94
5. Spookfontein 2021 – 91

Flight Three – Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
1. Ataraxia Whole Cluster 2020 – 95
2. Domaine des Dieux Josephine 2020 – 88
3. La Vierge Noir 2020 – 87
4. Creation Art of Pinot Noir 2021 – 93
5. Tesselaarsdal 2021 – 96

Average score of all 14 wines was 92.2 and if Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot disappointed 20 and even 10 years ago, this is no longer the case, an overall excellence finally starting to come to the fore.

Some of the wines still possess a herbal character and it is moot point whether this is due to 1) terroir in the sense of the vineyards being situated amidst the Cape Floral Kingdom; 2) vineyard stress due to leaf-roll virus or 3) whole-bunch fermentation.

Perhaps, however, the most pleasing aspect of this tasting was the absence of hubris on the part of the producers in attendance. Not so long ago, there was too much of a readiness to compare some palpably quite ordinary wines to the best of Burgundy. Now there is more of a sense that while Burgundy remains a useful reference point, the quest to unlock local terroir is a far more interesting endeavour.

Read sommelier-at-large Higgo Jacobs on Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnay here.


4 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Germain Lehodey | 23 August 2022

    I do agree that this valley has the reputation to produce excellent pinot noirs, yet Elgin can roll shoulder with the best in South African Pinot! Ceres is also not to be ignored!

    Mike | 22 August 2022

    Can you say who else was scoring with you, and what the panel’s scores were compared with yours? Were you surprised to be invited, given that some of the SA producers whose wines you assessed here haven’t been keen to submit samples for Winemag reports on the variety? Was anything said or comparisons made regarding the 2022 Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Awards presented to various SA producers on the same day?

      Christian Eedes | 22 August 2022

      Hi Mike, There were some 20 guests in attendance and scores weren’t collated. As to my attendance, I’d like to think I’m on fairly good terms with the Hemel-en-Aarde producers and therefore was grateful to be invited but not surprised. I think that producers don’t tend to submit to our blind tastings in that they are even more keen than usual to control the narrative – not difficult to understand given the premium that most Pinot demands. The Mosaic Awards pretty much went without mention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.