Tim James: The fine achievement of Restless River

By , 23 April 2024



Craig Wessels of Restless River.

A week ago, Restless River took in the last of their cab. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect this marked the end of the Western Cape’s 2024 winegrape harvest, and already there are any number of, for example, this year’s sauvignon blancs on the shelf. But Restless River’s cabernet vineyards, in the comparatively cool and wet Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, are always among the last to be brought in, and 2024 was by no means the latest ever.

This year’s was, in fact, the 20th Restless River harvest, and because Craig and Anne Wessels are touched with both sentimentatlity and loyalty they invited me out for the day (a lovely autumnal one it was), remembering that I’d been the first journalist to visit and write about their wines – pretty exactly eleven years ago that was. I was also visiting Chris Alheit’s little Hemelrand cellar that day, with Crystallum a presence and a barrel of Thorne & Daughter’s infant semillon in a corner, so it was no wonder that I called my report (since lost in the ether) “Ripples of revolution in the Hemel-en-Aarde”. I spoke of the Restless River current red (2007) as a “pure-fruited, soft but structured cabernet sauvignon that speaks its origins in a different language from most Stellenbosch equivalents”.

A decade later – a great deal more famous, locally and internationally – it still speaks its own language, even more confidently expressing its unique origins. The same can be said for the chardonnay (there’s also a pinot, which is finding its way there too). But Restless River the place is remarkably different from what it was back then, and even from what it was when I last visited, in pre-Covid times.

Back in 2013 it was just the Wessels’s house with a half-dozen hectares of vines on their smallholding escape from Cape Town, and a few sheds for the part-time wine-business (the first few vintages had been made in a wendy-house!). Now it is a small, well-constituted and prospering wine estate. The winery buildings have expanded (all gleaming beautifully white), with separate barrel cellars for the cab and chard, for example, and rather more equipment – notably a new destemming and grape-sorting machine that, Craig declares, does a much better job (vastly quicker) than the team of human eyes and hands ever did. Berry-sorting, it should be noted, is vital for producing cabernet in a marginal climate like this, even after the abandonment of numerous bunches during the picking process. “Here you have to be prepared to lose at least 30% of your crop”, says Craig.

The most fundamental change though, one that has largely depended on Craig’s leaving his smart day-job to become a full-time vigneron, is in the vineyards. There are now 21 hectares of cabernet, chardonnay and pinot – two thirds of them planted in the last five years. Sadly, some vines have gone, victims of long-established virus. The 25-year-old Main Road vineyard, that in recent years has given part of the name of the wine on the label, has had to be uprooted. As for the Dignity block, Craig hopes that pulling out and replacing individual virused vines might just save it.

Craig farms with fanatical attention to detail, and benefits from the exhaustive research that more than compensates for his lack of formal education in viti- and viniculture. The close attention that’s now possible is, he says “the beauty of doing one’s own farming” full time. At harvest it means, for example, that a closely-monitored two-hectare block of chardonnay can be picked over three weeks.

In 2019, on land owned by apple-growing neighbours (friends who these days also have a share in the Restless River business), Craig started planting ten hectares of vines on land from which dense scrub and trees had been cleared, in seven carefully mapped blocks: chardonnay, pinot and cabernet. It was the last of this cab that was being harvested on the day of my visit. He calls it the “mountain vineyard” – its slope includes perhaps the most elevated vineyard altitude in all the Hemel-en-Aarde. Just to bring some more marginality to Restless River’s endeavours it seems. The vineyard is all fenced, to keep out hungry buck, but is still vulnerable to depredating, wasteful baboons; while wispy nets (draped rather beautifully, like spider webs, though horribly plastic) are necessary, as “the birds are insane!”.

As for the wine…  I reckon, having seen Craig’s increased devotion to his increasing vineyards, that it’s only going to get better, from virus-free, micro-managed vines. But it’s pretty good already. It wasn’t a carefully curated vertical line-up he offered for tastig and drinking, rather a range of wine that had come to hand. It was partnered by a lunch shared with a few harvest interns and permanent winery staff. Anne Wessels happily manages to combine great culinary skills with management of all the background duties of a winery as well as many of the public tasting ones – the success of the winery is the success of a fine partnership.

We tasted a range of chardonnays back to 2013 – something of a breakthrough year for the variety, perhaps not only for Restless River. Earlier vintages, as I remember, were good but perhaps too rich, lacking precision and detail. The 2013 was fresher and lighter, vibrantly lively, the fruit thrillingly balanced by acidity; restrained, the finish dry (a crucial hallmark of all the Restless River wines). Now it is drinking superbly, perhaps at its peak but in no apparent danger of toppling off.  We also had the 2016, the 2019 whose silky austerity I loved (“brutally lean when bottled”, said Craig), and the elegant current release 2021 – lime-lemon freshness, elegant, a little youthfully phenolic, brimming with the potential attested by that fine 2013 (which was the wine I chose as my final mouthful before leaving).

We tasted selected vintages of the Cabernet – rather randomly selected, said Craig ­– right back to the maiden 2005 ex-wendy-house, which was extracted and full compared to more recent vintages, pretty developed, but still alive and viable. I started with the older wines. The other early vintages also were a little less elegant than later ones, but all with good, integrated natural acidity, and properly dry – one of the defining characteristics of this wine, making a fundamental break with most Stellenbosch examples. The 2007 was the only one that showed some sweetness on the finish. The 2009 had a rich gorgeousness and still plenty of cassis fruit, and was silky and lovely. Then we jumped to 2016 and to 2017, the latter of which, particularly,  showed the light-feeling and effortless elegance that we’ve come to associate with this wine, together with the beautiful ripeness that it generally achieves. There tends to be a slight herbal note, more dried herbs than fresh ones, but occasionally tinged with a very acceptable hint of the fresher note, but seldom susceptible to accusations of greenness. 2019 and the current-release 2020 followed suit.

Restless River is one of the great, original achievements of the Cape’s fine winemaking revolution of this century. So obviously the result of personal passion and vision, of a couple’s mutual support and effort and acquired skill, of intelligent dedication and ambition, of respect for the task and an avoidance of arrogance when success came – what’s not to love and admire? And, as a wine-drinker, to be grateful for.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.



4 comment(s)

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    Lauren | 24 April 2024

    Wonderful wines best enjoyed after a good few years!

    Kwispedoor | 23 April 2024

    “What’s not to love and admire?” Indeed (and that includes the writing). This Cabernet is a national crown jewel.

    Duncan | 23 April 2024

    This is what wine writing should be

    PK | 23 April 2024


    Thank you for another great article and also on writing about probably my favourite two people in the South African wine industry. As you said, there has been change over the past decade or two across not only the wines but also the property, but the driving force behind the brand/estate and its success I would like to think is the grounded and humble nature of Anne and Craig. Two of the most original and lovely people I have ever come across… oh and they happen to make some world beating wines as well 🙂

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