“Rightly it has got its name because so high are the hills which closely embrace the valley all round, that they seem to touch the sky and you cannot see anything but heaven and earth”
Brother Schmidt, 1899
1. Ancient geology
4.4 to 3.8 billion years ago – the Earth formed.
3.8 billion years ago – first life in the form of bacteria.
500 million years ago – one continent Gondwanaland and the first hard-bodied animals. Western Cape joined to Patagonia with a narrow fresh water sea between. East Coast of South Africa joined to Antarctica. Falklands plateau moving away with tectonic activity and Augulhas sea moving in
400 million years ago – Cape Supergroup sediments formed under Augulhas sea on top of Cape Granite. First Malmsbury Shale, then Table Mountain Sandstone, then Bokkeveld Shale.
330 million years ago – tectonic activity caused the Falklands plateau to come crunching back into South Africa beginning the forcing up of the Cape Supergroup sedimentary rocks.
290 million years ago – Cape Folded Mountain ranges forced up and the Augulhas sea removed and pushed back to form the Karoo sea over a sagging in the crust.
290 million years ago to date – folding leaves a mix of Table Mountain Sandstone, Decomposed Granite and Bokkeveld Shale based soils in various places in the Hemel-en-Aarde. Opportunity created for various attractive expressions of wine millions of years later.
12,000 years ago – at the peak of the last ice-age, the sea was 100km further out from where it is today. Where Hermanus is now, overlooked a massive grassland teeming with game including species no longer in existence.
2. Long human history
Physical evidence exists of an incredibly long period of hominid occupation of the Hemel-en-Aarde.
2.5 million years ago – the first “upright walking” hominid, hence “erectus” left stone tools in the Hemel-en-Aarde. An unchanged tool “technology” for 2 1/4 million years – known as Acheulean Hand-Axes after the town of St Acheul in France where this style of tool was first analysed and documented in the late 1800’s.
Homo Sapiens hunter-gatherers
250,000 years ago – the first Homo Sapiens (thinking man) evolved out of Homo Erectus (upright man) and left smaller, finer and more varied stone tools in the Hemel-en-Aarde.
The San hunter-gatherers
From this time onwards, the San evolved their very long-lived nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle (in complete harmony with nature) and could be found across Southern Africa and as far north as Kenya. This lifestyle prevailed over a period of more than 200,000 years until an influx of Europeans moving East and North from the Cape Peninsula followed the slow movement of Black herders East and South from West and Central Africa, driving the San into more and more remote and dry locations, resulting in their eventual near extinction.
The Khoi semi-nomadic herders
The Khoi were similar to the San (and “evolved” from them) but taller and showed evidence of outside genetic and cultural influence. They acquired herding skills, probably originally from the near and middle-east moving down the East Coast of Africa. The first Europeans to stop at the Cape traded with them for their long-horned, dewlaped and humped cattle and their fat-tailed sheep. They occupied the Hemel-en-Aarde and Attaqua’s Kloof got its name from them. Attaqua means the people of “Atta” – a Khoi leader. The Khoi applied crushed red-ochre powder mixed with animal fat to their skin and stones used for grinding the red-ochre have been found on Hamilton Russell Vineyards, along with other tools.
Khoi were referred to as “Hottentots” by the Europeans as a result of the strange sound of their language of clicks. The smaller and “wilder” San were referred to as “Bushmen”. The Khoi were essentially “miscegenated” away as the Dutch, Khoi, San (to a much lesser extent) and slaves from (predominantly) Angola, Indonesia and Madagascar interbred. Their genes live on to a greater or lesser extent within the modern Cape Coloured community and certainly within the Hemel-en-Aarde farming community.
Early man, the San and the Khoi occupying the Hemel-en-Aarde would all have regularly used the “Elephant Path” to get to the coast and where Hermanus is today – as did the Elephants which could have been found in a game-rich Hemel-en-Aarde until almost the time of the first European occupation. The Elephant path runs down from Southern Right in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley into Hermanus via Hoye’s Koppie, with its cave, occupied since the early stone-age, towards Bientang’s Cave an important late stone-age site.
3. First Europeans
1480’s and early 1500’s – the first Europeans to set foot in the Hemel-en-Aarde were the Portuguese, who in the late 15th Century were exploring a sea-route around Africa to the spice islands in the east. Walker Bay (under a Latin name) was mentioned in the Cantino planisphere in 1502. Voyagers would have stopped for water and possibly sheep or cattle from the local Khoi. At least one expedition left a small Portuguese cross, carved into a piece of sandstone overlooking the bay at the top of Hamilton Russell Vineyards. It is possible that either Bartholomeu Dias or Vasco da Gama stood on top of what is now Hamilton Russell Vineyards.
Grazers and loan-farmers
1739 – on August 18th, Gerrit Mos arranged with the Dutch East India Company to loan-farm “Attaqua’s Kloof” for grazing cattle. This would have included what is now termed the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and much of what is now termed the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. This was a short-lived arrangement.
1760 – Wessel Wessels arranged to loan-farm the Hemel-en-Aarde, which he did with family until 1794. Wessels built a homestead with a werf and a cattle kraal – the remains of which would now be under the waters of De Bos dam. Several other short-term loan-farmers followed Wessels.
1847 – in June, the Hemel-en-Aarde was auctioned for private ownership – the British being prepared to provide the freehold that the Dutch were not. The cousins Jan Joubert and Jan Reitz bought 6 lots, effectively acquiring the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and a portion of Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge in the next valley. The lots were grouped under the names Hemel-en-Aarde (now the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine appellation), Karwyders Kraal (part of which is in the Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine appellation) and Attaqua’s Kloof (the bulk of the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine appellation).
1897 – a toll house was built at the entrance to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley as a result of the increased “traffic” into the valley and between Caledon and Hermanus. It operated until the end of the Second World War.
The British had a large international market for wool and the Hemel-en-Aarde was increasingly used for sheep farming, often along with wheat. Farms changed hands regularly and ownership was never for long. Subdivisions were made and eventually the smaller and smaller farms struggled for viability. By the 1930’s the Hemel-en-Aarde was an impoverished area and remained poor well into the 1970’s.
1901 – one of the most interesting of the Hemel-en-Aarde’s characters, Ella Gordon (born Isabella Dove Colston) purchased a farm she called Braemar, recognizing her Scottish roots. She sold the farm in 1910 and purchased Karwyderskraal, where she died in 1958, leaving her land to her workers. There is much more to her colourful and worthwhile life.
4. A place of healing
The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley has always had a distinctly uplifting feel to it and apparently has intersecting “Ley Lines” (straight ‘paths’ or routes in the landscape which are believed to have spiritual significance) recognized and valued by the initial hunter-gatherers as well as several of the current inhabitants. It is regarded by many as a place of healing in the broadest sense of the word.
1813 – leprosy fears in the Cape led to the selection of a farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley loan-farmed by Jan Niemand, as a place to isolate the colony’s sufferers. Jan Niemand himself had family members with leprosy.
1817 – Governor Lord Charles Somerset issued a proclamation that all the Cape Colony’s lepers were to be removed to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
1819 – a hospital and a boarding house was erected for the lepers of all races. The 100 or so residents were cared for by German (Moravian) missionaries.
1822 – the leper colony was visited by Dr. James Barry who had obtained an Edinburgh medical degree. Women at the time were not allowed to be doctors, so although the highly respected Dr. Barry qualified and practiced as a man, she was discovered upon her death to have been a woman.
1846 – a decision was made to move all the lepers to Robben Island. There are apparently at least 400 leper graves remaining in the area and until recently the foundations of the leper hospital could be seen on the land now leased by Pick n’ Pay for farming lettuce. Before the growing tunnels were erected, lines of snowdrops remained, marking the old locations of the walls of some of the buildings.
1952 – Frank and May Redman founded Camphill, which became a school and farm community for special needs children. Camphill successfully fulfills this role in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley today.
1986 – Bernhard Turkstra and Barry Wood founded Volmoed as a Christian conference centre and healing retreat – a role it successfully fulfills in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley today.
5. Fine-wine country
Early 1900’s – a small wine cellar was built at the bottom of what is now Bouchard Finlayson, with equipment sufficient for production of wine significantly beyond household use. A crusher from Lyon in France dating from the 1930’s was found along with several small barrels and a fermenter made from Dutch East Indies teak of well over 100 years old. It is likely that one of the supplying vineyards was at the bottom of what is now Hamilton Russell Vineyards, where evidence of plowing with horses and even Donkies (the shoes) has been found. Sadly nobody knows what was made and no real research has been conducted into this first producer. The cellar probably shut down late in the impoverished 1930’s.
1975 – with the Hemel-en-Aarde struggling to find a viable form of agriculture for the fragmented and subdivided properties, it was real blessing that Johannesburg businessman and long-time, second generation, Hermanus visitor, Tim Hamilton Russell, chose the 170 hectare property that once belonged to Ella Gordon on which to develop a wine estate. He purchased the land in 1975 for R58,000. He planted Pinot noir among several other varieties and eventually hired a winemaker from Franschhoek, Peter Finlayson, to make his first wines from the 1981 vintage. Early quality success with all wines and then particularly with Pinot noir and Chardonnay attracted others to the area. His son Anthony took over in 1991, making the operation properly financially viable and eventually internationally renowned, further affirming the suitability of the Hemel-en-Aarde for quality wine and attracting additional new producers to the area.
2013 – having pioneered quality wine production in the Hemel-en-Aarde, Tim Hamilton Russell, who died in 2013, would have been proud to see it become such a vibrant and positive force for the re-generation of the area. Four ex-winemakers of Hamilton Russell Vineyards and a further two relatives of ex-winemakers have gone on to develop wine producing ventures in the Hemel-en-Aarde. Today (2018) there are 20 producers making Hemel-en-Aarde wine, 12 wine cellars, and 5 non-producing grape growers. Based on Hamilton Russell Vineyards early success with Pinot noir and Chardonnay, these have become the wines the Hemel-en-Aarde is most focused on and best known for.
The Hemel-en-Aarde Appellations
October 1981 – The wine authorities with the assistance of Tim Hamilton Russell, demarcated a new wine appellation – Walker Bay – as a Wine Ward (the smallest unit of appellation) to accommodate Hamilton Russell Vineyards and any additional properties that may be developed in the area. This was based on the strong cooling marine influence of Walker Bay. The resulting appellation ended up being more the size of a Wine “District” than a Wine “Ward”, taking in the Bot River area, The Hermanus area and the Stanford area.
By 2000 – significant growth in the number of producers within Walker Bay, along with the clear differences in wine styles and varietal focus in its composite areas, were making it loose relevance as a smallest unit of appellation.
2003 – Anthony Hamilton Russell and Dave Johnson (founder of Newton Johnson) got together to address this issue and lobby the authorities to turn Walker Bay into a Wine “District” (which is what Stellenbosch is). This was successfully achieved in May 2004 and enabled them to begin working on demarcating smaller, more relevant units of appellation within this District, which properly reflected the focus and wine styles of their immediate area. Anthony Hamilton Russell owned the “brand” name “Hemel-en-Aarde Valley” in class 33 (alcoholic beverages) of the trademarks act and donated it to the other producers in the area for use in naming the appellations.
August 2006 – the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley appellation and the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley appellation became official.
June 2009 – the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge appellation became official, and although it is located at the headwaters of the Klein River Valley – i.e. at the beginning of the next valley – it was included under the name Hemel-en-Aarde due to its consonant varietal focus and geographic proximity.
With the formation of these three Hemel-en-Aarde wine appellations, the long-term ability of the area’s producers to engage and retain the interest of the world’s most serious wine lovers was greatly enhanced.
June, 2006 – the Hemel-en-Aarde Winegrowers’ Association was formed for the producers in the three appellations.
Order of producer establishment:
Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1975
Bouchard Finlayson 1989
Southern Right 1994
Newton Johnson 1996
Domain des Dieux 2002
Jakob’s Vineyards 2002
Mount Babylon 2002
Restless River 2004
La Vierge 2004
Bosman Hermanus 2010
Alheit Vineyards 2010
Storm Wines 2012
And onwards ………..
The Hemel-en-Aarde with its three appellations is now firmly established as one of the most exciting quality wine producing areas in the New World, garnering significantly more press and awards than its small and focused production would lead one to expect. The future is bright.
Written by Anthony Hamilton-Russell