As if to prove the point of appellation, in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, it rained pretty steadily most of the morning of the recent Saturday of the Pinot Noir Celebration. But on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, it remained completely dry. Only a fifteen minute drive and 14 kilometres, but the rainclouds swirled into dry whisps by the time they got up to the Ridge.
But isn’t it all Hemel-en-Aarde, you may be saying? For a number of years now, the growers here have been detailing the differences between their three wine wards, or appellations. The “original” is what is now called “Hemel-en-Aarde Valley” where the wineries of Hamilton Russell and then Bouchard Finlayson put the valley on the map, later followed by “Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley” a few kilometres up the road and finally the newest being “Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge” – the highest part before one leaves the demarcated zone.
Rainfall already mentioned, the other key differences between the three wards are altitude, distance from the ocean, and predominant soil types. And once wine leaves the realm of a straight-forward commodity purchase (sauvignon is for summertime/shiraz is for steak), these are vital differences, ones that winemakers can hone in on to detail wines of distinction and describe nuanced, varied personalities. Now wine moves on the scale from commodity to scarcity and this improves the value chain.
So what are the different personalities of the Pinot noirs from the three appellations? Firstly to note that, while the informants that help make up the differences are very real, physically tangible ones, there is another factor that is vital in expressing site – whether here in the Hemel-en-Aarde or anywhere that fine wine is made. This is the winemaking team, from the viticulturist and the pruners to the winemaker and, by far not least, the vision (and preferences) of the owner. Each are tuning expression through subtle or obvious interventions and decisions. Some of the more obvious are: planting and trellising decisions, irrigation, picking dates, use of yeasts and other additions, whole bunch pressing or not, what oak is used to mature the wines in, and for how long.
There are literally hundreds of macro and micro decisions – and all of these are a form of human interpretation or intervention. So in multiple ways, to agree on what a appellation’s “true” expression is, is also a collective agreement that humans reach and then strive to bring to vinous life and illustrate through wine. This, ultimately, is the expression that the growers of the Hemel-en-Aarde, with their decades of experience, have helped both to create, as much as to unlock.
The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Here the style is chiefly driven by the heavy soil structure, which is rich in clay and also iron – difficult for vines to flourish but great for making the flavours rich and characterful. The wines are darker, broodier, more “old world” with savoury notes and spice. The texture is broad and complex. These wines age very well, and appeal to classic Pinot noir lovers.
The Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Defined by a shift to more granitic, crystalline soils on the top level, with clay as a substructure. The wines display a brighter, often lighter character than the Valley wines. There is a lifted and perfumed fruit element that beguiles but the wines have a subtle power beneath the floral aromas. The texture of the wines is fruit-plush leading to fine-grained tannins at the finish.
The Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
Here you find an amphitheatre of vineyards, with multiple aspects but again with the predominantly clay-rich soil structure of the Valley. There is more diversity in the Pinots here, since the added elevation helps grow bright fruit flavours, while the clay soils add the undertones of earthiness. Marked by highly perfumed wines, with florals and spice and plenty of berry notes; while the texture of the wines is mid-way between the richness of Valley and delicacy of Upper.
And if this is all too technical, the summary is simple: The Hemel-en-Aarde is a playground for Pinot lovers!
You are welcome to be in touch with questions, or to let us help you source your favourites.