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Between Heaven & Earth

Producing some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world, the Western Cape’s underrated Hemel-en-Aarde region is a wine route worth exploring.

According to ancient geology, it was about 290-million years ago that the universe conspired to make Hemel-en-Aarde a place to produce great wines. Thanks to folding (when the Earth’s plates collide due to internal forces and result in the horizontal compression of rock layers), an opportunistic mixture of Table Mountain sandstone, decomposed granite and Bokkeveld shale-based soil was left behind, creating the ideal terroir for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Sunrise in the Hemel

Sunrise in the Hemel

This little history lesson is delivered to me by Anthony Hamilton Russell, proprietor of Hamilton Russell Vineyards – the pioneers of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley and the first wine producers in the area.

“It was 1975 when my father Tim came across a 170-hectare site in this area, after a long time spent searching for the most southerly site on which to make South Africa’s top cool-climate wines,” he says.

“He purchased the land for R58 000, planted vines in 1976, and in 1981 produced the first wines.” Hamilton Russell enjoyed exclusivity in the region for a decade, before other winemakers discovered the idyllic countryside in which to produce excellent wines. There are now a further 18 vineyards in the area.

A delicious little secret

Located along the R320 in the Overberg, a short distance from the seaside town of Hermanus, Hemel-en-Aarde has to be one of the most picturesque spots in the Western Cape. Wedged between the imposing Kleinrivier and Babylonstoren mountain ranges, the surrounding landscape is lush and green and the region maintains a relatively stable cool climate throughout the year.

While those in the know (read: oenophiles like me) have been visiting the area for more than a decade, it’s only in recent years that the route has become popular. Often overshadowed by the more well known Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, the Hemel-en-Aarde wine route has felt like a delicious little secret – one you want to shout about from the mountain tops, but at the same time conceal and protect for fear of it becoming overrun. Another reason the valley remains somewhat unknown is that many of its wines are exclusive and small-batch, not readily available at any old bottle store.

Anthony Hamilton Russell in one of the Chardonnay vineyards on his farm

Anthony Hamilton Russell in one of the Chardonnay vineyards on his farm

Carolyn Martin, co-owner of Creation Wines with her husband Jean-Claude, agrees that the popularity of the region has increased. “People have started to discover it, and it has become very sought-after, both as a tourist destination and a source of excellent wines,” she says.

“The valley offers a very authentic experience – it is the real deal. When you visit, you will often meet the owners and winemakers, and people who work the land. The fact that it is off the beaten track makes it even more exclusive.”

Champion of the region

Creation Wines is one of the most recognised on the route, and has contributed a lot to the marketing of the region. Known for its Pinot Noir (which Carolyn refers to as the Prince Charming of red wines) and incredible food and wine pairings, it’s a popular stop. “Our ‘Story of Creation’ pairing menu is especially popular,” she says. “

Everything is edible and purposefully part of a dish, adding delight to the guest’s experience. Herbs, flowers and spices are all perfectly paired with our wines – there is no such thing as a garnish!”

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

Like other vineyards in the valley, Creation is most celebrated for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We have an annual Pinot Noir Celebration, which gives the region’s producers an opportunity to showcase their wines to Pinot lovers from far and wide. We are also blessed to make great Chardonnays with wonderful architecture and minerality. These cultivars from our area are regarded as world-class.”

A dream drive

A few years back, the route was only accessible via a dusty dirt road, preventing many from reaching the wine farms on the outskirts of the valley (including Creation). Since the road was tarred all the way to Caledon, it’s a pleasure to drive, with all stop-offs conveniently located along it.

Apart from other must-visit farms – Ataraxia (oh, the Chardonnay!), Sumaridge, Newton Johnson and Bosman – attractions such as horse-riding, zip-lining and mountain-biking trails make this a great weekend escape.

The valley is still largely underdeveloped, so accommodation is limited, but High Season Farm is a great option, offering family-friendly self-catering cottages with all the comforts of home – and the fact that there is no cellphone signal is rather refreshing. (Although there <is> WiFi.) For authentic hearty fare, book at Mogg’s Country Cookhouse, which you’ll find hidden down a <sypaadjie> (side path) along the route – drive too fast and you’ll miss the signpost.

Proprietor Anthony Hamilton Russell in one of the young Chardonnay vineyards on Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Proprietor Anthony Hamilton Russell in one of the young Chardonnay vineyards on Hamilton Russell Vineyards

The restaurant at Spookfontein Wines offers a more contemporary menu; thanks to its location high up on the hill, it has some of the best views over the valley and is a great spot for an unhurried weekend lunch. Spookfontein also has two charming and very affordable self-catering cottages on the property.

“We have all the attractions of the coastal resort town of Hermanus on our doorstep and the most dramatic scenery, which includes sea and mountains,” says Anthony, when asked what he thinks makes Hemel-en-Aarde so unique. “The region continues to grow in popularity as the wines grow in fame internationally, and as more producers are established. Come visit us – you’ll see!”

Ready to go? Start here…

Wine(farm)-hopping

Visit all the unique, boutique wineries of the area with Hermanus Wine Hoppers, which offers a hop-on-hop-off safari-style wine experience in open-air vehicles. Your ticket is valid all day, and the vehicles rotate from winery to winery, meaning you can stop for lunch at one spot, enjoy a few tastings at the others, and know that you’ll be collected and get home safely.

Zip-lining

With nine to 12 platform slides that range from 20m to 200m above ground, treetop zip-lining in the valley with SA Forest Adventures is suitable for newbies and adrenaline junkies alike. Thanks to the safe braking system, it’s easy to control the speed – whether you want to “fly” or glide gently is completely up to you.

Horse-riding adventures

Experiencing the exquisite valley on horseback makes for a memorable day out. Heaven & Earth Trails offers riding for various experience levels – choose from a slow-gaited canter or an adventurous, fast-paced outride. Each of the wide variety of trails offers spectacular scenery … and the opportunity to stop for wine tasting along the way!

Mountain-biking

Mountain-biking enthusiasts frequent Hemel-en-Aarde for its trails. Graded as moderate to difficult, Hermanus Adventures’ five routes all lead deep into the valley. Surrounded by fynbos, meandering rivers and towering mountains, each track’s difficulty varies, catering to all experience levels.

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