Babylon by the sea

Hemel-en-Aarde - 'Heaven on Earth'

Hemel-en-Aarde - 'Heaven on Earth'
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With a name that literally means ‘heaven and earth’, it is perhaps no surprise that the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is the beautiful heart of the revamped Hermanus Wine Route.

It all starts at the – aptly named – Hermanus Wine Village, where you turn off the bustling R43 onto the decidedly more sedate R320 as it winds up into the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

A few minutes from the Wine Village, the R320 winds up and into Hemel-en-Aarde. Cradled between Babilonstoring Peak and the Kleinriviersberg, this picturesque valley may be carpeted in trellised vines and pastoral fields, but started life as a somewhat less bucolic escape. In 1817, Moravian missionaries established South Africa’s first leper colony here, and it was home to hundreds of patients until they were shipped to Robben Island in 1845.

Today, though, the valley is dedicated to good food and great wine. Without the crowds of Franschhoek or Stellenbosch, it is the kind of place where the winemaker will greet you at the cellar to explain how the sea breezes make this one of South Africa’s premier cool-climate wine regions.

On the sunny north-facing side of the valley are the carefully trellised vines of Hamilton Russell, arguably the most famous estate in Hemel-en-Aarde. In the understated tasting room – a quaint cottage of whitewashed walls and thatched roofs – you can taste the estate’s two wines and discover a bit more about these
iconic vineyards.

Fêted across the globe and sold for hundreds of rands a bottle, the intense Chardonnay and velvety Pinot Noir are beyond the budget of most tipplers – but for a snifter of how good South African wines can be, this is one estate you should not miss.

The same goes for Bouchard Finlayson nearby, where – like many wineries in the valley – tastings are free for small groups. The Galpin Peak Pinot Noir is the estate’s flagship, but the Crocodile’s Lair Chardonnay impresses as well.

Chardonnay is “the most malleable of all white grapes,” says winemaker Peter Finlayson. “It is the easiest to be good at, but the most difficult wines to be really great at!”

There is a small fee for tasting at La Vierge up the road, but the commanding views from the tasting room make it well worth a stop. The somewhat salacious labels hide a few good finds, with the Jezebelle Chardonnay and Original Sin Sauvignon Blanc well-priced and palatable.

Carrying on up the R320, Newton Johnson Family Vineyards is one of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s stalwarts, although the service in the tasting room is not always on form. Nonetheless, there are more fantastic views on offer here, and the Felicité Range offers an affordable selection of everyday wines, in addition to the flagship Pinot Noir
and Chardonnay.

By now you are probably getting peckish, and although Newton Johnson’s Heaven restaurant – now under the watchful eye of chef-patron Stefan Louw – offers some interesting dishes with paired estate wines, one of the Cape’s most delightful eateries is only a short drive away.

Mogg’s Country Cookhouse could be straight out of a children’s fairy tale, with smoke curling from the chimney and the small kitchen a-clatter with the sound of cooking. At the door of her quaint cottage restaurant, Julia Mogg greets guests like old friends, as mum Jenny bustles past with plates of seafood curry and lamb shank. Tables spill out onto the shady patio, and beyond the lawns a field of lavender runs down to a lake.

It is tempting simply to settle in at Mogg’s with another bottle of Chardonnay, but then you would be missing out on two of Hemel-en-Aarde’s best estates.

Ataraxia is the new home of Kevin Grant, formerly the winemaker at Hamilton Russell. In the stylish art-filled tasting room perched on a lonely hillside, the views are as spectacular as the wines. As you would expect, the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are outstanding, but the Serenity red blend is also a perfect example of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s understated elegance.

And from the stone steps of Ataraxia, you can just about see the vineyards of Creation Wines lying in ordered rows alongside slopes of fynbos.

The estate is run by husband-and-wife team JC and Carolyn Martin, and their laid-back restaurant/tasting room is the perfect place to end off a day of winelands wandering.

Friendly staff will gladly lead you through a guided tasting of the estate’s wide range of wines, or simply settle in at one of the sturdy oak tables and order a glass. The range of estate wines is available by the glass or bottle, and the Pinot Noir or Syrah/Grenache blends are particularly good.

If you are still hungry, or need some sustenance for the drive back to your hotel, the restaurant’s small menu offers generous platters and canapés that are well suited
to sharing.

With a glass of its reserve Pinot Noir in hand, and the green fields of Hemel-en-Aarde stretching out behind you, it is hard not to believe this bucolic, under-explored valley really is a chunk of heaven on earth.

Richard Holmes

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