Part 1 of Stellenbosch Visio‘s exclusive discovery of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s vinous treasures…
It would be easy to fall for the alluring back story to Restless River, a brand that has hit the South African wine scene with a full-on storm rather than a splash. Sixteen years ago, Craig Wessels, an arty dude from KZN who ran a world-class animation movie studio in Cape Town, and his wife Anne, an international fashion model, took a break to spend time in the countryside. Which happened to be in Hemel-en-Aarde, where they chanced upon and bought a 20ha piece of land next to a small, fast river.
Craig started dabbling in growing grapes and making wine, self-taught. Anne lent a stylish presence to the marketing and customer relations department. Now eight seasons following the first Restless River vintage, their wine has become one of the most desired South African brands.
Driving with Craig in a clapped-out roofless Land Rover he bought 20 years ago, we talk initially about his early foray into the advertising industry and his surfing trip to Jeffreys Bay with his mate, Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie. Cool. But once we get into the vineyards, among the young Pinot Noir vines he is planting on the slopes of a neighbour’s farm, you hear the voice of a serious son of the soil.
“The soil up here is unbelievable, unique in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde appellation,” he says. “I know this because it was a moer of a job to clear the alien trees and bushes before planting.” Craig points down the valley to where his own Restless River spread lies across the winding tar road from Hermanus to Caledon, on a rocky, gentle slope.
“Down there, where our Single Vineyard blocks are, I’m on 100% granite,” he continues. “Up here, it’s mostly shale with some granite intrusions and with good exposure to the cooling breeze off Walker Bay. The soils are incredible; poor and hardy but able to hold moisture and release it at just the right time. The ocean’s influence riding up through the valley gives us a maritime climate, allowing all of us who farm here to produce the wines we do.”
I demand a glimpse of how Craig makes his three wines – Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – and invite myself into the cellar. It has the familiar look and feel of cellars in Burgundy: a wooden press, some small wine tanks, four oak fermenters, a couple of terracotta amphorae, rows of barrels in a dark, cool space attached to the cellar, where 35 tons of grapes are crushed.
Craig has no formal training as a winemaker; his degrees in graphic design and commerce iced the desire for further qualifications. Back in 2002, he got the basics from a weekend course for garagiste winemakers at Stellenbosch University. “Most of what I’ve learnt about winemaking has been through careful observation and tasting. I don’t find a cold cellar particularly exciting. I’d rather spend my time in the vineyards. That’s where you’ll find the soul of a wine.”
His winemaking strategy and philosophy are as much about intuition and creativity as they are about fermentation temperature, skin contact and balling measurements. “I’m hands-on in driving the whole process and I do a lot of thinking about how I am going to do it. It’s important to me that my wines are a true expression of their vineyards.”
By now the Restless River wines are calling, laid out in Craig and Anne’s open-plan kitchen, with its magnificent Aga stove. Each wine is named after its respective vineyard: Ava Marie Chardonnay, Le Luc Pinot Noir and Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon. This last is fast becoming one of the most revered South African wines made from this variety, especially as Craig is the lone pioneer of Cabernet in Hemel-en-Aarde.
There’s also a wine called Wanderlust, Craig’s adventure each year when he makes a unique wine from a different, and sometimes undisclosed, grape cultivar.
The lineage of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which count among the top examples from Hemel-en-Aarde, is driven by soil, sea and deftness in the cellar. Fruit is bright and pure, tempting and delicious, with layered complexity. The Restless River Cabernet Sauvignon is regal and commanding but there is a particular refinement and grace to this specific wine, a tapestry of opulent black fruit, spring fynbos and new leather.
Here, the attitude of the man is evident. “I look at it this way,” says Craig about his wines. “Each wine is made from a vineyard growing on a patch of earth, the only patch of earth I have the privilege of making wine from. All I can do is give it my best shot. And everything else I’ve got.”
That is, in essence, the only story.