Explore Sideways is all about getting off the beaten track and into some of the lesser known wine regions of the Western Cape. One of our favorite regions is the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, nestled between the mountains north of the quaint, coastal town of Hermanus. This cool climate region is an hour and a half drive from Cape Town and through the beautiful Cape Whale Route. The Valley is divided into what they call “wards” but could also be considered sub-appellations. Each ward has their own unique climate and terroir that is conducive to different grape varieties and flavors.

This is what inspired us to attend the Pinot Noir Celebration, appropriately held in the cool climate Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, hosted by the Hemel-en-Aarde Winegrowers Association. This two-day affair showcased pinot noir (and only pinot noir) from producers in all three wards of the valley – namely: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge & Upper Hemel-en-Aarde. Adding even more prestige to the event was South African Greg Sherwood MW, Senior Buyer at a well-regarded wine merchant in the UK and facilitator of proceedings during the main event.

The exciting wine region is quickly gaining a reputation for producing well-made, cool climate wines and is putting South African pinot noir in the spotlight, making it less of a curiosity than a varietal that has a legitimate place in the South African wine scene. With that in mind, the Pinot Noir Celebration is part of a process that seeks to understand how South African pinot noir compares to that of other recognised Pinot producing regions like Burgundy, California and New Zealand.

What makes South African Pinot unique?

At the top of our list was how South African pinot noir compares to the rest of the world. Greg Sherwood MW provided his perspective on the wines we tasted and it seems that while there is still some way to go in terms of the complexity of the wines, the foundations are being laid for a region that can, in time, produce world class examples of pinot noir that could rival its international counterparts.

Characteristics of the Hemel-en-Aarde that make it perfect for growing Pinot noir

The cool climate and maritime influence of the ocean allow for a slower ripening time for the grapes of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The longer hang time on the vine allows the berries to develop more concentration of flavour and complexity.

Differentiating between the ‘wards’ of Hemel-en-Aarde

The general consensus amongst the winemakers of the valley, it seems that the vineyards need to develop further in order for the differences of the wards to become more pronounced in the wine. There are, however, some more obvious geographic and climatic differences that come into play as the vineyards develop:

  • Hemel en Aarde ‘Valley’ is closer to the ocean than ‘Upper’ and ‘Ridge’ resulting in cooler temperatures in the evening from the ocean breeze
  • Hemel en Aarde ‘Upper’ has significantly different soil types (decomposed granite and sandier soils)
  • Hemel en Aarde ‘Ridge’ is less affected by the effects of the ocean and is protected from the South Wester wind that brings rain and cloud cover by a small mountain range 

Interview with JC from Creation Wines

Unlike Burgundy and some of the other regions that have been around for a little longer, many of the vineyards are still relatively young. The result is wines that some would consider less complex than their international counterparts. Winemakers are still learning the nuances of the Valley terroir. Having said that, the potential for these sites are immense and is expressed in the glass over and over.

Interview with Anthony from Hamilton Russell

After tasting a huge amount of pinot noir from the valley and from some of the other well know pinot producing regions in the world (Burgundy, California and New Zealand), it’s pretty safe to say the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is definitely coming into its own. If you haven’t been there yet, do yourself and favour and go! Now with 16 producers in the valley (not all of them making Pinot noir), its reputation for quality wine and top notch experiences is fast making it a bucket list destination for foodies, connoisseurs and adventurers alike. Apart from the food and wine, there are some amazing outdoor activities to be had – single track mountain biking, fly fishing, trail running, hiking, quad biking, quality bird watching and more.