Heaven on earth

2013-05-07 09:30

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Break away from city life and meander along the Overberg’s Hemel-en-Aarde wine route, where everything is in harmony with nature.

My friend Susina and I are drinking an early-morning espresso at our favourite street café in our hometown, Stellenbosch. The misty, early autumn day lies stretched in front of us. An older couple sits down next to us. They’re not South African.

I catch the man’s eye.

‘Good morning, where are you from?’

I ask politely.

‘Germany, and you?’

‘Stockholm,’ Susina says unexpectedly.

I snort a little into my napkin.

‘What other wine tourism can you do around these parts if you’ve already explored Stellenbosch?’ I ask, good-naturedly playing along.

‘We visited Hormoenas Pater… um…’

He gives up and asks his wife something in German. She hands me a brochure and I read the name of the presitigious wine farm Hermanuspietersfontein, close to Stanford.

I look around me at the falling leaves, the gentle sunshine, Susina and the man. Why not? The cellar is virtually around the corner. And it’s Saturday after all…

Later that morning, we get hold of a map of the Hemel-en-Aarde wine route: Whalehaven, Southern Right, La Vierge, Hamilton Russell, Newton Johnson and a dozen other wine farms.

Plus places to eat, places to hike and, if you have a rod, places to fish. About 20km of heaven and earth.

I invite friend and sculptor Les Sharpe to come along. Les is originally from Rustenburg but has lived in Sydney, Australia, for the last couple of years. At the moment he’s spending a few months in Stellenbosch working. ‘I’m in,’ he says.

‘Who knows, maybe I’ll even find my elusive Sauvignon…?’

It’s an old joke. Since Les arrived in Stellenbosch, he’s been tasting one Sauvignon Blanc after another, searching for the South African version of his favourite, New Zealand’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

We decide not to tell him that Hemel-en-Aarde is mostly known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir…

Our first stop is the German tourists’ Hermanuspietersfontein. And what does host Retha Oosthuysen present?

A vertical tasting – different vintages of the same wine – of five of the estate’s Sauvignon Blancs.

Thing is, even though the cellar is at the starting point of the Hemel-en-Aarde route (it’s in the Hemel-en-Aarde shopping village just before Hermanus, opposite the turn-off to Sandbaai), the grapes come from Sondagskloof near Stanford, where the climate and terroir are perfect for Sauvignon.

Next up is monsieur Sauvignon, Bartho Eksteen, who creates Sauvignon that makes angels sing.

He makes many other wines too, all under the longest name in South Africa – Hermanuspietersfontein.

They are also into biodiversity and recycling. ‘All our red, white and pink wines are green,’ it says on the recycled cardboard box your purchases are placed in.

Our box is packed to the brim, but while Die Bartho (a blend of Sauvignon, Sémillon and Nouvelle) reminds Les of his Marlborough, it was unfortunately not the real thing.

Back in the car the road swerves sharp left a few hundred metres from Hemel-en-Aarde Village.

And before us lies the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, rolling hills covered with dark green fynbos. At the bottom lies a red-and-yellow patchwork of endless vineyards. Studded in-between are eucalyptus, pine, oak and fir trees, each its own shade of green.

The sky above is bright blue, with bundles of white clouds completing the painting. At Southern Right we pull over for coffee on the porch of the farm house. ‘Sit long, talk lots, laugh often’ it says in curly letters on the blackboard. And that’s what we do. With ease.

Next up is Hamilton Russell. Anthony’s wine is so formidable and established, you’d think this place would be grandiose.

But even though the tasting room setting is picture perfect, next to a pond with wild geese and coots, surrounded by reeds and eucalyptus trees, it’s a humble little thatchroof room.

‘We’re at the sacred place for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,’ says Susina, The Expert.

Chantel Swiegelaar invites us in, with a crackling fireplace in the background.

She’s married to Saul Swiegelaar, all the way from Bonnievale. ‘He must’ve liked me a lot to drive so far,’ Chantel laughs.

To be close to his beloved, Saul started working as a lumberjack on the farm. Today he’s Hannes Storm’s assistant winemaker.

Chantel is the third generation on the farm. Granddad Cornelius was the farm’s first worker and she joined him during holidays, learning how to harvest, pack and paint grapevine buds. After school she started working her way up the ladder, she explains as she leads us through the tasting of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

In 2009 she was appointed tasting room manager.

I’m convinced Sumaridge has the most beautiful view in the valley.

But then I also thought that at Bouchard Finlayson… Sumaridge’s winemaker, Gavin Patterson, is a Zimbabwean brandy maker who had to leave the country, like so many others.

After weathering hardships he arrived at Sumaridge with his family. Today he’s managing director and winemaker of a wide range of wines, from the expected Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, plus a few blends.

As a born-and-bred Zimbabwean he has a passion for Africa and always wanted to make a thoroughbred African wine. He calls it Epitome, a blend of Shiraz, Pinotage and a touch of Merlot. You taste the earthiness of the continent in his wine.

Les and I were thinking about a bite to eat, but Susina insisted we do one more stop before lunch, at Newton Johnson.

She promised we’d be quick and taste only one wine. So we did. And what a wine it was. The Newton Johnson not only received five stars in Platter’s Wine Guide, it is the only Pinot Noir that has done so over four consecutive years. Don’t miss it.

Come lunchtime we stop at a sign at the side of the road: ‘Creation open.’ It’s good to know creation hasn’t closed down yet! And we turn off.

A wine farm is a wine farm is a wine farm, but most of them have something unique.

At Creation, a lot is unique. Their hiking wine safari, for instance.

Accompanied by a guide, you explore fynbos, bird life, award-winning vineyards and olive trees before coming to a rest underneath an old oak tree, with a worn-in table and chairs underneath, ready for a picnic and wine pairing.

But, a little sluggish from driving, we decide to have our wine pairing right there in the tasting room.

The canapés, salmon cheesecake and springbok pie on the menu all contributed to Creation being named most innovative wine farm in South Africa at this year’s Great Wine Capitals of the World awards.

Les bites into his goat’s milk cannelloni with aubergine, deep in thought. He picks up his glass, swirls it around, sniffs it and finally takes a sip. And then, while swallowing, he slowly nods his head.

‘A case, a whole case, please.’

Heaven on earth…

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