The Hermanus wine route in South Africa

The Hermanus wine route in South Africa

Kerry Murray

Cape Town is well known for her wine regions, and they have long been on the must-visit list of most travellers to this picturesque corner of South Africa. The famous estates in Stellenbosch and Franschoek are on just about every “top 10” list in existence but what many people don’t realise is that the Cape wine scene extends well beyond the dramatic mountains that define the boundary of the greater metropolis.

A seaside escape

Follow the coastline about an hour or so south of the city, and you arrive at Hermanus, a seaside town famous for the annual appearance of Southern Right whales in the bay, and a weekend getaway for the well-heeled city crowd. To the uninitiated, it doesn’t seem like there is much to do here besides beach bumming and whale watching, but local wine estates are fast making a name for themselves as innovators in the industry, and as the awards stack up, the wine world is starting to take notice.

Betty Blue Bistro | Photo: Kerry Murray

Betty Blue Bistro | Photo: Kerry Murray

Stay at The Marine, right on the cliffs overlooking Walker Bay, and if you time your trip to coincide with whale watching season (June to September), you can see them frolicking while sipping your morning coffee in bed. With 40 rooms and suites, The Marine is the grande dame of Hermanus hotels and lives up to her 5-star reputation, but if you prefer something smaller, then Birkenhead House is a more boutique option. Slightly out of town and away from the bustle, it also boasts a privileged cliff-top position and is located between two cove beaches, perfect for a dip in the ocean, or for sitting on the deck, watching whales as the sun sets. For healthy, colourful breakfasts (or lunches) pop by the Betty Blue Bistro on the Main Road. A bright, sunny interior matches the vibrant menu and this recently opened eatery is already wildly popular, perfect for an informal meal or a quick cappuccino and their pancake selection is legendary, a great place to stop before a wine tasting trip.

Tucked away behind the mountains that back the town, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (Valley of Heaven and Earth) stretches away from the coastline for about 20km and is dotted with wine estates along its entire length. The proximity to the ocean, above average rainfall and prevailing maritime winds make this region the coolest of South Africa´s wine producing areas, so it´s no surprise, then, that the Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs coming from estates on the Hermanus Wine Route are attracting attention internationally.

Hamilton Russel | Photo: Kerry Murray

Hamilton Russel | Photo: Kerry Murray

Of whales and wine

Southern Right is one of the first producers at the entrance to the valley. Founded in 1994 by Anthony Hamilton Russel and named for the graceful and endangered whales that visit the nearby coastline, the estate is small and specialises in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage, a red grape varietal unique to South Africa. Developed in the early 20th century by a Stellenbosch winemaker, Pinotage is a mix between Pinot Noir and Hermitage, and the resulting vine has since become famous as South Africa´s signature grape and is immensely popular throughout the country. The Southern Right Pinotage is unique in that the cooler climate allows the fruit to be harvested later than in the hotter, dryer wine regions further inland, resulting in full ripeness and more classic fruit aromas. Next door, at Hamilton Russel Vineyards (founded by the same winemaking family as Southern Right) the focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both cooler climate varietals that perform beautifully in the valley’s particular microclimate. In what is predominantly a winter rainfall area, it´s not uncommon for foggy days and passing showers during the summer months, and it was, in fact, raining on the day we visited the estate, even though it had been hot and sunny just the day before.

Following the winding road through the valley Sumaridge was the next stop on our tasting tour, nestled against the south facing slopes. Founded in 1997, the original 44-acre farm has since grown to over 100 acres, and expansions continue. It is one of the larger estates in the valley, and we tasted a selection of 7 wines, ranging from a sparkling wine through the cool climate whites (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) to the reds, with an outstanding Pinotage that proved itself to be the most popular, at our table anyway.

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards is on the opposite side of the valley and boasts magnificent views across the vineyards all the way to the sea. Owned and managed by several generations of the Newton Johnson family, the first vines were planted in 1995. Located on what was previously uncultivated land, their philosophy was (and still is) to reduce impact and create biodiversity in the vineyards which in turn leads to less chemical usage in pest control. The Restaurant at Newton Johnson is right next to the tasting room and is the perfect interlude on a day of wine and road tripping. The restaurant is small (booking is essential) but the views are enormous, and the focus is on individual service and fresh local produce, complemented by their delicious range of wines.

Ataraxia | Photo: Kerry Murray

Ataraxia | Photo: Kerry Murray

Ataraxia is arguably the most dramatically positioned estate in the valley. What appears to be a small chapel on the hill below the steep mountain peaks is, in fact, their wine tasting lounge, and this picture perfect location has some truly incredible vistas. The estate is small, and their wine-making philosophy is to keep the process as straightforward as possible, from grape to bottle with minimal intervention using uncomplicated techniques. Their range of wines includes a wooded Chardonnay, a vivacious Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir and a red blend, all of which reflect the terroir and climate in which they were cultivated.

Next door at Creation a gastronomic experience awaits with a series of highly acclaimed gourmet food and wine pairings. Ranging from a chocolate and wine pairing to a full 3-course pairing menu, all tastes are catered for, and there is even a non-alcoholic selection of gourmet teas served with canapés for the non-drinkers and designated drivers. The restaurant is light and bright with views across the valley, or pick a spot on the lawn to enjoy the breeze while sampling their delicious nibbles. Creation’s range of wines is much wider than the other smaller estates, and in addition to the usual cool-climate suspects, they also cultivate several red varietals such as Merlot and Syrah, that are more common in the warmer, dryer regions of the country.

The crowning glory and final stop on our tour of the valley were Domaine des Dieux, a boutique estate that is particularly well known for their award-winning sparkling wines. Affectionately dubbed the champagne shack, their tasting room is a small cabin perched up on the slopes above their vineyards at the top end of the valley. Using traditional French champagne production methods, known in South Africa as “Methode Cap Classique”, their bubblies are classy and refined. The Claudia Brut is fermented in bottle, and spends 40 months on its lees, resulting in very small smooth bubbles. And the Rose of Sharon Rosé is fresh and fruity, with berry notes and a clean finish. Which is to say that they both went down far too easily and a return trip to the champagne shack is definitely on the cards.

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