Restless River Releases Two Benchmark Fine Wines – Tasting the New Release Ava Marie 2020 and the Main Road and Dignity Cabernet 2019…

Swig Wines represents one of the most exciting and dynamic set of international wine producers in the UK and recently they held their portfolio tasting in Soho, London. Of course, the South African contingent was well represented as usual with the likes of Duncan Savage, Alex Starey from Keermont and Pieter Walser from Blank Bottle. But there was one glaring omission, Craig Wessels from Restless River.

Unfortunately, Craig experienced a freak accident surfing and had broken his leg and was unable to travel with the SA brat pack and share a warm sleeping bag with Duncan Savage! 😉 So I was extra excited to hook up with him at Cape Wine 2022 in early October for a proper tasting and a good catch up. But you can imagine my surprise and joy to be contacted by Craig only a short time afterwards asking to hook up again in London to taste his new releases one-to-one. Restless River’s new offerings always represent one of the most exciting and high-demand South African fine wine releases of the calendar year and so getting a proper run down from Craig himself was an invaluable experience for me.

Craig bought the Restless River estate with 7ha planted planted in 1998 (one hectare pulled out subsequently). Plantings are now already up to 21 hectares. Craig’s first vintages released were the 2012 for the Ava Marie Chardonnay and the 2008 for the Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon with his Wunderlust label representing an experimentational range allowing him to express his creative juices, producing one-off wines that are never usually repeated.

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2020, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13% Abv.

The 2020 vintage has a little more apparent acidity than the 2019, combining the fruit and salinity with the fresh acids. The 2020 was all produced in 500 litre barrels followed by blending and ageing in stainless for 3 to 4 months, settling and stabilising on its fine lees before bottling for better integration. The wine already shows lovely Lemon butter and leesy aromatic complexity with hints of white toast, lemon rind, white citrus, melted wax and a mellow kiss of salted caramel. The palate is bright and fresh but also shows a generous mid-palate concentration and textural fleshy character. This is a fabulous terroir driven wine that is harvested over the period of a month allowing for individual parcels to be brought in to the winery to be blended into the perfect assemblage. Incredible balance and mid-palate weight make this a tantalising offering. Simply benchmark in terms of Chardonnay in South Africa. Very similar to the 2019 in many aspects with the same ‘inner profile’ but with a tad more acidity and minerality in the 2020. A true classic that is worthy of a place in any collector’s cellar … if you can get an allocation! (10,901 bottles produced.)

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Restless River Main Road Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 14.01% Abv. 

Made from 23 year old vines, yielding 2 -2.5 tons per hectare. The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon had a very long hang time which gave it super smooth, ripe, dry fine grained tannins on the palate. Harvested from 10th March to 7th May, an almost unheard of length of picking spread for two small 1.59 hectare and 0.71 hectare vineyards, which are vinified separately by parcel within each vineyard, with each parcel matched to a different cooperage. Aged for 23 months in barrel and then almost another 24 months in bottle, the wine certainly hits the ground running in a most spectacular fashion. Such pristine purity and precision with beautiful purple and black berry fruits, creme de cassis, blue berry and an essence of watermelon making for a deliciously exotic, hedonistic wine. So incredibly lithe and fresh in the glass with tangy acids, a sleek but supremely intense concentration of blue and black berry fruits and a pronounced maritime salinity on the finish. But it’s undoubtedly the ‘wagyu-styled’ fine tannins that are massaged to perfection with an imperceptible mineral grip and a sleek velvety texture thanks to the longer hang times. So incredibly delicious. Wow! (8,124 bottles produced.)

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The Hemel-en-Aarde Cabernet Sauvignon that Continues to Defy Expectations – Tasting the Restless River Main Road & Dignity 2018…

Cabernet Sauvignon is not supposed to be this successful in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in the Walker Bay region. But like innovators before him, think Tim Hamilton-Russell, Craig Wessels has never been one to settle for conformity or pre-set industry parameters of quality with his wine styles. The track record is now so firmly established for the Restless River Cabernet Sauvignon that Craig certainly has no problem selling out of allocations of this exceptional expression.

Many of the 2017 reds reached heights of quality not seen for many years (2015 aside), so expectations for 2018 and the last drought vintages were understandably very high. This is a premium priced wine (circa £55 to £59pb retail) which consumers expect to reach certain quality heights every vintage. Craig Wessels has done a sterling job with the 2018 and while the main release in South Africa was already at the beginning of 2022, the wine is only now being offered seriously in the UK. If you have not tried this stunner, treat yourself. It’s a fascinatingly individual expression of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Restless River Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 14.5% Abv.

A 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from two single vineyards, namely Main Road (1.59 hectares) and Dignity (0.71 hectares) in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley matured for 23 months in 225 litre barriques with approximately 25% new oak. Located five kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean in the heart of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir country, this exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon red continues to confound the sceptics. Coming from the last of the proper drought vintages, Craig Wessels has captured a wonderfully opulent and heady expression of Cabernet Sauvignon with plenty of exoticism and ripeness while never losing a certain feeling of classicism and elegance. Tasted over two days, the wine shows an impressive depth of black and blue berry fruits with initial notes of plum skins, pressed violets, wet leaves, sapidity and sweet cedar spice followed by tilled earth, salty black liquorice and cherry kirsch liquor nuances. On the palate the fruit depth is broad and plush with a dark cherry and black currant intensity, hints of graphite and iodine and finishing with a fine-grained mineral tannin grip and yet more salty liquorice notes. The 2018 vintage seems more Napa Valley than Stellenbosch / SA in style but certainly a very well honed, opulent expression. Drink this now and over the next 10 to 15 years. (7,765 bottles produced.)

(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Available to the trade in the UK from SWIG wines. (www.swig.co.uk)

Breaking the Glass Ceiling – Tasting the Impressive Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2019…

The picturesque Restless River farm is situated in the cool Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The soils are granite based and the vineyards are positioned mid-slope at an elevation of 850ft. The cold South Atlantic Ocean is only 5km away and acts as a dominant cooling influence which contributes to fruit purity and fresh acidities. Craig and Anne Wessel’s site-specific Chardonnay bears the name of its 2.06 hectare vineyard and is registered as an official Single Vineyard site. The slopes are mostly south and east facing with shallow top soils which vary from iron rich rocks to a light, sandy gravel. Below this is decomposed granite, clay and quartz crystals which all help shape the unique minerality of the wine.

Specific parcels within the vineyard were hand-picked over a period of three weeks in February. The grapes were immediately placed, whole bunch, into an old Vaslin basket press. After a gentle four hour squeeze, the oxidised juice was settled overnight, then racked into a variety of different sized French oak barrels (10% new) and unlined terracotta amphora from Tuscany. Natural fermentation took up to 30 days, after which sulphur was added for the first time and the wine was then aged, sur lie, for 11 months. The wine was given a light fining before being racked into a stainless steel tank, where it rested for a further three months before bottling. The wine was bottle aged for 18 months before release.

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2019, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13% Abv.

6.53 TA | 1.47 RS | 3.20 pH | 0.38 VA

The 2019 Ava Marie is a very impressive creation indeed. While many of the earlier vintages were a little more honied and resinous quite early in their evolution, the last few vintages have firmly moved in a direction that favours textural tension and a stonier minerality led by aromatics loaded with smoky, flinty, struck match reduction nuances, waxy lemon peel, wet chalk and subtle oat meal leesy notes. On the palate there is a very keen line of acidity together with an ample, fleshy, yellow citrus fruit freshness that boast layers of pithy yellow grapefruit, lemon cordial, crunchy white peaches and hints of sophisticated wet river pebble liquid minerality. One of Craig’s most Burgundian expressions to date, this wine combines fabulous tension with sublime balance. If you are a Chardonnay lover, not a liker, track this one down while you can. Drink now and over the next 8 to 10 years. (9,634 bottles produced.)

(Wine Safari Score: 96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Restless River’s New 2020 Releases Raise the Quality Bar Yet Again…

Craig Wessels took the South African wine scene by storm with his first 2012/2013 red and white releases. Although his range has grown to include a spectacular 2019 Pinot Noir and a superb Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc, it has always been the Restless River Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that have been the stand out wines that have helped redefine quality in the entire Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

With the 2017 vintage yielding a blockbuster Chardonnay last year, this year it’s the moment for Craig’s spectacular Cabernet Sauvignon to take centre stage. From the moment Hemel-en-Aarde nobility Anthony Hamilton Russell shared some of his father’s early 1980’s Grand Vin Noir Bordeaux blends from the valley, I knew many producers were missing a real trick forgetting the cool climate opportunities for Bordeaux varieties in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The 2017 Main Road & Dignity Cabernet from Craig captures all the grandeur possible in this region renowned for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Restless River Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 14% Abv.

This attractive Hemel-en-Aarde Cabernet Sauvignon is fabulously dense and textured with multiple layers of creamy tannins coating the opulent fruit concentration. Full and glycerol in the mouth with refreshing acids, bright creme de cassis, black cherry and earthy baked plum fruit nuances. This vintage shows all the classic 2017 vintage elegance, focus and intensity with impressive mouthfeel and superb balance. You know this is something very special from the very first sip and certainly could be Craig Wessel’s finest Cabernet effort to date. Drink now and over 15+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2018, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13% Abv.

This is a classically structured Ava Marie 2018 with crystalline tangy acids, generous green and yellow citrus fruit flesh, intricate mineral flintiness and an intensity of lemon and green melon candy on the long, persistent, noticeably concentrated finish. Less steely, malic and severe in style than the impressively taut 2017 (96/100 GSMW), but certainly carries on the Ava Marie tradition of freshness, bright acidity and wonderfully focused purity. Drink now and over the next 10-15+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

(Tasted 27th November 2020)

Restless River’s Craig Wessels Finally Comes Out the Closet and Produces a Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir…

Think of Hemel-en-Aarde and red wine and you automatically point to Pinot Noir. Think of Craig Wessels and Restless River and you definitely go straight to fine Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. But finally, Craig has shed his Bordeaux blazer and donned a Burgundian hemp vest, producing his first Pinot Noir from vines he planted at the winery.


The must for this wine under went spontaneous fermentation in open top fermenters using 20% whole bunches from vines only planted in 2013. It was then basket pressed into old oak barrels for 15 months ageing. The wine has a healthy total acidity of 6.1 TA and a total SO2 of 50, with 25 free. Bottled in April 2017, Craig is planning for a mid 2018 release date. 


Restless River Pinot Noir 2016, Upper Hemel en Aarde, 12.8 Abv.

A very tense, taught version of Pinot Noir that harks back to Burgundy instantly. Lovely dark Cotes de Nuits berry fruits, a la Morey St Denis. Not quite the earthy nuances of a Gevrey, this wine is highly charged, spicey, black fruited with tart sour cranberry acids, sappy bramble berries, red plum and pithy cherry skin spice. Lovely definition, wound spring tension and ample energy. Texturally very sophisticated, broody and powder soft dry tannins. A very grown up version from young vines that can only get better and better as the vines establish themselves. Drink now or age for 3 to 8+ years. This is a serious effort for dedicated Burgundy lovers. 

(Wine Safari Score: 93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)


An Embarrassment of Riches from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ~ Tasting Another Fine Chardonnay from Restless River…

It seems consumers are being spoilt rotten at the moment with all the amazing Chardonnays from both Elgin and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. If you follow my blog, you might be mistaken for thinking that’s almost all I drink! Well, I’ve been following Craig Wessels’ beautiful reds and whites for the past few years starting with purchases of his unique Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and his 2012 Chardonnay.


Craig’s latest release in the UK market, the Ava Marie Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 from the Upper Hemel-En-Aarde Valley, is another top notch crackerjack wine. Using 15% new oak, the grapes were harvested between the 27th of February and the 12th of March and barrel fermented after wholebunch pressing. The wine was left 8 months on its lees without battonage.


Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2014 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa, 12.9 Abv.

Exotic, fragrant nose on this expressive wine. Shows salted caramel, lemon butter, toffee apple and hazelnut complexity. Wow, super complex nose. The palate does not disappoint either with intense caramelised white citrus fruits, creme brûlée, and nutty chalky complexity. Perhaps from a more difficult vintage but this is an extremely fine effort that is showing amazingly well. Most 2014 Walker Bay Chardonnays were probably sold out and drunk up long ago, but this elegant white is singing at the moment. Well done Craig Wessels!

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)