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)

Tasting the Exceptional Sumaridge Estate Chardonnay 2017 from the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley…

Owner Simon Turner and his wife Holly Bellingham bought the fine Sumaridge Estate in 2008 after having been lucky enough to enjoy a family holiday home in Hermanus for several years before that. I met Simon in London several times through his UK importer Sporting Wine Club and enjoyed many of his winery’s fine wines alongside some great sporting personalities in the International world of cricket and rugby.

Perhaps not one of the most famous of the Hemel-en-Aarde wineries, Sumaridge has slowly but surely risen to new heights in the last few years under wine maker Walter Prestorius who has utilised the exceptional terroir of the region to make some very exciting wines.

A typical feature of the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley in the Walker Bay region is the maritime fog that enters along the valley floor in the evening and exits in the early morning, just exactly where Chardonnay vineyards from Sumaridge are located. Along the banks of the On Rus river the soils are ancient decomposed granite loam with quartzite inclusions located on North West orientations from 180 to 196 metres above sea level approximately 8km from the cooling Atlantic Ocean.

Sumaridge Chardonnay 2017, WO Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13.5% Abv.

Another fantastic vintage in the Cape delivers a predictably expressive white wine. The aromatics show impressive richness of fruit and a fine focus with layers of brûléed lemon citrus, freshly baked baguette, creamy green melon confit and a hint of coconut and vanilla pod spice. Very inviting, this 2017 shows flesh and concentration, intensity and vibrant depth. The rich citrus density coats the palate and lingers long on the finish. What power, what persistence! With no shortage of ripeness, the final badge of success of this delicious wine is marked by its tangy acidity and mouthwatering freshness. A very fine, complete package that oozes Hemel-en-Aarde Valley pedigree. Drinking now but will evolve over the next 4-6 years.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Wines available in the UK from the Sporting Wine Club at http://www.sportingwineclub.com or from regional stockists.

The Fairytale White Wine Variety From Galicia – Tasting the Newton Johnson Vineyards Albariño 2018…

Albariño… a vibrant Spanish/Portuguese grape variety that is undoubtedly characterised by a uniquely palate-tingling freshness, a light-bodied purity and a crystalline clarity. Saline, zingy and always zippy, where ever grown, it’s the natural partner of a raw ceviche, sushi or any classic seafood pairings. But who would have thought it would settle into South Africa so well!? Assyrtiko… ok, that seemed a no brainer, but this cool climate variety has yielded fantastic results for not only Newton Johnson but also Springfield Estate.

Albariño is a thick skinned grape variety that can thrive in moist, high-altitude vineyards by the sea – in a Spanish context that means the Galician region of Rías Baixas in the North West near Santiago de Compostela – without succumbing to mould or rot unlike some other more delicate varieties. Higher altitude vineyards generally means a cooler climate, stopping the grapes from over-ripening in the Spanish heat but instead allowing them to retain their own fresh, bright acidity that gives this grape its own characteristic mouth-watering style.

First planted in South Africa by Newton Johnson Vineyards in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the first unofficial bottling was, I believe, the 2014 vintage which was served at an “alternative varieties seminar” at Cape Wine 2015, and since then, this grape has continued to impress meriting more producers to invest in plantings.

Bevan Newton Johnson in jovial mood at the 2019 New Wave Tasting in London.

Newton Johnson Vineyards Albariño 2018, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13 Abv.

The 2018 Albariño was matured in 55% stainless steel together with a concrete egg portion with some also in 2,000 litre foudres. Another outstanding Albariño effort, this 2018 shows fabulous crystalline vintage purity and minerality that’s finely embellished and enhanced by notes of crunchy white peaches, lime peel, wet river pebbles and ruby grapefruit zest. The palate shows an impressive harmony and fleshy balance enlivened by beautiful saline notes of the sea shore, bitter yellow grapefruit confit and complex Riesling-like kerosene hints. Fresh but not tart and deliciously piquant. Drink now and over the next 3 to 5 years.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Marc Kent and Gottfried Mocke Extending Their Winemaking Portfolio in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – Tasting the New Cap Maritime 2017 Releases…

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley seems to be a popular region for brand extensions. Producers like Wellington based Bosman Family Wines has recently branched out there and now so too has Franschhoek / Swartland based producer Boekenhoutskloof under the Cap Maritime label.

With no vineyards currently in the ground, viticulturist Rosa Kruger has been tasked with designing and planting the new Cap Maritime vineyards for Marc Kent and winemaker Gottfried Mocke, who will lease vineyards nearby until their own plantings come on stream. In the meantime, the 2017 and 2018 vintages have already been vinified at their Franschhoek winery, although there will be no brand association of Cap Maritime with the parent company, in a similar way to which Porseleinberg operates and is marketed separately.

Cap Maritime Chardonnay 2017, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 13.5 Abv.

Making great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come naturally to Gottfried Mocke and however successful he is at Boekenhoutskloof with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, it is Chardonnay specifically that shows off his true talents. The new release Cap Maritime Chardonnay is overtly mineral and stony with layers of limestone, crushed rocks and wet river pebble nuances melting into a melange of yellow citrus, white blossom, grape jelly, green melon preserve and the most sublte kiss of French oak spice. The palate displays a full plump mouthful with hints of ginger bread, grapefruit peel, wet chalk, green honeydew melon, pithy apple skins and a complex vanilla pod spice finish. Seamless and fresh with a harmonious texture from start to finish, this wine shows great refinement and would not look out of place standing amongst some of the finest young Pouilly Fuisses of Burgundy. Drink on release or cellar for 2 to 3+ years before opening.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Cap Maritime Pinot Noir 2017, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 14 Abv.

This 2017 release is a wonderfully classically proportioned Pinot Noir true to its terroir of the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Sensual and fleshy, sleek and beautifully perfumed, the aromatics are lifted and opulent, brimming with crushed maraschino cherries, pink musk, parma violets, dusty limestone and a sappy resinous complexity. There is none of the structural tannic frame as seen on many 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir wines but rather more elegant mineral laden red and black berry fruits that show delicious purity together with mouth watering acidity. I don’t think you would confuse this expression for Old World Burgundy, like you could for the Chardonnay, but there is nevertheless all the tell tail hallmarks of a very fine terroir combined with intelligent winemaking. Drink this on release and over the next 6 to 8 years.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Another Bright Young Winemaker to Watch in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – Tasting Natasha Williams Signature Wines Chardonnay…

After many years of industry employers frowning upon winemakers and assistant winemakers doing their own creative side projects, it has thankfully now almost become the norm with employees free to experiment and let their creative juices flow while the employer not only retains the winemaker but undoubtedly benefits from the extra knowledge and creative inspiration spawned by these side projects.

The latest one on my radar is the highly talented Natasha Williams who by day works at the Bosman Winery’s Hemel-en-Aarde property but “after hours” makes some delicious Chardonnay under Natasha Williams Signature Wines. I recently acquired a sample of her new 2017 Chardonnay and what a cracker it is!

Produced from grapes originating in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, a specially selected high density (6667 vines per HA) block from the DeBos Farm was vinified to produce 1,060 bottles. Picked early in the morning, the grapes were trucked to the Lelienfontein Cellar in Wellington where they were basket pressed and the juice allowed to start a spontaneous natural yeast fermentation lasting 2 months with 50% in concrete tanks and 50% in older 300 litre French oak barrels. The wine spent 10 months on fine lees in 3rd and 4th fill barrels before being racked and aged a total of 16 months in French oak. (13 Abv., 3.31 pH, 5.84 TA, 2.2 RS).

Natasha Williams Chardonnay 2017, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, 13 Abv.

An attractive cooler climate expression of Chardonnay is always a vinous treat from South Africa. In the glass you can indulge in a wonderful bouquet of pithy lemon and lime peel, limestone minerality, dusty crushed gravel, white pepper and yellow grapefruit preserve with just the most subtle salted toffee vanilla oak kiss. On the palate, the wine is classically steely and linear as you’d expect but with an incredibly fine accompanying textural balance, waxy soap stone minerality, grated lemon rind, more limestone, caramelised green fig and succulent ripe honeydew melon notes on the finish. I love the purity, crystallinity and elegance that is ever present with the wine never straying too far into the reductive spectrum while retaining a wonderful sense of restraint. A very impressive solo debut from winemaker Natasha Williams.

(Wine Safari Score: 91+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)