Hemel en Aarde Valley
Hemel en Aarde Valley

Allow me to borrow a phrase from John Platters fantastic book, ‘My Kind of Wine’. During a recent recce into the Overberg wine region of the Southern Cape, in particular the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, I was led off the beaten track to meet Hannes Storm.  And it was here I discovered the makings of greatness.

Just 2,7km past Newton Johnson and 300m before the Spookfontein entrance, you will find a stone-walled entrance leading to a winding road that takes you to the compact home of Storm Wines.  It’s not somewhere you will find in tourism literature, but something special is happening behind these scenes.  Although the valley is frenetic with winemakers preparing for the start of the imminent 2017 harvest, Hannes’s welcome is warm as he draws me into his modest cellar.  It is packed with French oak barrels and just as we start chatting, neighbour and fellow winemaker, Gordon Newton Johnson, comes bounding in.  Newton Johnson himself is renowned for making some of the best wines in the valley, yet is quick to praise how well Hannes’s wines were received the previous evening – when a valley tasting was held for a US wine critic.  

The sincerity and positivity of Gordon’s comments can be felt rippling through the valley.  The ‘old guard’ comprising of Anthony Hamilton Russell, Peter Finlayson (Bouchard Finlayson) and Kevin Grant (Ataraxia) is being boosted by vitality and camaraderie of the Newton Johnson Family, the enigmatic team at Creation and the passionate youngsters such as Gerhard Smith of La Vierge and Hannes Storm of Storm Wines.

Everyone who has an interest in making fine wines in the valley owes much to Tim Hamilton Russell who, against all odds, was a pioneer in establishing Hemel-En-Aarde as the pinnacle of Pinot Noir in South Africa.  Without his vision and grit, we would be deprived of many world-class wines emanating from this region. “Tim was unflinching in his quest to prove [that making] Burgundy was possible in the southern tip of Africa, until then known for its cattle, wheat and fruit farms”, states John Platter.   Much is owed to his son, Anthony, who took the baton from his father and further developed the interest and potential of this breathtaking valley. 

Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the only real contenders for greatness in the area.  Something which Hannes, born and bred in the area, identified early on whilst working as an assistant at Hamilton Russell under Kevin Grant in 2002 and 2003.  Later, during a short stint at Summaridge, he was summonsed back to take over the winemaking responsibilities which he did from 2004 for ten years, until officially breaking out on his own in 2015.

Having started his own brand, with the maiden vintage released in 2012, yet still responsible for winemaking at Hamilton Russell, Hannes’s life required double shifts.  However, having a steady income enabled him to pay for barrels and bottles without needing to approach the bank.  The wine business is all about relationships and networking and this is something Hannes does well.  With a relaxed, engaging and unassuming character, he possesses a single-minded focus and absolute dedication to produce the best possible wines – something that sets him apart.

Working closely with the growers who are scattered around the Hemel-En-Aarde valley, Hannes is building on the legacy of Tim Hamilton Russell, whose sole aim was to produce the finest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the country. Pinot Noir is a temperamental grape, thin-skinned and fragile (hence known as the ‘heartbreak grape) but when a winemaker gets it right, its nectar is mysterious and sexy – and possibly the greatest food wine in the world.  I sat with Hannes as we tasted his latest 2015 vintage - and I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that we have a cult wine in the making.

Gordon Newton Johnson (left) Hannes Storm (centre) and Wade Bales (right)
Gordon Newton Johnson (left) Hannes Storm (centre) and Wade Bales (right)

Wade Bales is the Founder of The Wine Society
wadebaleswinesociety.co.za

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