Restless River is one of a growing number of producers in South Africa which has sprung up in the past 20 years – challenging the old order and helping to define the country as a genuine fine wine region and not just a ‘value option’. Six years since discovering the wines at a craft fair in Constantia, and helping set up its import into the UK, our roving editor Roger Jones was re-united with Restless River’s owner and winemaker Craig Wessels. They taste through a number of vintages of Wessels’ wines as well as catch up on some of his winemaking techniques and separate the fact from the fiction – like ‘the one’ about him learning winemaking from a 2-day weekend course.
What is fascinating about Wessels is his thirst for perfection, his description of his Pinot-fermenting is “just like a perfect lasagne” with layers of different textures.
Craig Wessels, owner and winemaker at Restless River, was laughed at when, in his early years as a winemaker, he started picking his Chardonnay grapes a couple of weeks earlier than everyone else in Hemel-en-Aarde. Now there is a Russian-like eye kept on Craig’s every movement towards harvest and, once Wessels starts picking, others take note.
It’s a far cry from when Wessels bought a a run-down sheep farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley to “clear his mind”, raise a family and put some distance between them and his successful design and animation agency in Cape Town. He also needed somewhere to park his formidable collection of cars and motorbikes.
Building a wine business was certainly not part of the dream to start with. There were a few vines on the property and Wessels did start to make wine for his own personal consumption. But soon he was producing more than they could manage and, in 2012 they released their first wines from the 2008 and 2009 vintages.
Curiously it transpired that the farm was originally owned by a distant relative of Craig’s who, back in 1760, had made ‘moonshine’ there, so producing wine was always in the farm’s bloodstock.
So, back to the present day, what was his reason for picking early?
“I found to my taste the Chardonnays from the region were too big for me,” Wessels explains, “the alcohol was higher than I liked and were more fruit bombs, so in my first vintage in 2008 I picked two to three weeks before the rest of the area, and with natural acidity I managed to evolve a much fresher style Chardonnay that would age well.”
He is also against malolactic fermentation, “fine,” he says, “for cool climate or Burgundy 30 years ago but I find it takes away the clean acidity and forces too much creaminess.” He allows his Chardonnay to go through oxidisation before fermentation, with his open-top barrels looking like the colour of coffee; he states that fermentation cleans up the wine perfectly.
If he starts his Chardonnay picking early, with his Cabernet Sauvignon he lets the fruit hang much longer, sometimes as late as May (the Northern hemisphere equivalent of November). He will still be picking when others have been and come back from their holidays, and some two months after the guys in Stellenbosch have finished their Cabernet picking.
His early wine career exploits may have seemed flippant to some but the attention to detail is quite immense, his perfectionism led to him famously pouring his entire 2010 vintage down the drain rather than de-classify it and sell it off as bulk. He also only releases his wines when he feels they are completely ready to drink, which is great for the aficionado but frustrating for a wine importer.
Similarly, winemakers often talk about who their favourite coopers are and visiting them but Craig went one stage further by inviting his cooper to visit his vineyard. When Wessels first visited Ludovic Tremeaux at his Tremeaux cooperage in Beaune, their friendship blossomed over rugby and wine and Tremeaux has since been over to Restless River many times getting a feel of the vineyard, terroir and essence of what Wessels is trying to achieve.
So did his wine education come really come from a weekend wine course? “Yes, in 2002 a mate and I took a Friday/Saturday introductory winemaking course held by one of the Stellenbosch oenology profs. It was like being given a recipe on how to make a loaf of bread, but it did ignite a spark.”
Wessels’ innovation and search for perfection goes on, with him planting three more hectares last year, four more this and a few more next year.
So what clones does he use? “You know I am not a fan of clones, but have a 20-40 year project planting my own seeds,” he says.
My first introduction to Restless River was in January 2014, on one of my regular fact-finding trips to South Africa and on a rare Sunday off from dragging my wife Sue around wineries, we visited a craft fair just outside Cape Town in Constantia and, of course, the craft fair did have plenty of winemakers showcasing their wines, which did not please Sue! One particular stall was being hosted by the radiant Anne Wessels. Within a few minutes I had persuaded Anne to call Craig back from his holiday and meet me the next day at their winery. I was originally spellbound not only by Anne but by the Cabernet Sauvignon, which reminded me of the very best Moss Wood Cabernet from Margaret River in Western Australia.
The following day, after a full tasting of their wines going back to every vintage they had made, I realised that Restless River needed to get a wider audience, and called up Robin Davis and Damon Quinlan from Swig who were following the rest of the brat pack in the Swartland, searching for the new star, but we had found him hundreds of miles away in the more sophisticated Hemel-en-Aarde.
And so to the wine tasting…
Besides the mini-tasting bottles sent out by London members’ club 67 Pall Mall, I also had the benefit of going through my library of Chardonnay and Cabernets by Coravin to see how these wines evolve.
Ava Marie Chardonnay 2018
From the single, two-hectare Ava Marie vineyard, only 5% new wood is used with the rest of the barrels up to ten years old; Wessels also uses amphoras. These wines are very refined, clean, textured and focused with a bright purity. The complexity and balance is quite superb. Gently evolving in its own meditative way, a wine to prize in five years’ time.
Ava Marie Chardonnay 2017
There was a lot of rain prior to the harvest which, in Wessels’ words, initially diluted the grapes and took the edge of the fruit but eventually have him the purity that he was after. This is a really classy Chardonnay, has that classic purity and freshness that is perfect with fine food. Again, a wine which will age beautifully, but do try it now.
Ava Marie Chardonnay 2014
Layered, clean and focused, hints of pineapple chunks with a clean fresh acidity, flavours dance on the palate, still youthful, exciting and fresh. Going to hang onto these for a few more years.
Le Luc Pinot Noir 2019
Pinot production came to Wessels later in life; I guess that, being based in Pinot country, he wanted to challenge himself. On my early visits to him in 2015 and 2016 even he seemed to be sweating at times with his methodology, but he need not have worried as the results are quite amazing.
What is fascinating about Wessels is his thirst for perfection, his description of his Pinot-fermenting is “just like a perfect lasagne” with layers of different textures. There are three different layers: whole clusters (whole bunch), whole berries and crushed berries, which are layered and repeated in this order – much like a lasagne!
The 2019 to drink: has a clean perfume of bright red berries, a luscious aroma. This is refined and just has the right balance of fruit to earth and that multi-berry flavour that makes you search out the delicate clusters.
Le Luc Pinot Noir 2017
On the nose there is a touch of tobacco, braai aromatics, hint of cured meat. On the palate it is spiced, darker berries but still elegant and has evolved beautifully.
Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
The Cabernet is sourced from two vineyards – Main Road & Dignity – which were planted high up and close to the sea in 1998/99. Without a doubt Wessels is producing unique Cabernet Sauvignon here, reaching world class status.
It is the lightness of the structure, the ripe tannin from the longer hang-time and, in Wessels words, “the gift that keeps on giving,” this wine is fresh and pure, has a deft delicacy, hints of the finest elegant coffee, but then with freshness and blue berries to the fore. Give this a decade.
Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
Evolving, hints of fresh shaved cedar wood, textured, soft spices, savoury and spiced with a gentle harmony of fruit refreshing this complex, layered beauty.
Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
A coffee/berry aromatic perfumed nose, on the palate pretty seamless, touch of cedar, then the elegance and evocative fruit, blueberries, bilberries and cassis.
Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Smoky bacon crisps aromatics, juicy fruits, a perfect elegance, fruit that lingers for an age – this is starting to evolve beautifully. Luscious blue and dark berries, crisp clean cassis. This would be perfect with a rack of Karoo lamb. Last two wines and the Chardonnay Ava Maria 2014 were from my cellar.
So finally, a big thanks to Swig Wines for bringing in this wine to give such pleasure to us Brits. There is a wealth of amazing winemakers in South Africa, each giving different highlights with Craig and Anne providing another star attraction, especially in innovation and changing trends.