A River Runs to It

It would be easy to fall for the alluring back-story behind Restless River, a wine that has hit the South African wine scene with a full-on gale rather than a splash. I mean, what’s not to like about the tale of Craig and Anne Wessels?

Cool and arty dude from Kloof in KZN runs world-class animation movie studio in Cape Town. Together with his wife, an international fashion model, the family takes a break from the glitz of movies and walking the ramp to spend time in the countryside. Which happens to be in the Hemel-en-Aarde, where they chance-upon a 20ha piece of land next to a small, fast river that sputters restlessly, especially after the rain.

Craig dabbles in grape-growing and wine-making, self-taught. Anne lends a calm, stylish presence in the marketing and customer-relations department. Now, 16 years after they started out and eight seasons following the first Restless River vintage, the wine has become one of the most desired South African brands.

As they say in the classics, what’s not to like?

And it is all easy and, like, cool, driving with Craig in a clapped-out roofless Land Rover he bought 20 years ago for eleven-kay randelas, while Frankie, a tan Staffie hangs off the panel, scouting the fynbos and granite koppies for buck and baboons. Craig’s just returned from a surfing-trip to Jeffrey’s Bay with his mate Eben Sadie, who also makes wine. All this talk of surf and Craig’s early foray into the advertising industry “where I had wanted to work because those ouks all had sexy girlfriends” can be slightly misleading at first. Once we get into the vineyards, young Pinot Noir vines he is busy planting on the slopes of a neighbour’s farm, it becomes evident the soul of a serious son of the soil is beating below the stylishly dishevelled black T-shirt.

Anne and Craig Wessels. (Picture: Stellenbosch Visio)

“The soil up here is unbelievable, unique in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde appellation – and I know this because it was a moer-of a job clearing the alien trees and bushes before planting,” he says. Craig points down the valley to where his own Restless River spread lies across the winding tar road from Hermanus to Caledon, on a gently sloping, rocky surface. “Down there, where our Single Vineyard blocks are, I’m on 100% granite. Up here, it’s mostly shales with some granite intrusions, and with good exposure to the cooling breeze off Walker Bay.”

Back down below on Restless River and walking between the Chardonnay vines, he points to the pruning techniques used, the solid scions and canes neatly tucked between the wires. “It was fortunate for me that my involvement in grape-growing and wine-making came here, in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde,” he says, clipping a cane onto a trellis-wire. “Incredible soils, poor and hardy, but able to hold and release moisture at just the right times. And the influence of the ocean riding-up through the valley, a maritime climate allowing all of us who farm here to produces the wines we do.”

I demand a glimpse of how Craig does it. Making those three wines – Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. And invite myself into the cellar, which can be described as rudimentary in modern winemaking parlance, but has a familiar look and feel for anyone who has visited the inner sanctums of Burgundy in France. A wooden press. Some small wine tanks, including one originally used for holding milk. Four oak fermenters and a couple of vogueish terracotta amphorae. Rows of barrels rest in a dark, cool space attached to the cellar, where 35 tons of grapes are crushed.

No formal wine-training – Craig’s degrees in graphic design and commerce iced the desire for further qualifications. “Back in 2002, Stellenbosch University was offering a week-end course for garagiste winemakers, so off I went,” he says. “Got the very basics there, I suppose, but most of what I learnt about winemaking has been through careful observation and tasting, the internet has been useful too. But I am mostly at home in my vineyards, farming. I don’t find a cold cellar very exciting, 90% of my time is in the vineyards, and that’s where you’ll find the soul of a wine.”

Listening to his winemaking strategy and philosophy, I can’t help but feel that formal training would have largely gone wasted here. It is as much about intuition and creative – dare I say “art” – than it is about fermentation temperature, skin-contact and balling measurements.

“I never want to use the word ‘art’ in winemaking, as one then tends to sound pretentious,” says Craig as we stand at the old wooden press that works around the clock during harvest. “But I’m someone who needs to be hands-on in driving the whole process, and I do a lot of thinking about how I am going to do it. Creative expression is who and what I’ve always been, and I can’t change that now, it’s important to me that my wines are a true expression of their vineyards.”

Nature provides the canvas, and the winemaker holds the brush, poised. “Harvest time is the most stressful, deciding when to pick,” he smiles, “this is critical to making terroir wines, you’ve only got one chance to get it right, pick just too early or too late and you’ve missed it.”

Sometimes, Craig says, he’ll be giving the vineyards a look-through in late-afternoon, vineyards set for picking at six o’clock the next day. “The flavours are there, the pips taste right, but something just says I must hold-off for a day,” he says. “Then I’ll call the picking teams and cancel. They probably think I’m nuts, but what the heck, it’s what I feel will make a better wine.”

By now, the Restless River wines are calling, laid out in Craig and Anne’s open-plan dining-room kitchen, which at its heart has a massively magnificent anthracite-fired old Aga stove. The labels are by now familiar with their front-end details on vineyard-hectares, vineyard name, soil details, harvest dates and origin of place. All named after their respective vineyard: Ava Marie Chardonnay, Le Luc Pinot Noir and the Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon, fast becoming one of the most revered South African wines made from this variety, especially as he is the lone pioneer of Cabernet in Hemel-en-Aarde.

The homestead on Restless River. (Picture: Stellenbosch Visio)

There, too, is a wine called Wanderlust, Craig’s adventure of each year making a unique wine from a different – and sometimes undisclosed – grape cultivar. This is a more extreme project, where conventional wisdom is challenged and the line often crossed, but never at the expense of quality. 

The lineage of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which count among the top-examples from Hemel-en-Aarde, is driven by soil, sea and a deftness in the cellar. Fruit is bright and pure, tempting and delicious, but with cerebral clout of the kind fascinating the drinker who seeks to unravel the layered complexity. The famous Restless River Cabernet Sauvignon is regal and commanding, as befitting a wine made from Bordeaux’s great red. But there is a particular refinement and grace to this specific wine, a tapestry woven from opulent black fruit, spring fynbos and new leather.

Here, the attitude of man is evident. “I look at it this way,” says Craig about his wines, “each wine is made from a vineyard growing on a patch of earth, the only patch of earth I have the privilage of making wine from. All I can do, is give it my best shot. And everything else I’ve got.”

That is, in essence, the only story.

  • Stellenbosch VISIO, December 2020

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