Jamie Goode delves into the wonderful world of Restless River, a South African winery that's steadily developed a stellar reputation amongst wine lovers and critics alike. The latest vintage of their brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are both available now, with limited availability.
Back in 2004, Craig and Anne Wessels decided to buy a vineyard in South Africa’s Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. They Wessels are not from a wine background (Craig founded an animation and design agency called Wicked Pixels, while Anne was a model), and perhaps this has helped them forge such a unique – and now highly respected – project.
Craig is self-taught as a winemaker and started this small winery in the Upper Heme-en-Aarde Valley from scratch. Their first vintage was 2005, and along with the following vintage, this was made in a tiny hut as a sort of hobby venture. The development of the vineyard was slow.
‘Every now and then we’d have to stop because we’d run out of cash,’ says Craig, ‘and then we’d carry on again.’ They moved to live here in 2008.
The Restless River label, as we know it today, was officially launched in 2012. The winery has grown from its humble hut beginnings, but not by too much. There are just 7 hectares of vines on this 20 hectare property.
Restless River made their name initially for a grape you wouldn’t usually associate with Hemel-en-Aarde, which is one of the coolest climates in the Cape. It’s Cabernet Sauvignon. With low yields and careful farming on good soils, the Restless River Cabernet has developed a loyal following. 'I'm happy for Cabernet to taste like Cabernet,' says Craig. 'I'm not scared of greenness. I'm committed to 100% varietal character. I'm the only idiot in the valley who takes Cabernet seriously.' The low vigour of the vines results in open bunches with small berries, and the result is superb.
The other wine that has established the winery's reputation is Chardonnay. Craig looks for freshness in his Chardonnay, and picks with high acidity. He also likes old barrels, and when he buys new ones, he often lends them out for a year before using them. An interesting new addition to the cellar is a pair of amphorae, from Tuscany, which are also used to ferment Chardonnay. A newer addition to the range is Pinot Noir, first made in 2016 from vines planted in 2013.
Their other wine offering is a bit different. ‘Wanderlust’ is the label for their special one-off wines made each year as a sort of experiment. Initially this was under the label DILLIRGAF label, which is a biker acronym for 'do I look like I really give a ****'. Wanderlust is probably easier to explain. In 2021 this also included a Piquette.Then there are the labels, which are inspired by old whisky, which Craig is a fan of. They have lots of detail. 'If you understand what is on the label, then you are the sort of person I am making wine for.'
These new releases are exciting, and in particular the Ava Marie is a complete stunner. These won’t hang around long.
Restless River, 'Ava Marie' Chardonnay, 2019, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
From a 2.06 hectare plot planted in 1999 on granite and clay soils, this is a truly remarkable Chardonnay – one of the best I’ve had from South Africa. Pressed, settled, and then fermented in a mix of barrels (just a small proportion new) and unlined amphora, it has a complex, mineral nose with ripe citrus fruit, a touch of pear and pineapple, and some spice, honey and hazelnut. It’s chiselled and linear, although there’s a touch of richness. In the mouth this is concentrated and quite intense with good acidity, and notes of lemon, mandarin, white peach and cashew, finishing spicy and vivid. This is a really beautiful, multidimensional expression of Chardonnay with potential for development, even though it’s compelling now. 96/100
Restless River, 'Main Road & Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon', 2018, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
From two blocks (1.59 hectare Main Road; 0.71 Dignity; both planted in 1999 on granite/clay soils). Many questioned the choice of Cabernet Sauvignon for the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, but Craig Wessels’ viticulture is impeccable, and the winemaking sympathetic. The result is intense and structured with powerful blackcurrant and berry fruits, supported by firm structure, with some savoury gravelly and ashy notes. This is powerful, concentrated but has freshness. Slightly drying finish is the only distraction. Layered and sturdy, and really good. 94/100
These remarkable wines are now available to buy. With just 5 cases available of each, availability is limited so be sure to snap some up before they're gone!