Exploring Restless River: One of South Africa’s Most Unique Wine Projects

By | 22 March 2024

Treve Ring and I made our second trip to Restless River in October of 2022, on a sunny yet cool and windy late afternoon. This unique project has seen significant development as the vines age and mature. The key Chardonnay block Ava Marie, alongside the two Cabernet Sauvignon parcels, Main Road and Dignity, are now a well-established 23 years old, leading to more focus on both the vineyard and cellar.

The owners of Restless River, Craig and Anne Wessels, entered the wine industry from non-traditional backgrounds. Craig being a creative entrepreneur, the founder of the animation and design agency Wicked Pixels, and Anne, a successful international model. Their unique experiences have led to the formation of a highly respected winery. The Wessels purchased the vineyard in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde region in 2004, a time when the area’s wine industry was blooming. With no initial plans to produce wine, they found themselves with a farm that already had 5 hectares dedicated to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, planted in 1999.

Craig’s winemaking journey has been self-taught. His first vintage came out in 2005, developed in a modest hut, marking the beginning of what started as a hobby. The growth of the vineyard was steadily slow due to financial constraints. Craig recollects how they had to periodically halt, just to wait until they had more financial resources to proceed. It wasn’t until 2008 that they decided to live there full-time.

The Restless River brand came into existence in 2012, and the vineyard has witnessed continuous growth since then. The most recent expansion is a vineyard block across the road from the farm, bringing the total vineyard surface area to 20 hectares. Craig stated, “It’s essentially a balanced mix of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.”

A film from the visit:

Ava Marie has been a fantastic block for us,’ says Craig. ‘It has produced fantastic Chardonnay for us year after year.

The ocean is 5 km over the mountain, so they have no problems with spring frost here.

Management of the vineyard is gentle, with no herbicides. A varied cover crop is sown, and this is then crimped as the growing season progresses to provide a mulch. In the vine row, weeds are dealt with manually using a power hoe.

Working with wood mulching has been an interesting experience for Craig, as it entails feeding an entire pine tree into a mulcher to transform it into chips. This process has produced a whopping 2600 m3 of mulch equivalent to the volume of four Olympic-size swimming pools. This quantity of mulch was able to cover 6 hectares of vine rows, effectively keeping the weeds at bay. However, the feasibility of repeating this mulching process hinges on the availability of trees that must be removed due to non-native clearance.

Craig explained that the soil in the region is quite rocky, predominantly granite-based, with patches of clay. Initially, the vines find it difficult to thrive but once they penetrate the layer of clay, their growth significantly improves. Due to the semi-arid conditions, they make use of drip irrigation systems. But as soon as the roots reach the clay, the irrigation can be switched off.

Interestingly, the newest vineyard located across the road showed a different soil formation. Craig mentions that Hemel en Aarde is anticipated to have granite-based soil, but they discovered traces of Cederberg Shale in the area, a geological shocker. It is anticipated that the Cabernet Sauvignon that is planted on this soil will behave differently.

Restless River has gained a reputation primarily from being able to grow Cabernet Sauvignon even in the coolest climates of the Cape, a challenging feat. With a combination of low-yield production and meticulous farming on fertile soils, a loyal consumer base was developed for the unique Restless River Cabernet. Greenness does not intimidate Craig, in fact, he appreciates when the Cabernet tastes exactly as it should; he strongly believes in maintaining 100% varietal character. Proudly, he refers to himself as the only serious Cabernet lover in the valley. The restrained growth of the vine results in open bunches with small berries, which ultimately yields a superb wine.

Chardonnay is another wine variety that has helped shape the winery’s image. Craig aims for a fresh taste in his Chardonnay, choosing to harvest when the acidity is high. He’s drawn to older barrels, occasionally lending out new ones for a year before making use of them himself. Two Tuscany-built amphorae have recently joined the wine cellar, serving as fermentation vats for Chardonnay. A more recent addition to the wine list is Pinot Noir, first created in 2016 with grapes from vines planted back in 2013.

There’s also another wine offering, one that’s quite distinct. ‘Wanderlust’ is the descriptor for yearly special-edition wines crafted as part of an experimental process. This label used to go by the name ‘DILLIRGAF’, a biker shorthand for ‘do I look like I really give a ****’, but considering the implications, ‘Wanderlust’ is certainly easier to articulate.

The wine labels draw inspiration from classic whiskey, something Craig has a certain fondness for. They are intricately detailed. As Craig would say, “If you grasp what’s on the label, then you’re exactly who I’m making this wine for.”

The Le Luc, a plot of Pinot Noir vines, was planted in 2013 atop granitic soils. Knowing exactly when the time is right for harvesting can pose a challenge. As Craig puts it, “The trickiest decision I have to make is the harvest time.” He collects clone 115 first and waits a few days to harvest 777 and 113. The picked grape bunches are sorted in the vineyard, at the table, and then by berries (primarily whole berries). The process calls for 100% destemming and infusion in open-top oak fermenters with an occasional punchdown for natural yeasts. In case of hints of reduction, he’d employ punch over method. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is basket pressed and settled overnight, before being moved off heavy lees into barrels for a 12-month aging period. It then spends 3 months in stainless steel tanks prior to bottling.

Le Luc Pinot Noir 2021

The alcohol content of 13.5% contributes to its floral and expressive qualities. Notable are the cherry, raspberry, and a hint of beetroot on the nose. The concentrated palate enticingly harbors the density of strawberry and raspberry fruit, with a silky palate edge. The flavor is broad and expansive yet balanced with a touch of freshness. There’s also the appealing green sappy quality in the background, perfect for Pinot Noir lovers thirsting for depth and character. Given its darkness, depth, and silky richness, this Pinot Noir is quite a unique find in Hemel-en-Aarde. It’s rated 94/100 by the Wine Guy (JG).

In addition to the above, this attractive pour upholds a fragrant wild raspberry, morello cherry tightly combined with white pepper and wild herbs. A thread of fine roiboos tea adds complexity along with its long, fine tannins that stretch through the lingering saline, perfumed rose finish. The effortless acidity coupled with a granitic undertone wonderfully elevates this red wine. Its finesse, so expertly managed, merits a 94/100 rating by the Wine Guru (TR).

According to wine expert, Craig, crafting single vineyard wines indeed takes a lot of dedication. “My mission is to express the singular wonders of the vineyard,” Craig affirms. “The focus is more on yeast husbandry – ensuring that all conditions are kept healthy and clean and then respecting the process through élévage. This approach typically results in consistency each year while allowing for vintage variation.”

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2020 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa

Another enticing find, with a 13% alcohol content. The Chardonnay is sourced from a two-hectare vineyard, carefully harvested in stages to ensure quality. The harvesting process takes place over a month due to multiple parcels ripening at various times, enabling the capture of fruit character, elegance and texture quite seamlessly.

Part of the procedure is the usage of restored Vaslin presses since 2015, which duly permits the juice to oxidise. A 1.5-ton pick and press yields up to 1000 liters of juice. The harvesting process runs from early morning till about eight or nine, takes on a four-hour press cycle, and usually keeps it to one cycle per day. Undeniably, each parcel of harvest receives considerable attention and focus on detail.

Beyond whole bunch pressing and no sulfites, the juice is allowed to settle overnight. “I enjoy watching the juice oxidise and turn coffee-like in color, though I’ve had instances of it taking on a Coca Cola hue as well!” Craig shares. This is a wild ferment in the barrel, left to its own devices. When the wine has dried up, it’s given its first sulfites. Malolactic is sometimes initiated, but it’s not a preferred process. Average malolactic process ranges between 20-40%. It stays on its lees for 11 or 12 months in 500 litre barrels, with some amphora (two times 400 liter) and some stainless steel barrel (1000 liters, in both cases 5-8%).

As a final product, this Chardonnay is decidedly expressive. Its vibrant and focused nature with refined citrus fruit and a hint of pineapple woo the senses. Underneath this, the lovely chiseled acidity works wonders. Subtle hints of toast and a little spiciness add layers to the flavor experience. With its chalky structure, purity, refinement, and texture it bears impressive depth and precision, scoring a deserving 95/100 by the Wine Guy (JG).

Imbued with an extraordinary texture and a hint of flint, the Chardy was primarily planted in 1998/99 in a granite-soiled, low pH quadrant of the 2 hectare vineyard. The 2020 vintage was harvested over an extended timeframe from Feb 5 to Mar 6. The whole bunch was fermented naturally for 2-3 weeks in barrel without sulphur addition. Upon drying, a minute quantity of SO2 was introduced, although MLF isn’t preferred (20-40%, depending on the year). It was matured for a year on lees in a composition of 400L amphora and 1000L stainless barrel, before being transferred into a tank for 3 months to settle prior to bottling. The fine creamy base features subtle infusions of lemon, pith, wild herbs, salted almond, oyster shell, and flax along a firm core and through a slightly textural palate, culminating with ample flake salts. It’s still so youthful and has a long journey ahead. 95/100 (TR)

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2021 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
It boasts a 13% alcohol content. Exceptionally fresh and potent, and quite straight-lined, exhibiting prominent lemon and lime alongside subtle hints of spice, toast, and nut. The highlight is the fusion of concentration and precision. Crystalline, taut, and really youthful, it shows high acidity and is predicted to have a long lifespan. 95/100

Occasionally, Craig introduces acidity to the later-harvested grapes. For instance, the final Chardonnay of 2019 required acidity tweaking. The yields are 5-6 tons/ha for Chardonnay, 3 tons/ha for Pinot, and 1.5-3 tons/ha for Cabernet.

Main Road and Dignity 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
14% alcohol. Cabernet Sauvignon, harvested between 10 March and 7 May. Partially destemmed (c 30%) and then matured for 2 years in barrel. It is dense and concentrated with robust blackcurrant fruit and a hint of crunchy raspberry brightness. The lovely floral aromatic tones offset the earthy tannic structure, merged with sweet, liqueur-like fruit and a touch of spicy, grippy character providing a counterpoint. The finish is relatively dry. It boasts genuine intensity and concentration, successfully blending potency and elegance. 95/100

This Cabernet Sauvignon, planted in 1999, yields very low. Primarily destemmed with about 20-30% whole berry, it was harvested in small parcels through early May. Open top wooden fermenters were used for native fermentation over an average of 3 weeks, then the wine was barrelled for 2 years. Before bottling, it was moved into stainless steel. Wild cherry, black raspberry, tobacco and graphite wrap around its structural frame, with a substantial dose of ferrous. Ample acidity and grippy fine tannins result in a wine with a captivating texture. The long finish features a subtle black cassis perfume and iron / ferrous grippiness. Both powerful and elegant, its intensity is effortless. 8124 bottles were produced. 94/100 (TR)

‘Every Wanderlust has a purpose in my mind,’ explains Craig. ‘The crucial aspect is that they are quality wines. They receive a lot of thought.’ Annual production amounts to 3-4000 bottles. ‘While my focus now is on single vineyards, this is a fantastic creative outlet and also an educational experience for me.’

Wanderlust 2017 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
This wine is Grenache, subjected to 66% carbonic maceration. A portion underwent carbonic maceration, then was immediately pressed, while another was carbonic, then pressed and fermented on skins. The vineyard was planted from east to west, with only the southern side of the vine— the cooler side— harvested. The wine is supple and juicy, with a brightness and a slight elegance. It has begun to develop some aged, somewhat earthy characters. Its poise is lovely, with appealing detail. Although it is starting to develop, it retains freshness, with a fair bit of structure that balances out the fruit. It is suitable for drinking now. 91/100 (JG)

For 14 years, Craig had been driving past this vineyard. When Craig finally had the opportunity to harvest it, he took only the fruit facing the south from the east-west planted Grenache (which made the farmer slightly angry). This wine utilises 66% carbonic maceration, with three fermentation: one full carbonic, one plus maceration on skins and one traditional red. The wine is a light red, with rejuvenating freshness and lifted acidity. Long, finely griping tannins guide roiboos tea and dried florals to a saline finish. It continues to show vibrancy. 91/100 (TR)

Wanderlust 2018 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
‘What if I tried to make Sauvignon Blanc in a style I might like?’ asks Craig. After this was harvested this vineyard was ripped up. Full carbonic, sealed in a tank for two weeks. Then broke the bunches and fermented like a red wine on skins for 5 days. Pressed and then let it continue in old barrels, where it stayed 16 months. This is concentrated and full flavoured with some green pepper hints and some pear fruit. There’s a bit of orange peel and some spicy structure, with nice depth. So textural and expressive, finishing a bit chunky and grippy with some saline notes. 92/100 (JG)

Craig doesn’t much like Sauvignon Blanc, so he thought he should try and make it in a style that he might like. This was the last harvest of this single vineyard on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge (Domaine de Deux). Rooted in Bokkeveld Shale, this streams wild lemon, grapefruit, crushed stones, thistle, chamomile, and verbena along a round palate, with some medicinal tangerine through the saline finish. It was processed full carbo, sealed in stainless tank for 2 weeks, with some berries still green, then stomped on stems and left on skins 5 days before pressing into old barrels for 16 months. 91/100 (TR)

Wanderlust 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
‘I wanted to explore texture: I discovered the tastevin where you concentrate on the textural element of the wine. I wanted people to think about the texture.’ says Craig. This is very fresh and textural with a chalky, grainy weight. It’s two vineyards: Pinotage and Pinot Noir, next door to each other, 50/50 blend. There’s silky fresh cherry and plum fruit with nice depth, some smoothness, and real elegance with a bit of drying grippy tannin on the finish. 93/100 (JG)

From the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, this is sourced from by neighbouring vineyards and blends 50/50 Pinotage and Pinot Noir. A wave of reduction rolls into perfumed florals, downy violets, boysenberry, and cracked pink peppercorn, framed with sticky / grippy tannins, atop buzzy granite texture. 90/100 (TR)

Wanderlust Pinot Noir 2020 Walker Bay
Le Luc is not produced this year, but there is some Pinot Noir from the ridge. It is chiefly made without electricity, with whole cluster, open fermenters, and a portion in amphora. Beautifully floral aromatics are present along with some dried herbs. The taste has a great texture with a lovely savory aspect, with both a sense of depth and lightness. There’s a lovely silkiness, with a hint of grip as well. 94/100 (JG)

This is Craig’s homage to the Cistertian Monks, mostly made without electricity. Since Le Luc was not made in 2020, Pinot Noir from his and other farms from the HeA Ridge was used. Wholly cluster-based, mostly using open top fermenters, with some fruit going into terracotta. Flavours of tobacco, wild raspberry, wild herbs, and fynbos are framed with sticky fine tannins, rounding out with a wash of flake salts. Both dark and light, with a continuously uplifted acidity, making this very smashable. 12.8% ABV. 92/100 (TR)

Wanderlust Red Field Blend 2020 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Comprised of eight varieties grown together by the Bosmans, who have mother stock to field their nurseries. On a given day, I harvested everything that seemed to have a similar level of ripeness, which included Roussanne as the only white grape. Key varieties are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet, and Cinsault alongside Malbec, Barbera and Tinta Barocca. The nose is fresh, intense, and sappy with sweet cherry and berry fruit. The palate carries an appealing presence with some grainy detail along with bright cherry and plum fruit, with flavors of berries, black fruits, some blackcurrant and hints of strawberry, dried herbs and a touch of mint. Lovely Density. 93/100 (JG)

Robert Bosman’s clone garden is the source of this interesting field blend with 8 co-fermented varieties. The blend includes 3 Cabs (Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, and Ruby Cabernet – a Carignan x Cab Sauv hybrid). The remaining parts of the blend, chosen because of their similar ripeness level during Craig’s visit, are Cinsault, Malbec, Barbera, Tinta Barroca, and Roussanne. Currently, it is somewhat disjointed, with dominant notes of peated whisky, wild herbs, and juicy black plum, with a bracing herbal green edge. This is one to revisit. 90/100 (TR)

The 2021 is ‘Chenotage’, which is 85% Pinotage and 15% Chenin

A film from an earlier visit:

Older notes:

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2019 Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa 13% alcohol. 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
14.5% alcohol. From two blocks (1.59 hectare Main Road; 0.71 Dignity; both planted in 1999 on granite/clay soils). Many voiced skepticism about the choice of Cabernet Sauvignon for the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, yet Craig Wessels’ viticulture is flawless, and the winemaking is understanding. The outcome is powerful and structured with vibrant blackcurrant and berry fruits, enhanced by firm structure, with some savoury gravelly and ashy undertones. This wine is robust, concentrated but maintains freshness. The only downside is a slightly dry finish. Diverse and robust, and genuinely good. 94/100

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *