Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Burgundy Wines in South Africa: Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller and Anthony Hamilton Russell

The stop at Hamilton Russell Vineyards, the producer of outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardoannay wines in the Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth) valley, just behind the seaside resort of Hermanus in Walker Bay, was our last stop on a recent South Africa wine trip, but it was one of our best stops.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards

The Hamilton Russel Vineyards has become a hallmark of fine South African Pinot Noir and Chardonnay over the last few decades. “We want to produce wines as Burgundian as possible here in South Africa – Wines from South African soil with a Burgundian soul” says Anthony Hamilton Russell, the owner of the estate “notwithstanding the rather warm climate in South Africa. But the climate is rather cool here in the Hemel en Arde valley. And we have the right soil for the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay”.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards specializes in producing terroir driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are widely regarded as the best in South Africa and among the best in the New World. The estate is beautifully located in the Hemel en Arde valley, with Antony Hamilton Russell’s imposing residence on the hill. You can look down to the sea and the town of Hermanus from the top of the hill. “We have more indigenous plants on the estate than in the whole of the UK” says Anthony.

Tim Hamilton Russell

Founder Tim Hamilton Russell, Anthony’s father, purchased the underveloped 170 hectare property in 1975, after an exhaustive search for the most southerly site on which to make South Africa’s top cool climate wines from a selection of noble varieties. But he did not really know what would ripen properly in this extreme spot alongside the Indian Ocean, sourced by constant wind and with a host of unpromising soils.

Anthony Hamilton Russell

Anthony Hamilton Russell, Tim’s son, took over in 1991 and made Hamilton Russell Vineyards to what it is today: A producer of world class Pinot Noir and Chardoannay wines. He registered Hamilton Russell Vineyards as an Estate, committing to work only with grapes from their terroir. He narrowed the range of grape varieties to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay only. He is also the one who decided to stop filtering the wine and started down the path of farming organically and fermenting with native yeasts, all of which seems to have added a new level of intensity to the wines. But Antony thinks that the estate's soils deserve most credit for its now three-decade long string of expressive, terroir-driven Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Anthony is a great guy to spend time with. He is very knowledgeable and charming. I was really impressed with the dedicated, professional attitude of Anthony Hamilton Russell. We talked mostly about his wines, but Anthony Hamilton Russell is also a collector of fine art, archaeological artifacts and cigars. He studied in the US and worked as a banker in London.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Hamilton Russell Vineyards is located in the cool, maritime Walker Bay wine appellation, in the beautiful Hemel en Aarde valley that begins behind the old fishing village of Hermanus. We came from the other end, from Franschhoek and drove through the whole valley, mostly on a non-tart road. The Hemel en Aarde valley is a steep and winding valley, overlooked by impressive peaks. Its position means that it is perfectly suited to funnel the winds from the nearby sea which helps keep the valley cooler than many other Cape regions. And the clay soils here are excellent for vines.

Pictures: Different perspectives of the Hamilton Russell Estate - Bird's Perspective, towards Hermanus and towards the Hemel en Aarde Valley

Only two varieties are grown: there are 22 ha of Pinot Noir vines, and 30 ha of Chardonnay vines. But it took several years of experimenting and studies, until the best conditions were found. In the process of experimenting, the Pinot Noir vineyards were moved downhill. The upper section of the farm, near the ridge that separates the farm from Hermanus and the Walker Bay, was allowed to go back to nature. The extensive soil research identified 52 hectares of stony, clay-rich, shale-derived soil as optimal for the individual, origin expressive style they aim for and all plantings have now been limited to this soil type.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards produces 15.000 cases of Pinot Noir and 20.000 cases of Chardonnay every year.

The Winemaking Philosophy

Anthony works with winemaker Hannes Storm in the cellar and viticulturist Johan Montgomery in the vineyard.

Low yields is one of the guiding principles at Hamilton Russell Vineyards along with organic farming. In 2008, for example, the yields amounted to 25 hectoliters per hectar for the Pinot Noir and 35 hectoliters per hectar for the Chardonnay.

The crop takes four weeks to bring into the cellar. Unlike the rest of the Cape growing area, which has a classical Meditereanean-style wet winter and dry summer, the Walker Bay area gets regular rainfall in summer from prevailing south-east wind. Thus the harvest often needs to stop to wait for dry weather, allowing the sugar levels to rise gain in the grapes.

Chardonnay is barrel fermented in a temperature controlled wine cellar. Pinot Noir is fermented with skins in open fermenters at warm temperature. As a principle, Hannes Storm makes the wine from each vineyard block separately, so that the particular style of each land is kept absolutely intact and blend only later according to Hannes’ and Anthony’s vision.

Pictures: The Wine Cellars, including the Amphoras

Antony said that they have experimented quite a bit. “And experiments continue” says Antony Hamilton Russell “stoneware amphoras glazed internally with the farm’s own clay are being tried out now. Our objective is to replicate the air exchange of a traditional barrique without getting the oak flavor. Also, we hope for additional minerality in the wine”.

What Anthony Poured

Anthony took us through a tasting of 4 Pinot Noirs and 3 Chardonnays, from the vintages 2006 to 2010.

The Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir is arguably a benchmark South African Pinot Noir. Overall, the Pinot Noirs have become bolder and more opulent in recent years.

Light cherry red color, huge, open nose, juicy cherry fruit notes on the palate, but not overtly fruity. “This is the most Burgundian Pinot Noir you can find outside of Burgundy” says Anthony.

Overall, the Chardonnays were tight, minerally wines with length and complexity. They were elegant, yet textured and intense wines with a strong personality of place.

Both wines are very much European in style – African Burgundies with a European soul. They retail in the US$ 35 to 45 range.

Southern Right from Hamilton Russell

Anthony Hamilton Russell is also the founder/owner of the Ashbourn winery and the founder and co-owner of Southern Right Cellars. The latter specializes in Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc, with the sale of Southern Right wines contributing to Southern Right Whale conservation in Walker Bay. The wines are named after the rare Southern Right whales, which frequently visit the cool Southern Atlantic Walker Bay, just 3km from the vineyard. An estimated population of 25,000 Southern Right Whales, off the South African coast, was reduced to just 50 in 1935. The number is now back up to around 2,200.

Picture: Anthony Riding back to his House on his Motor Bike

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1 comment:

  1. Anthony Hamilton RussellDecember 15, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    Thank you so much Christian for your lovely article!

    It was wonderful to meet you and I hope our paths cross again soon.

    Have a festive season.

    All the best!



    Anthony Hamilton Russell