A vertical tasting of Hamilton Russell Pinot has shown the majesty of one of the new world’s best reds. Stephen Quinn reports on a great Burgundy from South Africa.
Like great Burgundy, Pinot Noirs from Hamilton Russell in South Africa require contemplation. These are wines to ponder over, their ethereal aromas lingering in one’s mind well after their flavours flow over one’s palate.
Hamilton Russell is one of the most southerly wine estates in Africa. They focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay after pioneering viticulture in a beautiful maritime region known as the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley on South Africa’s southern coast. They are near the former fishing village of Hermanus, now a trendy holiday location in the summer. Hemel-en-Aarde is Afrikaans for “heaven and earth” and the region is certainly a beautiful and serene place.
The wines that come from the vineyard also need heavenly descriptors. A vertical tasting of six Pinot Noirs from 2010 to 2015 demonstrated what a diversity of quality Pinots come from this estate. The 2010 was full of brooding dark fruits, and powerful like a Nuits St George from Burgundy. The 2011, from a much lighter vintage, had lashings of red fruit, zingy raspberry acidity and feminine grace.
The 2012 was more like a Vosne-Romanee, and felt like oenologial lingerie in the mouth because of its fine structure, with raspberry textures and flavours, and wondrous length. Wine Spectator magazine considers it one of the best 100 wines worldwide. The 2013 was shy at first and initially offered little in the way of aromas. But after an hour in the glass it opened like the proverbial peacock’s tail, displaying ethereal aromas of a range of perfumes and spices.
The 2014 was sexy and voluptuous like the 2012. A Victoria’s Secret kind of wine, full of elegance and pomp, offering joyous sensations in one’s mouth for a long time, with loads of black cherries. The tannins gave the wine a silky feel. The 2015 felt riper and more intense yet was still full of delightfully zingy red and black fruits and lingeringly beautiful aromas of spices and perfume. This wine is sumptuous and pure and requires much contemplation.
The estate became fully organic from the 2015 vintage. It was also the first vintage of new winemaker Emul Ross, who started in September 2014 and helped to blend and bottle the 2014 wines. He said the 2015 harvest arrived early and was completed in only four weeks instead of the usual seven. “It has been an honour to work with grapes from this special place,” he said. “The marginal, clay-rich soils produce exceptional fruit with a real sense of place. Not many winemakers get the chance to work with grapes from vines grown in soils that are about 400 million years old.” Ross also commented on the “nice vibe” and sense of camaraderie among all the staff “which makes going to work and getting things done well a pleasure”.
Owner Anthony Hamilton Russell hosted the vertical tasting and admitted to being an admirer of France’s great Burgundies. “I’ve never met a Burgundy where I have not learned something valuable.” His father Tim founded the estate, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and was a pioneer in the region.
Heat and drought were major problems for much of South Africa this year but the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is only 1.5km from the cooling influence of the South Atlantic Ocean. The cold Benguela current brings moisture from the Antarctic. Proximity to the sea means Hamilton Russell benefits from rain that seldom makes its way into the warmer hinterland.
Emul Ross said Hamilton Russell had “quite a bit of summer rain”. The rain was a challenge during harvest but because of the smaller crop harvesting was relatively easy. “The 2016 vintage gave us grapes with lower acids than usual but the wines have great structure and purity once again. Both whites and reds ripened at lower potential alcohols in 2016.”
Anthony Hamilton Russell said continuous upgrading of the vineyards remained one of the estate’s primary concerns. This year they re-planted three of the 33 vineyards. All vineyards are named after the family names of the women who have married into the Hamilton Russell family. “Replanting gives us the opportunity to finesse not just our clonal mix by percentage, but to slowly ensure that each of our two grape varieties ends up in the specific sites that are optimal for them and the style we aim for.”
Emul Ross said the new clonal make up combined with vineyards that were more designed to be organically farmed meant the estate would produce great wines in the future as these vines settled in.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards received two Platinum awards – the highest given – at the SAWi awards earlier this year. The South African Wine Index (SAWi) condenses results from 84 competitions across the world over a three-year period to give a composite score for each of 6,000 wines reviewed.
The estate also makes excellent Chardonnay. Senior Editor James Molesworth from Wine Spectator awarded the 2015 the highest score the magazine has yet given a South African Chardonnay. He also gave the 2015 Pinot the highest Wine Spectator score for a South African Pinot to date.
Winemaker Emul Ross said the estate typically produced Pinots with a dark, spicy fruit profile and masculine tannin structure. “They really do reflect the iron rich clay soils that they grow in. Although these wines can be challenging in their youth to someone who is unfamiliar with fine Pinot noir, they certainly do reward the people who cellar them and understand the variety. We often get compared to wines from the Cote de Nuits, and in leaner vintages occasionally Pommard.”
Peter Finlayson was the first winemaker at Hamilton Russell. Emul Ross replaced Hannes Storm who was the winemaker from 2005-2014. Peter Finlayson, Storm and Kevin Grant (Ataraxia) were all winemakers at Hamilton Russell and continue to produce wine in the Hemel-en-Aarde. “It really is a special place to grow Pinot noir and Chardonnay,” Emul Ross concluded.