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South Africa: Day 13—A Vinous Family Tree

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 20, 2007 2:58pm ET

Walker Bay is about a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, past the well-known wine lands of Stellenbosch, and up over the Hottentot mountains (where a vista point along the road affords a dramatic view of False Bay).

As you enter the town of Hermanus, heading left up into the hills above the coastline, you soon find yourself in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, home to Hamilton-Russell Vineyards.

Tall and handsome, Anthony Hamilton-Russell gave up a life of high-flying business to return to the wine farm his father started in the late 1970s (for a purchase price at the time of 58,000 rand, or about $7,848 U.S.—not a bad deal). Through its history, H-R has had a few good winemakers, including Peter Finlayson (Walter’s brother and David’s uncle) and Kevin Grant, both of whom moved on to their own projects in the same area—a vinous family tree if you will.

Today at H-R, Hannes Storm, 30, has injected a dose of fresh vigor into the winemaking, and this Pinot Noir and Chardonnay estate is possibly better than ever. The vines are planted on clay-covered shale soils ideal for the two varieties, and the breeze that comes in off the coast creates the cool climate these grape thrive in.

“We’re cool by South African standards, but really we’re Mediterranean,” says Hamilton-Russell.

He’s done his best to make the estate fit that description, with over 100 acres of olive groves and windswept poplar trees forming windbreaks around the property. His back veranda overlooks the whole estate, and his home is filled with wooden furniture made from the reclaimed beams in the old winery. It could be every American’s cash-out-and-move-to-Provence setting.

Anthony Hamilton-Russell’s house overlooks his vineyards.
Over the last decade, Hamilton-Russell has worked with numerous clones and rootstocks as he gradually replanted the estate; he’s even replanted the same block twice, in some cases. It’s all part of his search for consistent quality-producing vines, as well as his fight against leaf roll virus, which is prevalent in some of the estate’s vineyards.

“A little leaf roll virus isn’t bad, because it retards ripening, so you don’t get sugar running off to 15 [potential alcohol] and a sudden blast of tropical fruit flavors,” explains Hamilton-Russell. “However, you can’t regulate it, so eventually you will have to replant.”

Production is only around 5,000 to 7,000 cases each of the Pinot and Chard—not impossible to find but not easy either. This is probably one of the world’s most underrated estates when it comes to these two grapes. (That’s what happens when you’re in an off-the-beaten-track region in an off-the-beaten-track country). The wines typically retail for under $30.

Hamilton-Russell is also a fan of Pinotage (he asked me not to laugh at this), and his namesake property is flanked by two other farms he’s currently developing, Southern Right and Ashbourne. His small label Ashbourne project debuted in the ’01 vintage, but then didn’t release an ’02 or ’03 (not up to snuff for Hamilton-Russell). The ’04 shows mature forest floor and briar notes with a supple texture, while the not-yet-released ’05 is denser, riper and richer, with lots of blue and purple fruits and a long, velvety finish. The value-priced Southern Right wines are very good—a tangy sea salt and citrus-filled Sauvignon Blanc, and another plush, blue fruit-filled Pinotage.

Barrels in Hamilton-Russell's cellar  
Hamilton-Russell has put a lot of passion and attention into his wines, and it’s showing.

Next door to H-R is Bouchard-Finlayson, started by Peter Finlayson and numerous partners after he left H-R in 1990. Finlayson eventually arranged for the Tollman family to come in and buy out his partners, and in 2000, he sold his remaining shares as well, though he remains as winemaker and general manager of the 18-hectare property.

As at H-R, this is a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay estate. The Chardonnays aren’t as minerally as the H-R versions, but they are clean, ripe and round, with bright fruit and floral notes; the Limited Edition bottling, which combines equal parts of barrel fermented and tank fermented grapes, is outstanding. The Pinot Noir shows dark cherry, spice and mineral notes—not as tightly grained as the H-R version, but rather showing more of a velvety, smoky finish.

I found a nice quality bump here in both the ’04 and ’05 vintages, and while I get the feeling that the owner is a bit of an absentee landlord, I see no worries, as Finlayson seems to have things under control here. This is another source for moderately priced (under $30) Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made in an elegant style.

My next stop was apparently hard to find, so winemaker Kevin Grant came to get me instead.

I asked if all the secrecy meant I’d have to wear a black hood as he drove me up into the mountains, but no worries said Grant. “You’ve just caught us in the draft stage.”

Grant made the wines at H-R from 1995 through 2004, before starting Ataraxia Mountain Vineyards, which will be located on a 47- hectare spot tucked up against the base of the majestic Babylonstoren mountain. The site features northern and southern exposures, with the clay and shale soils that make up the area. Grant will have 8 hectares planted by the end of this season, and the plan is to get to 23 hectares by 2010.

In the meantime he says he'll source grapes from “extreme and radical vineyards that provide the kind of wines I expect this site will wind up delivering.”

With his thin-rimmed glasses and goatee, Grant comes across as the thinking man’s winemaker.

“I hope my wines don’t derive their personality from only fruit—that’s just the skeleton,” he says as he digs his hands into the rust colored, crumbling dirt. “These soils are what’s going to fill it out with minerality.”

For whites, Grant will focus on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. We tasted a tangy, mineral-filled ’06 Sauvignon Blanc and two Chardonnays, one each from the ‘05 and ’06 vintages. The 2005 Chardonnay (only 330 cases) was sourced from a 1-hectare vineyard in the Witzenburg valley, east of Tulbagh. It is one of the best South African Chardonnays I’ve tasted—creamy and long, but with a rigid minerality and lots of green fig and lime flavors. Being raised on Burgundy, I’m not easily impressed with Chardonnays, but this impressed me.

With the 2006 bottling, production doubled as Grant added in another vineyard source, and the wine took on a rounder, plumper feel, not as driven as the ’05 but still outstanding. The bad news is Grant lost the Witzenburg vineyard in the ’07 vintage, but he’s clearly got his white wine chops down.

For reds, there will be a Pinot Noir (of course). Though he has yet to bottle one, his still-in-barrel ’06 showed a wild herb and sea-breeze character, with stunning color and purity of black cherry and cassis fruit. There’s also a bottled blend of Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot called Serenity in the 2005 vintage that offers a focused, racy beam of red berry and floral flavors with a lingering licorice note on the finish.

While H-R was the first to make a name for itself in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, there are new roots sprouting that are worth checking out.

Christopher Nick
san francisco —  March 24, 2007 10:50am ET
Dear James - I highly recommend a stop by the amazing new Graham Beck facility in Franschhoek - truly one of the most beautiful wineries in the entire world ... Great wines... - Thank you for your kind & enthusiastic support of South Africa & South African Wines - Cheers - Chris

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