I’ve only been to South Africa twice, but each trip was so memorable that I can’t help but continue to write about their wines whenever I get the chance. Sadly, with so few of the wines of South Africa turning up in Australia, my opportunities are diminishing as I work my way through my cellar. However, there are a few gems remaining, and even a Jem, as well as a handful more bottles of this Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005.
This is a wine of Walker Bay district, which is within the Cape South Coast region, which is in turn within the Western Cape geographical unit. South African wine region hierarchies make sense, but I can never keep them straight without looking them up. The region is roughly 100KM southeast of Cape Town and based around the town of Hermanus, which looks out over the bay that gives the district its name. The bay is often a stopover point for migrating whales, particularly the Southern Right.
The climate of Walker Bay is often portrayed as cool, but it’s more accurately described as cool as South Africa gets, which is still fairly warm by world standards. At 34° south, it’s as far from the Equator as North Africa is, but its maritime climate is influenced by the cold Atlantic as opposed to the milder Mediterranean. The region as a whole is penned in by mountains, which often trap clouds and fog as well. Soils in the region are a shallow layer of stone and clay over decomposed shale. Baboons can be pests in the vineyards, which sounds as weird to me as kangaroos being pests probably would to anyone outside of Australia.
Pinot Noir is a favourite grape of this blog, and it has featured in both a still white wine and a rosé sparkler from South Africa, but this is the first we’ve seen it as a still, varietal red. It’s not a natural fit for most of the country, but it has certainly found a home in Walker Bay. Hamilton Russell and the neighbouring Bouchard-Finlayson winery in particular have established its reputation over the last few decades. Early vintages were seen as more Burgundian than New World, though more recent vintages have expressed a unique character specific to the Walker Bay terroir.
Tim Hamilton Russell founded the company in 1975 with the purchase of the property as an undeveloped 170HA plot and set out to establish a cool climate vineyard and winery. He was succeeded in 1991 by his son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, who, after graduate school at Oxford and Wharton and work abroad in finance and management consultancy, returned to South Africa and set about to focus production. He redefined the business to only use grapes grown on the property, he surveyed the soils and restricted plantings to 52HA of particularly expressive shale derived clay-rich parcels, and in those areas limited varieties to exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
While it’s natural to ascribe the focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as a result of the relatively cool climate of Walker Bay, it is driven by the soil rather than climate. Anthony Hamilton Russell believes that clay is the secret to the success of great Burgundian varieties, and points to the Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre as a counterpoint to the argument that limestone is the key.
There is a notion, taken to heart at Hamilton Russell, that the best grapes are produced by vines that are stressed, with many of the great wine regions having struggling vines as a result of poor fertility in the soil, limited access to water, or conditions under which they cannot reliably ripen. In Walker Bay, grapes ripen consistently and irrigation is permitted. The stress instead is a result of the soil structure, where the fine root system can only have shallow penetration before it is stopped by shale. This topsoil of gravel and clay is very marginal for viticulture, resulting in very small vines and low yields.
An interesting note about Hamilton Russell Vineyards is that they produce only two wines – no reserve wines, no second label. That said, in addition to the Hamilton Russell wines, Anthony Hamilton Russell founded Southern Right Cellars in 1994 which produces cool climate Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc. He also founded Ashbourne with a 2001 Pinotage based wine of exceedingly limited release. Ashbourne has only been made in roughly half the years since then, and represents an experiment in redefining Pinotage as a grape with potential to make fine wine at the highest level of quality.
In the glass this wine is clean and bright with a medium plus garnet colour, and very slow legs. On the nose it is clean but has typical Pinot Noir funkiness. It has medium minus intensity and a developing character, with notes of raspberry, fresh herbs, green pepper, and a little blood/red meat. On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium alcohol, medium tannins that coat the mouth with a thin film, medium minus body, and medium plus intensity. There are notes of fresh and dried herbs, tobacco, liquorice, and graphite, with a black pepper finish of medium plus length.
This is a very good wine. Lots going on, especially on the palate, and spot on typicity for Pinot Noir. While there is still a bit of fruit on the nose, it’s very Burgundian on the palate as far as savoury and developed characters. There is a certain fullness to the wine, but it is balanced, in that no one aspect is especially prominent. I’m glad I have more in the cellar.