The Hamilton Russell brand evokes quality wines of award-winning excellence. A glance at the Platter’s Guide shows 5/4½ stars for their 2 wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the grape varietals for which the vineyard is renowned. I wanted to see and taste for myself. I had another reason too: the forthcoming Society evening tasting (18 May) of wines from the Hermanus and Elgin regions.
I had read in planning the trip that the Tasting Room overlooks a dam. I had visions of expansive views over rolling vineyards but Hamilton Russell had none of it. I rounded the small historic cottage, complete with whitewashed walls and thatched roof, to see a small dam below surrounded by pine trees. This was an intimate setting and worthy of the occasion.
The journey from Cape Town had been a little rushed (Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson close at 1pm on Saturdays) but no less a pleasure. I could not quite believe that I had not explored the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley before in the 6 years that I have lived in Cape Town. Wine-tasting is a great excuse to visit new places! The mountains and their fynbos-covered slopes made for glorious views as I turned North East on the R320 from Hermanus.
Gold lettering adorned the entrance gates to lead up a winding gravel drive. The autumn breeze was fresh and cool to remind of impact on ripening of grapes on this 170 hectare estate, one of the most Southerly in Africa. The 52 hectares under vine grow just 2 varieties – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – in stony, clay-rich soils. This is a rare focus given the trends of many estates to experiment and to diversify with minor cultivars for blending or unusual single wines.
I was distracted on parking by the cellar. Talita was showing a visitor group around but she took the time to explain that the barrels on the upper (ground) floor were for Chardonnay. I ventured below ground to see where the Pinot Noir was matured. The arched cellar was dimly lit by a ceiling light made from bottles. Red-striped barrels were lined up along the floor and there was an intimate tasting table sheet for 4 persons in the middle. The setting reminded me of the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral, England where I spent many an evening as a schoolboy.
Chantel was my tasting host (R50 for 5 wines) and was busy with other tasters conscious of Saturday lunchtime closing. I sat at a small table overlooking the dam. This was a beautiful setting. She poured the Estate Chardonnay first. Clay fermented and matured for 9 months in an equal mix of 1st, 2nd and 3rd year oak barrels, the pale straw colour gave little clue of the oak aromas to follow. Primary aromas of caramel, nougat and honey warmed my nose to mingle with stewed and baked fruits beneath. The complexity was layered and perfectly balanced. The follow-through to the palate was smooth and delicious. Vibrant and creamy in the mouth, with moderate acidity, this was a beautifully balanced wine. My tasting could have ended here and I would have been happy. This was the best Chardonnay I have tasted. No wonder that Hamilton Russell’s Chardonnay have been rated best in South Africa and in the top 10 in the world. Today was only the second time I have awarded a perfect 20/20 for tasting. I immediately decided to buy a bottle, no 2, even at the high price of R395 per bottle. There are times when quality alone is enough for purchase (think Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia) and price becomes less relevant.
Two wines from the Ashbourne range were to follow. The Ashbourne estate borders Hamilton Russell on the Eastern side and was founded in 1996 to produce classic blends – in their own style and without replicating those from other parts of the world – from the best of their mineral-rich clay soils. The aptly named Sandstone, Sauvignon Blanc-led with added Chardonnay and Sémillon, was delicate and light. Green herbaceous, grassy notes took place over sweeter citrus aromas. I liked the smooth yet crisp mouth feel that one rarely finds in a Sauvignon Blanc.
The second white blend, simply named Ashbourne, with pretty floral label, contained just 2 varieties: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Very pale straw in colour, I preferred the cool melon and gooseberry fruitiness leading the grassy undertones. This was another excellent wine in which the blending partners matched and balanced in complexity of aroma and flavour.
The most expensive wine at R440 a bottle was the Estate Pinot Noir and served in a large balloon-shaped glass. This was another high-scoring wine, a shade below the Chardonnay, but with outstanding interest and presence. Best wines often hide their alcohol concentration (13.5% here) as they nimbly balance their acidity with tannin and flavour. This Pinot Noir was no exception with classic deep pink colour and fruity (cranberry, redcurrant, raspberry) and maraschino layered aromas. Smooth and refined on the palate, I could have bought 2 bottles of this too but my budget today did not allow.
My final wine was the Ashbourne red, a Pinotage blend but with an equal mix of 5 cultivars traditionally grown in both the Bordeaux and Northern Rhone regions of France. I liked the freshness of the red fruits on the nose together with added spiciness and oak flavours coming through on the palate.
I would have liked the time to have savoured the wines and the view for longer but Bouchard Finlayson beckoned. Hamilton Russell showed what a specialist wine producer can achieve with a narrow focus, in this instance just one bottle each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines are admittedly pricy but worth every Rand. The Ashbourne wines too were excellent and I cannot now wait to visit and discover Southern Right wines (the third leg of the Hamilton Russell dynasty, also producing 2 wines only) nearby.
I reflected as I returned down the pine-lined drive on how awards match (or not) my critique on the wines that are produced and that I taste. My boldness is increasing as my experience grows and broadens. I shall write a longer piece later but, too often, the big name, high award-winning wineries disappoint and don’t live up to their reputations. Today was different. Hamilton Russell (and Ashbourne) was different. The vineyard richly deserves the accolades, at home and abroad. In sum, Hamilton Russell wines are just 2 dam(n) good!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2016 Estate Chardonnay – R395* FAVOURITE WINE
2010 Ashbourne Sandstone (76% Sauvignon Blanc, 12% Chardonnay, 12% Sémillon) – R155
2016 Ashbourne Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay (80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Chardonnay – R75
2016 Estate Pinot Noir – R440
2010 Ashbourne (75% Pinot Noir, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Shiraz) – R290