Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

Part 4 of Stellenbosch Visio‘s exclusive discovery of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s vinous treasures…

Hamilton Russell Vineyards
View from the stables of the Hamilton Russell Vineyards barrel maturation cellar, built by Anthony in 1992.

The late Tim Hamilton Russell pioneered viticulture and winemaking in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, producing the region’s first wines four decades ago. Son Anthony took over the helm of Hamilton Russell Vineyards in 1991, continuing his father’s vision of creating world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a part of the Cape that had never grabbed anyone’s imagination as being wine country.

Tim, in his earlier life an advertising grandee, was astute enough to envisage the possibilities of this region long before anyone else and he put his energies to work to get the area designated an official viticultural region. His marketing acumen (and his grasp of the power of prestige and price) contributed to the success of the wines locally and internationally and invited the development of other farms in the valley. Hemel-en-Aarde wines became a byword for excellence. 

Hamilton Russell Vineyards
Proprietors Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell and their dogs walking up the cypress avenue to their home on the farm, Braemar, that Anthony built in 1996.

Anthony is from the same rootstock. Together with his wife Olive and winemaker Emul Ross, he is a sartorially elegant and eloquent ambassador for the region and for its wines. It was he who led the drive to establishing three appellations: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, each spread of land representing a specifically nuanced geographical identity that underscores the pedigree of the wines made by the producers in these respective areas. As Anthony once said to Stellenbosch Visio: “Our wines are simply the most beautiful and articulate expression of this site, which has so much meaning for us.”

Tasting of a bottle of Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir in the underground barrel maturation cellar.

Mystical variety

Hamilton Russell is Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines feature regularly on international magazines’ lists of top wines as well as on critics’ scores. They also reflect accurately the features of this region: poor, hardy soils of shale and clay and a fresh, temperamental maritime climate.

The Pinot Noir is classic, showing that the Cape can deliver versions of this mystical variety that ooze Burgundian refinement, excellence and character. Somehow Emul the winemaker has made the wines accessible in their youth, although given 10 to 15 years they gain an exotic leathery, spicy cloak as well as an aroma similar to that of the fine Havana cigars Anthony likes to puff on.

However, the true magnificence lies in the Chardonnay, and it would be a brave soul – or paralysed palate – who does not place Hamilton Russell into their top 10 South African Chardonnays. Part of the greatness is its consistency, year upon year offering an abundance of the features that make Chardonnay the king of white wines: those edgy notes of citrus and green pear are complemented by a hint of toasted nuts, while white flowers and a sensation of smooth river pebbles lend the wine a cool beauty that lingers.

Tasting this wine next to the dam at Hamilton Russell Vineyards, with a hint of cooling sea breeze in the air, makes the Hemel-en-Aarde truly a heaven on Earth.

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