To celebrate 40 years of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell brought some very special bottles with them from their Hemel-en-Aarde Valley estate. The occasion was the Mentzendorff annual portfolio tasting, which was the last time they were here in the UK since March 2020 just before Covid struck. Anthony conducted a special masterclass examining the style of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir which involved him opening two of the only five bottles he has left of the estate’s first ever vintage, the 1981 “Grand Vin Noir” made by Anthony’s father. Roger Jones had a ringside seat.
“What a treat to try this, Anthony opened two bottles from his five remaining bottles, what a tribute and honour, in memory of his father’s first ever vintage,” Jones writes about the 1981 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards was established by Tim Hamilton Russell in 1971, when he purchased a 170 hectare undeveloped plot just up the road from the old fishing village of Hermanus. Tim was the pioneering wine grower of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley releasing his first vintage in 1981, his son Anthony Hamilton Russell returned to South Africa in 1991 to run the estate and bought out the business in 1994.
Interestingly, Anthony reaffirmed that it was Mandela who inspired him to return home from Europe as there was a future for South Africa after his release from prison. Anthony also took a fresh look at the make-up of the estate and reduced the varieties (over 11) to specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
I have a long history with Anthony, with him holding the distinguished honour of being the first ever winemaker to visit my old restaurant The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, back in 1999, and he was soon followed by Remi Krug, Jean Trimbach, Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia before the influx of Australians. Hamilton Russell wines were a permanent fixture on our 1,000 bin wine list.
Numerous visits both to Hemel-en-Aarde to visit him and his wife Olive, and return visits to Little Bedwyn to truffle hunt and share great wines have made this relationship rather special. And, of course, I have numerous back vintages in my cellar but nothing to compare to what we tasted last week at the special masterclass set up to celebrate 40 years of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, reaching back to his father’s first-ever vintage the Hamilton Russell Vineyards Grand Vin Noir 1981.
Anthony is passionate about terroir, “Our wines,” he says, “have first and foremost an expression of place and second to that the expression of vintage. 52 hectares of ancient, extremely clay-rich, stony soils on a 170-hectare estate in the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, surrounded by Bothasig Fynbos Nature Reserve and unusually close to the cold Atlantic, where the vines are grown and the wine is made, matured, bottled and labelled on the property.”
“Our Pinot Noir is an expression of this place. From the outset this expression has showcased an almost uniquely classic and ‘European’ style within the New World, with each vintage showcasing it in a subtly different way.”
To date there have been five winemakers, although Anthony stresses that he does not want the winemaker’s ego footprinted on these wines; the current key holder is Emul Ross, a hugely talented, focused young guy, whom Anthony says is a “keeper”.
So how were the seven vintages of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir tasting?
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 1981 “Grand Vin Noir”
Both the 1981 and 1983 are from a Swiss Champagne clone, BK 5, originally planted in 1976 and retailed between 5 and 7 rand on release.
Tobacco, toasty, braai, blood dripping, meat and spiced, tight, delicate, precise fruit, the balance left on the palate is quite superb. As it evolves there is a freshness of raspberries with a delicate perfume. The wine is a bright red, clean, colour – like an aged Rioja, such as Vina Bosconia 1981, from R. Lopez de Heredia. What a treat to try this, Anthony opened two bottles from his five remaining bottles, what a tribute and honour, in memory of his father’s first ever vintage.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 1983 “Grand Vin Noir”
Dark and disturbed in the glass, this wine had bright red fruit, hints of oxidisation, on the palate it has a fabulous intensity – caramel, prunes, dried strawberries – despite the cloudiness this was great at first taste but, as it evolved in the glass, a more Madeira purity was starting to take over.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 1997
By this stage the clones had changed to Dijon, with 115, 113, 677 and 777 being used.
Plush, polished, mineral and spiced, the purity is quite superb with cherries and sweet Victoria plums. After time in the glass it is uplifted with a lovely ripeness, freshness velvety, perfumed – this will continue to evolve and excel.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2001
This has that classic nori seaweed note – savoury and spiced – cherries and fruit but then truffles and forest floor, then there is some bonito, and the savoury feel continues with a silky focus to pull it all together. The fruits are dark (but in a good way) giving a northern Burgundy style – umami, morello cherries, violets, hints of bacon dust.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2009
Dark red fruit, thicker, silky texture, silky, liquorice, spiced, meaty, beefy, Marmite, saline, sea fresh, seaweed, cherries, complex, cep mushrooms, hints of cocoa and delicate Cuban tobacco. Rich and generous.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2018
An outstanding vintage, this just sings! I love the purity and excitement it brings to the palate – focused, linear and perfect. Bright, fresh, clean with intense red berries and vibrant acidity, it is very New World more modern in style, gently perfumed with clean primary fruit, spices, soft tannins, gentle aromatics, tiny clusters of berries, everything comes together in harmony.
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2021
Young and perfumed, this has a bright, clean purity about it with a soft, sensual tannin line and great balance between the dark fruit and gentle elegance. Perfect dark cherries, delicately perfumed it dances across the palate, with a touch of sea freshness, nori, and gently maturing. Drink from 2025 onwards and onwards.
Thank you Anthony and Olive for sharing these special bottles with us in the UK.