I first met Anthony Hamilton Russell, the owner of Hamilton Russell vineyards in I think 1995.  It was the year as I have already discussed that I rediscovered wine through Jascha. Cape Gate, our family business was having some sort of function in Hermanus. The function was held in a restaurant in a cave overlooking the sea. I had brought Jascha with me.

Anthony gave a talk about Hamilton Russell vineyards. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant or Anthony’s speech that well. It was established in 1975 with a first bottling in 1981 in the Hemel-en- Aarde Valley outside Hermanus.

There were Jews and non Jews at the function and Jascha and I sneakily started eating delicious plates of sea food. Lobster, ect. We ended up sitting next to Anthony and chatting. He opened up a sample bottle of his 1995 Chardonnay to taste. It blew our minds. It was so rich and powerful. Very buttery and full with a touch of elegance. Later Jascha and I would taste it at a tasting function in Cape Town. It was excellent.

I have tasting notes for it. Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 1995. Lemony, buttery Chardonnay with elegance, complexity and 2nd wave power.

In the year 2000 I became a wine writer.  I was writing for a number of newspapers and publications. One of them was Highbury Monarch communications. A friend of mine Fiona had become the editor there. I was commissioned by them to write an article for American Express magazine on SA pinot noir.

 I decided to visit Anthony at Hamilton Russell in the beautiful Hemel- en Aarde Valley. Hamilton Russell are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialists. While I was waiting for Anthony I met someone from oversees who told me that “he was a pinot noir addict and was spending all his money on pinot noir!”

Anthony came down meeting me in the tasting room and took me to the cellar for a tasting of his pinot noirs. He explained to me that when Hamilton Russell first started making Pinot Noir that only had access to a specific clone, a Champagne clone, ( it might have been 5k5) I can’t remember. The tasting revealed the difference in the quality of his Pinots once he had access to the correct clone.

My experience of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir’s are that they are deeply coloured, concentrated and perfumed whilst remaining elegant. I have never collected them as such concentrating on their Chardonnays. I have tasting notes for one. Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2005. Deep colour. Rich, concentrated. Stylish but deceptively powerful. Long term future.

I mentioned to Anthony that my first experience of a great red Burgundy and thus Pinot Noir was a wine that I purchased at a wine shop at Heathrow airport in 1997. I have already mentioned drinking it with the late Owen Williams. It was a Gevery- Chambertin- Les Cazetiers Louis Jadot 1988. Colour- showing browning round the edges. Black cherries on the nose and gameness. Same on the palate with rich, luxuriant fruit. Silky, refined. 5 stars.  

Anthony said that was what they were trying to achieve with their Pinot Noirs. But they had not got there yet. 

From there he invited me to his house for lunch. Anthony’s house is built on the upper reaches of his estate. It is white, almost Spanish in character. It overlooks the beauty of the Hemel-en- Aarde valley. He had two black great Danes and giant tortoises. It created an almost magical atmosphere. We sat down for lunch. He had a private cook at the time. After lunch we sat on his balcony drinking coffee. I pulled out a packet of Cohiba cigarettes and stated to smoke one. Anthony said that I should rather smoke cigars.

Anthony turned out to be a big cigar aficionado. He gave me a Robusta and taught me that I must not inhale the cigar but blow the smoke out of my nose. This puts one in a chilled state. He gave me as a present a giant cigar in a case, a Monte Cristo –Habana.

I have never have never smoked it and never will. I have kept it as a symbol of his generosity.

When it comes to his Chardonnays the first I encountered was of course the 1995. The next that springs to mind was his 2001 which I tasted and purchased at his tasting room. It had a beautiful bouquet and was very refined. At the time Anthony said it was the best Chardonnay they had made. It was quintessential Burgundy. Very much like a Puligny- Montrachet.

The 2005 was a fine Chardonnay. All Hamilton Russell Chardonnays possess class, perfume, balance, concentration on the palate and elegance. Tasting notes.  Deep colour. Rich, concentrated. Stylish but deceptively powerful. Long term future.

The 2006 was a fine wine. I don’t have tasting notes for it. But Platter writes “After superbly elegant 05 5 stars) 06 has bright fruit but in ascendant. Focused by big fresh, savoury acid. Good balance with youthfully obvious toasty oak. (Fermented 8 months, third new.) Harmony will grow in a few years. Silky rich- never heavy, authoritative never ponderous.”         

I found the 2007 to be quite taut. Not as open as many of his Chardonnays. Anthony said that they had sulphur problems with the 2007. For some reason the sulphur levels just dropped.  Platter writes “Long history of classical styling but latest releases more showy. 07 (4 stars) sparingly toasty flamboyant dominant tropical notes and oak. Fermented 7 months 31% new. Less intense, balanced than 06 and superb 05 (5 stars) Commendable 13% alc.”

The 2008 was a real cracker. Intense, rich and highly perfumed. I don’t have tasting notes for it but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Platter writes “Finely balanced Old/ New World styling on 08. Lime/ tropical, hazelnut notes. Eva versant butterscotch. Creamy, more intense than flamboyant 07.”

At one time every year my mother and I would go on holiday. We would generally go to Hermanus and stay at the Windsor Hotel. A lovely hotel, old world and reasonable, facing the sea. In the whale season the whales would frolic in the bay right in front of the hotel. One could have tea in the lounge and watch the whales. I would keep my curtain open as my mother always insisted on a sea facing room and wake up with the sunrise.

On one trip I decided to phone Anthony Hamilton Russell. His estate is only a ten minute drive from Hermanus. He said he was having a unique tasting. They were going to taste every wine that Hamilton Russell had produced. He said that he would send a driver to fetch me. The next day a driver arrived in a four wheel drive.

At the tasting there was only Anthony, his wife Olive, his wine maker (I think it was Kevin Grant) and me. I remember the Chardonnays very well. Half through the tasting I became fatigued. There were too many wines. I told Anthony that I was taking a cigarette break. I wondered into the vineyards in front of his house. Absorbed by the beauty of the surroundings.

When I rejoined the tasting Anthony asked me what I thought. I replied “that his Chardonnays were citric when young; buttery when ten years old and when very old they were both citric and buttery.” He said “That was a very profound observation.”

In 2004 I went Burgundy with my father. The land of great Chardonnay. I brought back quite a lot of wine. Including two bottles of Pouilly- Fuisse and a bottle of Corton- Charlemagne.  Hugh Johnson describes Pouilly- Fuisse as “The best wine of the Macon region.”  The two bottles of Pouilly- Fuisse were actually purchased by chance at a producer called Pouilly- Fuisse. Considered an excellent producer. They were superb. The Corton- Charlemagne was also purchased by chance in Mercury.       

 I called Anthony Hamilton Russell and told him that I had some fine Burgundy for him to taste. He had quite a busy schedule but we finally arranged for me to have lunch at his home and taste the wines. He had never tasted Pouilly- Fuisse before.

The day arrived and I came with a Cape Gate driver. Anthony started off with tasting the two bottles of Pouilly- Fuisse from different soils. They had what Anthony called “secondary oxidation.” They were nothing like the wines I tasted at the estate. But Anthony said that “he could still pick up their character.”

We then sat down to lunch and drank the Corton- Charlemagne. It was so good it blew my mind. Anthony was also very impressed. After lunch they gave me presents. Somehow I was always given gifts when I went to Hamilton- Russell. Anthony said “You have been generous in sharing your wines with us.” He gave me two bottles of Hamilton- Russell (a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay.) And a box of fynbos honey produced on their farm. I did not know that Hamilton- Russell also produced honey.

Anthony opened a small jar. “Smell this he said.” It smelt wonderful. “So you see Anthony said” “It’s not only wine that has an aroma. Everything has an aroma. Flowers, trees ect.” I learnt a lot from that. It opened my mind to a whole new world.

Finally, I must have discovered Hamilton Russell’s Ashbourne wines at a wine trade fair. I decided to write about them in 2010. Below is the article released by wine.co.za that I wrote. I called Anthony and said that I wanted to write about Ashbourne for wine.co.za. He said that wine.co.za had not covered Ashbourne before. So I drove out to Hamilton Russell for a tasting.

Ashbourne points to new possibilities for Hamilton Russell, pinotage and South African wine in general writes Gad Kaplan. Ashbourne is a very exciting project indeed.

28 April 2010 by Gad Kaplan.

Although Ashbourne’s first bottling was in 2001 I first caught up with their wines last year. Owned by Anthony Hamilton Russell, the proprietor of the more famous Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Ashbourne is a 113 ha property lying adjacent to Hamilton Russell, on its Eastern border. Although Ashbourne started off with releasing only a red by the time I discovered them they had added a white to their stable.

Most people know Hamilton Russell for their premium chardonnay and pinot noir in the Burgundy style bottles but Ashbourne’s more Bordeaux looking, slightly dumpy shaped bottles pointed to something different. And when Anthony started talking about “Ashbourne developing wines with extended bottle maturation character” in this wine world of early releases I knew I was onto something different. Both the white and the red wines had smooth and refined characteristics on the palate, with perfumed and elegant aromas, which excited me further. And so Anthony invited me over to Hamilton Russell for a tasting and lunch in March this year.

Hamilton Russell are known both locally and internationally as a premium operation (see the current Platter 2010) which  gives both their pinot noir and chardonnay a 4 and a half star rating so I had high expectations for their Ashbourne. But I was quite overwhelmed by the quality of both wines.

We started with the white. The maiden Ashbourne Sandstone 2006 released in keeping with Ashbourne’s philosophy of extended bottle maturation, only in August 2009. The Ashbourne Sandstone is a sauvignon blanc driven wine with the 2006 containing smaller components of chardonnay and semillon. The buzz word surrounding Hamilton Russell has always been that their wines stem from the cool, Hemel-En- Aarde Valley near Hermanus. But if you talk to Anthony you will see that he emphasizes that his area is cooler (by South African standards) but not cool in international terms. His real passion is soil and the influence it can have on a wine’s character.

Hence the name Ashbourne Sandstone as the wine comes from grapes grown on light structured, free-draining, Table Mountain Sandstone derived soils. Hamilton Russell’s research pointed to sauvignon blanc being particularly successful on sandstone soils and the ploy definitely works with the wine showing fresh aromas together with mineralty. The 2006 is pale gold (showing its age) with very complex aromatics. Lovely honey, green peas, litchis and rose petals all emerge on the nose. The palate shows a lovely mouth feel together with a waxy, weighty character. It scored 4 stars in Platter but I would give it 4 and half stars.

Anthony freely admits that he is “bucking the trend by producing a white wine with low alcohol, no grape varieties on the label and with bottle-age character.” But the strategy definitely works as the wine embodies a classy but unique character showing surprising power which belies its 12.5 alcohol.   

Onto the red Ashbourne and we are dealing with a completely different animal and, in my opinion, a true classic. Grown, unlike the Ashbourne Sandstone, on heavy clay-rich shale derived soils the theme of the importance of soil in the Ashbourne viticultural identity continues. The 2005 Ashbourne is 100% pinotage. The wine is pale garnet with a wonderful nose of black cherries and liquorice. Beautiful clean fruit on the rich, round palate together with a mineralty and chocolate elements round the wine off.

It is important that I have described the characteristics of both wines to give one a feeling for their complex and unique character. The Ashbourne, particularly is “a thing of beauty” to borrow from the poet John Keats.  I have never tasted a pinotage quite like it before. One could almost think that one is drinking a top Bordeaux with its refined elegance. But its sensuousness is Rhone like. Platter gives it 4 and half stars. I would nudge it up to 5!

Anthony is well known as a producer of top Burgundy varieties. He seems less well known, despite his ownership of Southern Right, for his passion for pinotage. He states “I am convinced that the intrinsic qualities of pinotage lend themselves to the making of great, age-worthy, origin expressive wine with a uniquely South African style and personality. I am also convinced that one day South Africa’s most internationally famous wine will be pinotage based.”

There are a couple of lessons that we can learn from Ashbourne. Firstly, that the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley offers more than just fine chardonnay and pinot noir. Its cooler climate can give a more elegant expression to grapes such as sauvignon blanc and pinotage. Secondly, in the case of the Ashbourne Sandstone that with the right soil and varietal blending (together with some bottle age) South African sauvignon blanc need not always be an acidic, in your face variety. The above style is successful and has it merits but a smooth, rounded and elegant expression of sauvignon blanc with bottle age, can offer a good alternative to the fresh, usual early drinking fare.

Finally, that pinotage as a solo variety and not only as part of a “Cape blend” can make great wine. And that there can be different expressions to fine pinotage. The power and intensity of Kanonkop is one example. The finesse and elegance of Ashbourne is another. There is no doubt that the Ashbourne 2005 is a great wine. It states on the label that only 6 barrels were made. It is only the third release. Commitment to quality meant that none was produced in 2002, 2003 and 2006.

Anthony reflects that of his 20 years at Hamilton Russell the 2001 and 2005 Ashbourne were, for him, two great vintages. Sometimes, it is wine made in small quantities that can influence the direction of a country’s wine identity. The same can be said for France with some of its tiny but iconic producers.

To summarise, the first time I met Anthony he stated that they originally started making wine in the Hemel-en- Aarde valley to make wines in a cooler clime. But it was only when they started planting grapes on the correct soils that their wines started to shine. So terrior is a union of climate and the correct soils.

HR Chardonnay
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