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Anthony Hamilton Russell and his Wine World

Iconic South African wine producer Anthony Hamilton Russell has earned many accolades.  Not least from Jancis Robinson. She described Hamilton Russell Vineyards - a relatively new appellation nestled in The Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley bordering the cold South Atlantic Ocean - as ‘South Africa’s answer to Burgundy’. 

That’s quite a claim by the ‘Queen of Wine’. Let’s find out more as I chat with the sprightly, dapper 62-year-old in London’s Conrad St James about his epic wine journey with Hamilton Russell Vineyards and other vinous interests including Ashbourne, Southern Right (both in Hemel-en-Aarde) and his project in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA. 
Anthony with his latest vintages at The London Conrad St James

What did you do before you became a winemaker?

“A lot of us left South Africa in the early 1980’s. Apartheid was increasingly unsustainable morally and also bad economically. I was fortunate to get an Irish passport on my Grandmother’s side as my great, great Grandfather was Lord Ashbourne who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland in the late 1800’s. As an interesting aside, Lord Ashbourne had a daughter who converted to Catholicism and attempted to assassinate Mussolini!

The Irish passport was the key to me doing a degree at Oxford. In the mid 80’s, I got a job in investment banking at a London based American investment bank then did an MBA in America. I returned to an American consulting company with the intention of becoming a partner and moving into venture capital.

However, with Nelson Mandela’s release in February 1990 I could go back to a South Africa with a future, as the markets slowly opened up. You always miss home and I’d been gone for seven years. I didn’t know quite what to do when I got back.”

So how did you end up winemaking in very cool climate and somewhat remote Hemel-en-Aarde?

“It was my grandfather who initially connected our family to the area. He bought an old Cape Dutch house in the 1940’s. Built in the late 1700’s, it was the first building in Hermanus. My father had spent every Christmas there, so we have a huge emotional connection to the town. In 1975, my father successfully started Hamilton Russell Vineyards as a passion project. He thought none of his children would be interested in joining the business. In the challenging late 1980’s it became something of a family albatross.

I took over Hamilton Russell Vineyards in 1991 and bought the business from my father in 1994. To give some financial perspective, my annual salary in London in 1990, exceeded the annual turnover of Hamilton Russell Vineyards and it wasn’t very big. In 1994, I also founded Southern Right (Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc) where we’ve just celebrated 30 vintages, and in 1996 I founded Ashbourne as a single vineyard Pinotage. Our project in the Willamette Valley in Oregon was initiated in 2018 and while successful, is small.”

Did the Hamilton Russell Estate only ever produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

“No. My father’s team eventually produced eleven wines and worked with eight grape varieties. That was the business model for a small, confined market. Once the world opened up with Mandela’s release, it made sense to do what we did best for the whole world, rather than something for everyone locally. At Hamilton Russell that meant cutting back to only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from 1994 onwards. I have an instinctive dislike of reserves and second labels, so it’s the one red wine and one white wine which reflect our property and its terroir in the most beautiful way. We’re currently on our 44th Pinot Noir vintage.

Hamilton Russell Vineyard’s impressive Braemar House with the Fynbos Reserve and Vineyards

We are a Single Estate ‘Monopole’ of 52 hectares of only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I’m proud to say that our wines are in 68 countries and in France we have been listed in over 30 Michelin star restaurants. The other side of the coin is that our wines must have very good ageing potential.”

You make winemaking sound relatively straightforward which it is clearly not. Do you have any formal winemaking training?

“I’ve no conventional winemaking training but I am the owner of our wine business, not the winemaker. I’ve borrowed and learned from numerous sources as do other winemakers, wine producers, sommeliers, critics and consumers.

Anthony sampling wines with his winemaker Emul Ross

We have implemented a new winemaking technique for our Pinot Noir that results in taking the pressed wine with fewer solids over to barrel. This means we have less chance that the fine fruit gets disturbed by post-malolactic aromas. We’ve escalated that process from 2021-2023, even redesigning our whole cellar, bringing in new tanks to enable us to settle the post-pressing wine in small, well cooled tanks to separate out more solids quickly and effectively. We now have an even better level of purity in our Pinot Noir – and an even more Burgundian aesthetic. We are South African to the core, but if people need to know what to expect in our wine, the aesthetic is much more in the Burgundian direction than, say, California’s Russian River or Sonoma Valley which is more soft, easy and open fruited.”

Please give an example of an innovation that you created in the winery.

“We isolated our own strain of wine yeast in our vineyard in 1993 which we used to keep going and bulk up for harvest. This ran the risk of mutation and we could never get as much as we wanted for harvest. In 2015, we partnered with an organic yeast company who was interested in selling this unique strain to the world. We can now buy as much as we want in stable dry form. This yeast is being quite widely used now in Oregon and California and on a smaller scale in several European countries.”

What unique climatic feature aids your wine production?

“We are 1,500 metres, at the closest, from the cold South Atlantic Ocean - if you flip our latitudes we reach Rabat in Morocco so it’s the very cold Benguela current flowing up from Antarctica which makes quality wine production possible in the South Western tip of South Africa. Hamilton Russell Vineyards happens to be particularly close to this body of water.”

What are the main challenges you face?

“We have many different challenges here besides the extreme weather. The ‘once in many a lifetime storm’ of 24th and 25th September 2023, took down around 60, 100-plus-year-old Eucalyptus trees and trashed a wine store of ours. We also lost a lot of Chardonnay, due to the strong wind and rain at flowering. As a result, our 2024 Chardonnay yield was around 30% down on an already extremely low yield of under 15 hectolitres per hectare for our 2023. Many new tailor-made Francois Fréres barrels for 2024 lie empty. We could sell so much more wine but buying in grapes changes what we stand for.

There’s also the pain of load-shedding (nationally rationed electricity) and local security concerns. So we have a Rural Safety Association with a WhatsApp Group of around 450 Hemel-en-Aarde members that helps us to look out for one another as a community.”
Damage at Hamilton Russell from ‘the once in many lifetimes’ storm of 24th and 25th September 2023
How many bottles of wine a day do you sell and what does your Pinot Noir cost in South Africa?

“We are a tiny producer. However, we are still in the fast-moving consumer goods business. We have to sell a bottle of wine every minute of the daylight hours somewhere in the world. From a pricing perspective, my father’s first 1981 Pinot Noir vintage was 5.95 rand (25p!) and our current release is 850 rand (£36).”

Is it true that our late Queen Elizabeth II may have tried your wines?

“Yes that’s true. When Nelson Mandela was invited by the Queen to Buckingham Palace for a state banquet in 1996 he was served Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1993 Chardonnay.”

The Queen and Nelson Mandela toast at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace

Is Burgundy a big influence on you and if so, how does the Hemel-en-Aarde terroir compare?

“If you are a devout Catholic, you have to make a pilgrimage to ‘A Big Cathedral’ at some point and for me Burgundy is the spiritual home of fine wine. I want that to seep into my four adult daughters.

I see the generalised Burgundy wine styles as more intellectual and contemplative. You want to go back to them, to think about them. A lot of Pinot Noir is more like an easy read on the beach in summer - it’s fun and enjoyable and you can be distracted while you are reading it, whereas fine literature demands something of you. It’s an investment. I think good Burgundy is like fine literature and you’ve got to know something to get the most out of it.

It’s not that we copy Burgundy - it is more an accident of geography. Our 400-million-year old shale and clay has the same clay content as the Côte de Nuits, with very marginal, shallow difficult soils and very low yields. Cross over to the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and there’s a fault line beyond which you get decomposed granite and a different expression of Pinot Noir. It’s softer, more open and more red fruited. Leave the Valley and cross into The Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and you are back on clay but it’s got a topping of argillaceous sandstone in places. This is in essence a lighter structured clay and creates a style somewhere between the two other appellations.

The geology of appellations Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge

We also get firmer tannins in our Pinot Noir, which a lot of people don’t associate with the grape. If you put Pinot Noir in lighter structured soils it’s very rare to get a significant presence of tannin, unless perhaps from oak barrels. Burgundy in the more clay and iron-rich areas such as Pommard, Nuits St Georges and Gevrey Chambertin is no stranger to these firmer tannins.

If one likes to drink Russian River Pinot Noir, for example, then one wouldn’t offer a Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir as this is more the Burgundian aesthetic i.e. less fruit forward, less soft and easy, more spice and structure driven. If it’s not what your terroir does naturally you can’t achieve this in the cellar and shouldn’t aim for it.

I think Pinot Noir can have beauty through all stages of development. Often when I go to Burgundy I taste out of the barrel and despite the wine’s youthfulness the wine tasted from the barrel is the one we want to try more of that evening.

Wine critic Neil Martin gave our first vintage, 1981, produced from four-year-old vines from a Swiss sparkling wine clone with no winemaking experience (as we were the very first in our area) a very complimentary 94/100. And this wine at the time was 41 years old. Drink now to 2032 was his suggestion, projecting a 50-year life to the wine. Neil added ‘like Gevrey-Chambertin and I mean very good Gevrey-Chambertin’.

Generally, Pinot Noir should have a few things going on in its aromatic signature that go beyond fruit. We get spice and structure effortlessly, which is what excited people internationally, but what we sometimes struggle to get is that very fine fruit perfume which comes effortlessly to Central Otago, Russian River or Oregon.

The best South African wines are being taken more and more seriously internationally. We are getting there, but we are a long way off achieving the pricing and success of the top European benchmark wines and appellations.”

How did Hemel-en-Aarde become three separate appellations i.e. Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge?

“I was responsible for the creation of these appellations with the help of another producer in our area, Dave Johnson from Newton Johnson. I owned the name ‘Hemel-en-Aarde’ and donated it free of charge to the area on the condition that the appellation boundaries meant something and were real reflections of meso-climate, site and soils. We lobbied the South African Wine Authorities to turn Walker Bay into a District which enabled us to create smaller more relevant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay focused appellations within it.

The three appellations of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge

When I started on Hamilton Russell Vineyards we were the only property in the area selling wine. Now there are four ex-winemakers and two relatives of ex-winemakers of ours making wine and a total of 28 producers. We all work very well together under the name Hemel-en-Aarde, with three contiguous appellations each with a slightly different style.”

The Hemel-en-Aarde area seems rather good neighbourly - is it?

“Our area is very collegiate indeed, despite some initial squabbling when the appellations first came into play and boundaries were drawn. The owners of wine properties generally come from varied backgrounds so to work in a collegiate way is fairly unusual.

Bouchard Finlayson, Whalehaven, Ataraxia and Storm Wines were all founded by ex-winemakers of ours. Creation was founded by a relative of an ex-winemaker of ours, as was Crystallum Wines. We all work very well together. The rest of the South African wine industry looks at us as almost a model of how one should work together as an area. If equipment breaks a colleague will come to the rescue and help in any way they can.”

I understand the biodiversity of this area is rich and diverse – please tell me more.

“I love being in nature and am particularly fond of bird watching. Leopards pass through the property and we have five species of antelope. We have more species of plant in the Hemel-en-Aarde than there are in the United Kingdom. On our property alone, I have counted 139 bird species. Soon the Hemel-en-Aarde will be surrounded by contiguous privately conserved Cape Mountain “Fynbos”. No fences and the free movement of wildlife. I have been involved for some time in the vision and implementation of this.”

A stunning leopard causally strolls through the Hamilton Russell Estate

I’ve heard through the grapevine that you are an incredibly supportive wine mentor, do you have any examples that you could share with me?

“I’m incredibly proud of what Berene Sauls of Tesselaarsdal (of Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge) has done with her Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. At the age of 18, in 2001, she started as our family’s au pair.

Berene was too bright and was totally wasted in this role so we found her other work on our team. As a valued member, she developed all the skills needed to have her own wine brand. All I had to do was discuss the idea with her and provide a small amount of start-up money. She produced her maiden vintage of her Pinot Noir in 2015 and has not looked back!

Everyone thinks you have to be a winemaker to run a wine business but so often this doesn’t play to a winemaker’s strengths. Berene is able to marshal resources around her so effectively and that’s her skill. She’ll find people, consult them and use them in a constructive way, for whatever she needs to get the job done - she’s incredibly driven. It’s worked incredibly well. She is genuinely self-made.

Funnily enough I was just wondering what we will do when Berene leaves us as her business grows yet more. Fortunately, there is a good succession plan there with her son Darren who may eventually move onto the property she acquired in Tesselaarsdal and make the wine.

It doesn’t really mean anything (as a winemaker) until you’ve got land and now she has land with beautiful gates outside of it which she is incredibly proud of. I’ll probably end up borrowing money from her!

On a different level of responsibility, we honour the ‘stage’ system (developed in Old World Europe) and often have interns here working the harvest or in the winery. ‘Most admired young(ish) South African wine producer’ Eben Sadie’s son worked the harvest with us last year. Harvest interns even come from Burgundy and some of them are now are running quite serious domains.”

Anthony, Berene and her son Darren with Tesselaarsdal wines

You mentioned your father’s grape growing and wine producing being more of a passion project - what’s yours?

“Our single vineyard Pinotage from our Ashbourne property is almost a passion project but ultimately it was more a duty for me. Here in South Africa I have a fighting chance of making the best Pinotage in the world and also adding something to the world of wine that is not already there. As an early ripening grape it belongs in a cool area – and as a relative of Pinot Noir, clay does great things for Pinotage. Clay and cooler climate was the punt I took with Pinotage. 2001 was the maiden vintage.”

It’s admirable to pin so much on Pinotage when it can be considered by some international wine buffs to be a bit of an ‘acquired taste’. I remember tasting Laibach’s premium 2017 Pinotage and it was pretty underwhelming with a bizarre rubber duck aroma while being overladen with rich baked dark fruits but not quite enough balancing acidity. Why do you think that might be?

“Unfortunately, if one drinks a glass of bad Pinotage, one rejects the grape not the winemaking or choice of site. Many of the negative characteristics associated with Pinotage can be found in most other red grape varieties made badly or planted in the wrong place.

Pinotage has suffered from the connotations surrounding its origins as a ‘hybrid’, ‘created’ from Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It’s only fair to point out that Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively recent natural hybridisation of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. We seldom, if ever, talk about that.”

What makes your Ashbourne Pinotage different and special?

“I believe Pinotage has earned its right to be considered as a stand-alone variety of great potential and merit, without automatic reference to its parents. Like Pinot Noir, Pinotage is an early ripening variety. Theoretically and in our experience, it is best suited to cooler areas.

In warmer areas, without the restraining hand of advanced vine age, it has a tendency to gallop towards excessive sugar ripeness at low acidity and high ph. Similar to many reds but early ripeners in particular. Similar to Pinot Noir, it has an affinity for clay which nurses a degree of classicism and depth out of the grape.

Pinotage farmed on clay-rich soils and heavier soils, is far more likely to afford wine styles which appeal to fine wine initiates. As an aside, consider the style of Côte de Nuits’ Pinot Noir versus Sancerre Rouge. Similar climate and both have lots of limestone but Sancerre does not have as much clay.

We have had Burgundians enthuse on Pinotage and place it somewhere between Burgundy and The Rhone. It has been placed in Crozes Hermitages in blind tastings and (most commonly) ‘somewhere in the South of France’. I have been in a Rhone blind tasting of some top wines where a 2005 Kanonkop, placed as a ringer, was the wine of the flight!

At Ashbourne we use larger format 400 litre barrels for 9 months and toasting levels are relatively mild. And then each barrel is put together into a foudre of our own design which has been previously broken in with Chardonnay so there’s no woodiness. It integrates for a further 9 months. We bottle it and keep it for a year and then sell it. In South Africa it costs 1,000 rand a bottle and that is getting to the absolute north of where you can sell more than a handful of cases. My mission now is to spread the word on Ashbourne Pinotage and let the world decide on just how good it is”.

The Ashbourne vineyard with nature reserve behind and below

Do you think Pinotage could gain a cult status?

“Among certain consumers and for certain producers, yes. It used to be trendy to say ‘Oh I don’t like Pinotage’. That’s turned now. People in the know think you are being quite closed minded and unexposed if you say that. You can’t reject a grape just because you haven’t liked what you’ve tasted when there are so many examples that are truly inspiring. Beaujolais Nouveau created problems for top Cru Beaujolais. Liebfraumilch created problems for top German Riesling. Cheap, poorly made Pinotage has created problems for top Pinotage.

When the King of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja visited us, his face lit up with the idea of tasting an actual South African grape variety. He has always had an open and experimental mind.”

What do you think is the longer-term future for premium Pinotage?

“I believe that if our new generation of wine makers with their firmer grasp of the aesthetics of fine wine continue to have the courage and commitment to focus on a variety that has to build international goodwill without the help of other countries, we can achieve great things with Pinotage.

I believed it in 1991 and I still believe that one day, South Africa’s most famous red will be a Pinotage or a Pinotage based wine”.

That would surely deeply please fellow Saffer, Professor Perold who initially crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault exactly 100 years ago!

And finally, what’s your general view on South African wines?

“Our national wine industry problem is that the wines that excite are only available in small quantities so there is just not enough out there to influence international consumer thought.

Our top end of the industry has lots of different wines in very small parcels. As for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, we are regarded as one of the old classics, making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for 44 years. We would be seen as traditionalist – for goodness sake – look at me! We are often regarded as a little more staid, less adventurous and innovative than many of the younger winemakers. But in my experience, an awful lot of innovation and experimentation takes place in the cellars of our ‘classic’ producers.

In terms of moving up the wine ladder, South Africa needs people making really good wine in large enough quantities for restaurants in many countries, not just a few Cape Town restaurants and private collectors. Why I love the South African wine industry is because we really have to try harder. We are not able to rely on our home market alone”.

It was a real pleasure and an honour meeting you Anthony - I wish you every success with all your wonderful wines. You are already a brilliant roving Ambassador not just for the Hamilton-Russell Estate but South African wines in general.

And now, Anthony puts his wines to his palate.

“I try to start with the Pinot Noir before the Chardonnay. We just find the wines show better this way. The lifted clean fruit on young Chardonnay can emphasise aspects of Pinot Noir which don’t show in the best light. It can also mute the more delicate fruit perfume on our Pinot Noir. In addition, the tannin in our Pinot Noir seems to give the Chardonnay that follows it a greater sense of cut and minerality.”

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2023

“A beautiful vintage, which winemaker Emul Ross is particularly proud of. Great balance and purity with a mix of both dark and red fruit. The tannins, while present across the palate, are finer grained than for our 2022 and more pleasantly present than for our 2021. The fruit perfume is more lifted than we have recently experienced.”

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2023

“An especially cool year, with particularly low yields. Fresh, lifted pear and lime fruit aromas follow through on a typically mineral palate with seamlessly integrated oak (one can hardly sense it). The texture is fuller and denser than our 2022 was at this early stage but the wine finishes with our characteristic mineral dryness.”

Ashbourne Pinotage 2020

“Ripe complex fruit at a surprisingly low alcohol of just under 13%. This is a particularly fine-grained vintage, while retaining the characteristic acidity and tannin of our Ashbourne Pinotage. One can’t help thinking of young Northern Italian wine as an aesthetic analogy for our 2020. Promises to age beautifully and develop more and more complex savoury aromas”.

Some of Anthony’s latest vintages ‘resting’ in Mikey Clark’s cellar


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