The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa is about as far south as you can go before you end up in the waters of the Antarctic. The cooling influence of the sea in the valley is a crucial ingredient in the making of Hamilton Russell wines from their estate behind the fishing village of Hermanus. Just 3 kilometres from the Atlantic, their pinot noir and chardonnay vines produce grapes that soak up the bright sunshine of South Africa while preserving the freshness and balance that both varieties need to make truly great wine.
Bought in 1975 and planted with vines in 1976 by advertising executive Tim Hamilton-Russell, the first vintage was a 1981 pinot noir. It was not long before a benchmark had been set for South African, indeed southern hemisphere, winemakers who wanted to make classic styles with one eye on Burgundy.
22 hectares of pinot and 30 hectares of chardonnay, grown on bokkeveld shale rich in stones and clay, are now transformed into tightly focussed wines by Emul Ross, the winemaker who came to the estate from fellow South African winery Chamonix in 2013 to replace Hannes Storm. Current owner Anthony Hamilton-Russell, who took over from his father in 1994, seeks to make expressive wines with a true sense of place and has invested in replanting with better clones of pinot noir.
The improvement has been worth the investment. Only pinot and chardonnay are used for the Hamilton Russell label. The quest for perfection even includes drying his own oak on the estate and shipping the timber to France to be made into barrels.
A second label, Southern Right, produces wines from other varieties such as pinotage, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.