Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hamilton Russell Wines and the Bliss of Walker Bay

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, looking down on the winter waves of Walker Bay (left).
After a week of surfing and sightseeing on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, my wife and I made the trek from Hout Bay to the Southern Cape seaside town of Hermanus. It was late May, and we arrived just a bit too early for the annual Southern Right whale migration, which draws eco-tourists from around the world. 

We hired a group of local conservationists and surfers to take us on a boat into Walker Bay. We tried to find some Southern Rights arriving early but were unsuccessful. We followed a few Bryde’s whales into the bay, which was amazing in its own right. As a surfer, I was just stoked to be on a boat as a 15-foot swell was rolling in from the southern ocean. 

I was excited to visit some wineries in the Walker Bay regionwhich is a few degrees Centigrade cooler than Stellenbosch and known for producing some excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. As a lover of the sea, I reveled in the oceanic influence. The air smells of crashing waves and sea shells and the wines taste crisp, clean and seafood-friendly.

On the top of my list was Hamilton Russell Winery, located in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley sub-region. This producer has been gotten some serious accolades from big American wine publications, and for good reason. 

Unfortunately, as we drove up we found that the tasting room was closed for renovations. Saddened, my wife and I drove a mile or so down the road to Southern Right Winery. I’d never heard of this producer, but, Ill admit, I liked the name and their whale logo. Turns out, Southern Right is Hamilton Russell’s sister winery. The place was empty except for a young woman who was working in the winery office. She poured us some wines from the Hamilton Russell family line-up and talked with us about the region and the different wines. We got to taste Southern Right’s two bottlings, a pair of Hamilton Russells and two wines from another project called Ashbourne.

Here are my notes on the Hamilton Russell family of wines…

2013 Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc - South Africa, Walker Bay
Clean and floral on the nose with green melon and a spearmint note. Tangy and mineral-driven on the palate with some creamy feel from two months on the lees. Intense lime and green melon mixes with sea shells and all sorts of minerals. No green grass here, just pure fruit and waves of mineral goodness. (89 points)

2009 Hamilton Russell Ashbourne Sandstone - South Africa, Walker Bay
A bit of grass on the nose, some green pepper, white tea and saline. Quite fleshy on the palate, creamy body, but tingling acid. Interesting blend of flavors: mango, honey, white tea, sea salt, showing some beautiful aged characteristics but it’s still quite lively and
I’d like to cellar it for a few more. A complex and lovely blend of 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Chardonnay. (90 points)

2013 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Deep, complex aromas of peach, flowers, slate, honey and minerals. So pure, clean and fleshy on the palate, with flavors of white peach, pear. lemon curd, apricot and green melon. Creamy but mineral-driven, so complex yet subtle and nuanced, with all sorts of tea and slate notes. Long, complex, verging on the profound. Wow, this is near-epic. I’d love to cellar this for two or three years, but I think it’ll improve for longer. This was my favorite wine of the entire trip, and I think it deserves much more time for contemplation. (94 points)

2013 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Bright ruby color. Smells of spice cake, roses, cherries, currants, as well as a blend of oregano, sage and spearmint. Basically, the nose is amazing. Fleshy red fruit on the palate, but so silky, pure and elegant as well. Fine tannins, tangy acid, effortless on the palate. The spice, anise, rose and mushroom notes are wonderful, and will only improve with age. A real beauty. (92 points)

2012 Southern Right Pinotage - South Africa, Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Dark ruby color. Dark berries on the nose, with coffee, pepper and roses. Smells elegant, not stinky. Tannins are bold, but the mouthfeel is velvety. Rich berry fruit and plum cake mixes with anise, coffee and spicy cedar notes. Lively but also shows some elegance. One of the better Pinotage wines I remember tasting, and it could get better with a few years. (90 points)

2008 Hamilton Russell Ashbourne - South Africa, Walker Bay
Aromas of soft berries, spice, roses, earth, some charcoal. Grippy tannins, fresh acid. Tangy blackberry and strawberry fruit blends with smoke, roses, pepper, oregano and leather tones. A finish with sweet plum cake and cola. Complex, very pretty and elegant, which is quite an achievement for a blend of 67% Pinotage and 33% Cabernet. I’d love to lay this down for another three years. (90 points)

I was smitten with these wines, so I snagged a few to stow away in my luggage. Overall, I was beyond impressed with the Hermanus wine route experience. Its a place of uniquely stunning beauty. I could wax about it for hours, using all sorts of superlatives, but it wouldn’t do much good. It has to be experienced. 

Outside of Southern Right winery, the locals showed up to hang out. Baboons
are fascinating animals and I was stoked to be able to watch such a large troop
On the way out of the winery, my wife and I spotted a troop of about 40 baboons. We spent a good half-hour just watching and photographing them as they played around in a small field. I’ll remember that day for as long as my mind works.

If you’re ever in South Africa, heed these words: Visit Hermanus. Tour the wineries. Get on a boat and look for some whales. Bask in the bliss that you’re alive and privileged enough to be here. I’m going back again to do just that.


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