Hamilton Russell Vineyards was the first winery in South Africa's Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. In 1975, Tim Hamilton Russell, an advertising executive and passionate wine enthusiast, purchased 400 acres of land near the small village of Hermanus overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He saw the potential for making great wines in this undeveloped, cool climate region and proceeded to plant a selection of noble grape varieties. Today, Hemel-en-Aarde (which means heaven on earth) is an exciting winemaking region with several wine farms. In 1991, Tim's son Anthony took over from his father and narrowed the winery's focus to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Grape Collective caught up with Anthony and his wife Olive to talk about the challenges and rewards of making terroir-driven wine in South Africa.
Lisa Denning: Tell me how you got into wine.
Anthony Hamilton Russell: It's a family business. I was, like a lot young South Africans in the '80s, quite depressed about the way the country was going. Apartheid was basically going through its last death throes. There wasn't much of a future there so I left the country, went to study in England, at Oxford, and then worked for an American company, Morgan Stanley. And then I did the inevitable, if you work in that environment: off to do an MBA in America. I went to Wharton. And after that, another American company, Bain & Company, in London. I was quite homesick, and when Mandela was released in 1990 I felt that there was a future for the country. It looked as though there was a new way forward so I went back. My father had started Hamilton Russell in 1975 as a passion and a hobby, not for money, while he was in advertising. And I basically picked up the phone and said I'd like to get involved so he was delighted.
It was very difficult times in South Africa. The country was in a deep recession. But with Mandela out of jail, the export markets opened up, so I thought I could build something of an international market. And eventually I made the decision to try and buy it from the family, which I did. It was a very, very small business and I bought it in 1994.
I think Olive came into wine with Hamilton Russel through me, actually. But we met through wine. She was very good friends with someone who was a winemaker and she studied wine exams with him and attended wine shows. I saw her at a wine show in 1999 and fell in love with her and we got married.
Do you have siblings that are involved in the business?
No. They're in another business altogether, and I don't think any would have expressed a strong interest. I think a small wine farm, it's a little bit like a family holiday house. If it's multiply owned, nobody invests in it. It becomes a thing of emotion and passion but it's really a business and it's not a sensible financial thing to do. It needs one person, or in our case a couple, with that strong proprietorial sense. You can't keep making payouts, and dividends can't go elsewhere. So it's worked out very well.
Succession is the big thing that unseats many family wine businesses, and with my four daughters, who knows who they'll marry, who knows yet which of them will be interested. But we've tried to make it as easy as possible for the new generation to come in and take over. That's very important for us.
When your dad started the winery, was he one of the pioneers in this region?
There was wine made in a little town called Bartover on Rue since the '60s, but he basically pioneered quality winemaking in the area. In fact, when I started in '91, we were the only people making wine. We now have 22 producers in our immediate area. Four are ex-winemakers of ours, two are relatives of ex-winemakers of ours, and one is a current staff member. And it's really exciting. We were like mavericks out on a limb, and now Hemel-en-Aarde is a very respected sub-region, broken into three distinct little appellations.
What gave your father the idea of starting a winery there, versus another, more established, area?
Well, it depends which version one looks at. But, basically, the family has a deep and prolonged emotional connection to the little seaside resort town called Hermanus that our winery overlooks. My grandfather had bought a house there during the Second World War. My father had spent every Christmas of his life there, and my grandfather had done the same since the 1930s. And my mother has a great grandmother buried in the family cemetery in Hermanus. Her family had ended up there in another way.
My parents met and courted in Hermanus so they're deeply attached to it. He did look in Stellenbosch, which is the logical beginning point. The farms were either not for sale or a little too expensive. My father was turning 40 when he decided to start a winery and he had made good money out of advertising, J. Walter Thompson South Africa, which he ran, and actually the family owned the South African one.
And, new to the wine business, he had a wine mentor who said, "You should look outside the traditional areas." So he looked at different sites and the prime driving factor was to find a cooler area. In those days, in the '70s, everyone was obsessed with the idea of temperature, latitude, how close we are to Burgundy, those kind of things. So further south, closer to the sea, cooler. That was what he was looking for.
Soil in those days was hardly ever spoken about other than just as something you stuff the vine in. There wasn't this sense that a certain soil delivered a certain style. And it was an accidental, fortuitous thing that, among the several varieties planted on the Hamilton Russell property (all the noble varieties except Riesling), Pinot and Chardonnay were included and they basically jumped up as the exciting ones. So when I took over it was very easy for me to focus on them, not based on any insight, other than that they tasted the best and people were the most interested in them. We stopped growing all the others and now specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with no reserves or second labels.
When you bought the winery, things were looking up for South Africa but there's still a lot of political tension. Then there are other concerns like currency issues (the volatile rand) and climate issues (the recent drought). What have been your biggest challenges since taking over the winery?
There's always this backdrop of extreme political risk, which makes you question what you're doing. You get so attached to the place, it becomes like one of your own limbs, or a close family member. So it's not a question of, "Oh, things are bad, we can sell up and move." It's something you just don't do, you're too emotionally attached to ever consider that. So that backdrop of political risk is the big concern, and what'll happen with things like land redistribution, forced shareholdings by what they term previously- disadvantaged people. You never know what the political environment will bring.
There's that factor, which is unique to South Africa, versus California, or Chile, or Argentina, or Australia, and the other thing is the extreme economic risk of a very fluctuating exchange rate, as you pointed out. Post-2008, we suddenly halved all the export revenue, not because we changed anything we were doing, but because the rand remained particularly strong while other currencies weakened.
Market risk, climate risk, political risk, exchange rate risk, that's the wine business. Because we're agriculturalists, we're manufacturers, and we're marketers. All of those things together, we face just about every form of risk, so when an insurer tells me we're under-insured in the house, or I should insure my paintings or my wristwatch, I say, "Why insure the small things if we can't insure against the big things?" We're happy to face that risk.
And has the drought affected you?
The important thing to bear in mind is that we still, in a dry year, got more rain than London. Cape Town itself, funny enough, large parts of it receives significantly more rain than London — even in these dry years. The issue in Cape Town is where the water is stored, the infrastructure for storage and delivery to Cape Town, and the rate at which that has been added to, given the significant open growth in Cape Town. Some of it is infrastructural problems, exacerbated by three very dry years. Our winery is located in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, which means "heaven on earth" and it gets quite a bit more rain than Cape Town itself. We're about 120 kilometers southeast of Cape Town and on the coast, right next to the sea. We pick up southeast wind and so we've been very lucky. The main problems, agriculturally, have been further inland, places like the Swartland where it has been really very dry.
Tell me about the terroir of your vineyards.
Well there are a couple of features, which we've figured out over time, that allows our wine to deliver the slightly more European style that we're known for. From the word go, regardless of how the wine was made, which clone we used, who the winemaker was, people found this kind of almost uncanny resemblance to red and white Burgundy, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
And in 1994, I conducted soil research where we broke up the farm into 16 soil structures. We had two soil scientists analyze the farm top to bottom. We then made the wine separately in all of our vineyard blocks and tasted those individual parcels against the map to see the role soil structure played in the style of the wine.
And we found that the very heavy clay that we were farming on, traditionally seen as sheep and wheat farming ground, was probably the most important factor in delivering that more structured, spicy, style of Pinot, and that tense, mineral style of Chardonnay. The soil is beautifully stony, shale derived, and iron and clay-rich. That is probably the most important factor, and the chance occurrence of a bank of it close enough to the sea to be moderate temperature-wise is also a key factor.We have remarkably similar temperatures as Burgundy because of the moderating influence of the cold Benguela Current that comes up from Antarctica. So it's that, plus the clay, that's given us what we have, our most important feature.
Have you noticed, since taking over the winery, climate changes that have affected your winemaking process?
Not dramatically. I think that vines are very resilient and we started off in a cooler area, and in an area where we have more rain.
In the Mediterranean climate of most of the wine lands, the overwhelming majority of the rainfall is in the winter. So as long as you store that, you've got plenty of water. We have the benefit of a slightly more stretched-out rainfall pattern. We get a little more in summer, a little bit more in autumn, little bit more in spring, and still the majority in winter. So the changes have been there and in my time we've actually gotten wetter and cooler.
And the ocean currents give us a fairly dramatic stabilizing force. We have some degree of influence from the Indian ocean, a warm current coming down one side. But the main influence is a cold current coming up from Antarctica. Those currents haven't changed their behavior much. Whereas, in Australia for example, it's much drier than it used to be. Certainly in the areas further inland in South Africa, people could say it's getting a bit hotter and a bit drier.
Let's talk about marketing. How do you think South African wines can become a bigger part of the conversation? Many wine stores, even here in cosmopolitan New York City, only have one small shelf of South African wines.
It's a seriously good question, and I think that the first problem is because of the sanctions. We've had only that time since sanctions were lifted in 1992 to fight our way into a very crowded marketplace. We had one hand tied behind our back having been out of the market for so long.
A second problem has been that we were an industry with massive overproduction. So as markets opened up, it was kind of a flood of the cheaper ones, not necessarily the best wines. So the initial perceptions of South Africa were of large quantities of cheap and cheerful wines, not bad, but not at the top end.
That's all changed quite dramatically, but over the weekend, for example, I was with some people from a big wine store. And one gentleman says to me "I've never tasted any good South African wines." I've known this man for a while and know that he's very opinionated and gets stuck on his Italian wines. But, you know, there's many different variations of that attitude, where people just don't realize the depth, and that really good wine is coming out of South Africa these days and what a great value South Africa offers. And we have something like 7,000 different individual labels with a lot of them being made by really cool, young winemakers doing extraordinary things — often not owning land, not owning a cellar, but borrowing a space, finding an old vineyard that they vinify. Those wines have an enormous relevance in setting the tone and the quality at the top end, but as far as the consumer's concerned, there's just not enough of them. So unlike Australia, France, Chile, or Argentina, we don't have many wines at the top end made in meaningful quantities. So that's a problem.
Another problem, slightly, is that America's far away and it's intimidating to South Africans because each state has different laws. Wine producers are scared of engaging it and they don't visit the market enough. There are a handful of us that regularly come into the market and talk about our wines, and in the process help South African wines as a category. That's another drawback. The U.K.'s different. Everyone travels there. So it's much better known.
Also what I think is a problem for us is with country labeling. Nobody's going to the South African section expecting to find ones that taste like ours do. They have a preconception: cheap and cheerful. I think that if you slip South African wines into a Cabernet category, or a Pinot Noir, or a Chardonnay, or a Chenin category that the sales would go up.
Another problem is that our government doesn't spend very much on generic promotion.
Do you have a consortium?
We do and they try very, very hard on a tiny budget. The other thing is, the main people contributing to that budget are the big producers, and those big producers are selling cheap and cheerful wines, and that's the focus: retail, and discounts, and deals, and things.
I just think more South Africans need to get on a plane and come over to the U.S. and tourists coming to South Africa can also help. We get a lot of American visitors now, much more so than 10 years ago, and it gives them a whole new attitude towards South African wine and that's going to address the problem, a little bit.
Let's talk about sustainability and what you're doing in the vineyards.
We moved to organics in '15, in one shot. We were the first in our area, but we're not certified. The bureaucracy's enormous, and it's a European body, ultimately, that we would defer to and we're not doing it to try and sell our wine as organic, we're doing it to make better wine. We're doing things that go way ahead of what is required, and some things that are so new that they haven't really been documented and accepted by those authorities.
The main work we've done is with soil health because we have this shallow, challenging soil. For example, instead of just putting lots of copper down in the vineyards, we use a good fungus to attack bad funguses — there's a range of them, and South Africa's actually quite far-forward in the research on that. Through the irrigation system, we put beneficial funguses into the soil as well, which really helps. And we do a lot of research into what we have growing in the vineyards to prevent what we call soil death: when earthworms stop moving, and microbes die off because it dries out too much at the top. We use earthworm tea too, and we have a local person that prepares that for us. If we had to send a sample every time to Europe to get it authorized, or send someone there to do that, it would be cumbersome and time-consuming for the vineyard manager.
It is quite a lot more expensive to farm organically, particularly the labor. But we sent our guy to Canada to learn, because if we'd sent him to California, he'd say, "It's so dry there, anyone can be organic." If we'd sent him to France, he wouldn't have spoken French, and the French often don't explain why they do things. They say, "that's the way it is". But in Canada they spoke good English, they were nice people, and in Niagara, it is so humid and there's so much vigor in the vineyards, that if you can control the funguses there, you can do it anywhere. So we are managing it, and we're very, very pleased with the results.
Great. And have you seen a big difference in the wines?
Very much so. We're four years in, and it's given us a whole new level of purity, and a more pristine quality in the wine. And, you know, people say, "How can it happen in one year?" Well, we've been farming our soils kind of organically for many years. But for the actual vines, the reason is: if you don't do leaf-plucking perfectly, if you don't align your canopy perfectly for good sunlight penetration, if the bunches are allowed to bunch up against each other, and they're not thinned, and spread out, you'll get killed by disease. And so there's more discipline with farming organically. You don't have vine antibiotics you can just spray on. You have to do things right. And that step immediately gives a better fruit profile, I think.
What is your total production for Hamilton Russell?
It's never more than 15,000 cases. And at the moment, with re-plantings, it's far less than that, so we're a small property. But that still is a lot more than two or three hundred cases.
What percent do you export?
We export, 50%. Half of what we do.
And how much of that comes here?
It's overwhelmingly our biggest export market, and biggest market after South Africa. 25% of everything we make we sell in the U.S. It's a fantastic market and we absolutely love it. We find it so sophisticated at the top end, and everyone had said, "The Americans like wines like this, or they like wines like that." And it's not true, you like all kinds of wines. And the sommelier body is extraordinary here — they're our unofficial marketing department. It's word of mouth. We have no money for marketing, it's the talking up of the wine that they get so excited about.
Tell me about some local dishes that you feel go best with your wines.
Well, I have to defer to Olive. She's published a cookbook and we entertain in the region of 2,000 people a year in our home. We don't have a restaurant on the property, but we enjoy entertaining quite a lot.
Olive Hamilton Russell: I'm in the process of completing another book. It's called "A Year on a Cape Wine Estate: Entertaining at Hamilton Russell Vineyards." I do think it's perhaps more relevant for those in the U.S. to think of flavor inspirations rather than just typical South African dishes with ingredients that might, perhaps, be a bit tricky or unrealistic to find here.
But as a guideline, our Pinot Noir is on the more savory, structured, spice-driven side. It's not just about opulent bright red fruit that one would usually expect from a lot of New World Pinot Noirs. We definitely have that pure fruit but, as I mentioned, much more savoriness and spiciness. We find anything with mushrooms works quite well. If it's mushroom risotto, or beef and mushroom pot pie, or chicken and mushroom pot pie. But then also seafood. Our Pinot Noir works with seafood depending on the sauce. Soy, teriyaki, coriander, and ginger-based sauces work well. And grilled peppers somehow seem to bring out some more lift of red fruit in the wine. Barbecued corn is also great, and that sort of chariness in the corn brings out more of the cassis notes in the wine. And then, of course, the meats, like lamb and lighter venison. Or if very rare, more tender cuts of beef also work nicely with the Pinot Noir. It depends on the spices you use too, that it's not overly spicy.
And when the Chardonnay is younger, like our '17 which has just been released, where we're still getting a lot of the primary fruit, I think of salads with nuts or cheese or anything with avocado and lemon. Also ceviche and fish carpaccios. And then as the wine develops its more secondary characteristics with flavors of lemon curd and nuts, then grilled seafood like sole, prawns and lobster work well, but with a lighter, fresher sauce. When the Chardonnay is 15, 20 years of age we love it with cheeses because we find that the fattiness in cheese is almost like putting a girdle on the wine. It accentuates the acid, and sort of pulls it back together again.
Anthony: One of my favorite dishes with the Chardonnay that Olive does is the lemon risotto, but with abalone, which are sort of indigenous to our bay. And then also crayfish, as well as a type of large periwinkle, so it's a seafood risotto with lemon zest and little bit of thyme. It's just delicious.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
The final point I'd like to make is that the average South African wine scoring 90 and above sells for in the region of 45 to 50 dollars a bottle. The average Napa wine scoring 90 and above sells for a hundred dollars. Spain's on about $60. So the point is, it's a period of incredible value if you pick the top end of South African wine, and that gap will close eventually.