Extraordinary synchronicity that Stellenbosch property Meerlust should celebrate 30 plus one years of its Bordeaux-style red blend Rubicon on Friday (see here) and that Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley should do the same for precisely 30 vintages of its Pinot Noir on Saturday. Plenty has been written about what might define a wine as an “icon” – surely durability of the marque over time is part of what is required.
HRV proprietor Anthony Hamilton Russell’s thesis is that wines can be divided into three broad types: varietal wines, people wines and place wines. As for the first two, “varietal wines” are essentially expressions of grape variety and can be easily substituted and “people wines” are subject to the vagaries of temperament and life-stage of the person or people behind them. It is “place wines” that are the most profound, the people involved impermanent but the site remaining the same over time and HRV Pinot is such a wine.
To demonstrate this, Hamilton Russell gave a tasting of the 2005 to 2010 vintages of HRV Pinot Noir. “Increasingly we’re seeing South African Pinot Noir that has beautiful pure red fruit and soft, easy mouthfeels but a great example needs to go further than that: it must have a savoury tannin line. Only Hamilton Russell and [neighbouring property] Bouchard Finlayson display that.” He would like you to think that there’s not another location in the country that can provide wines of the same complexity, and suggests that when the perform badly in local ratings, it is because they represent too sophisticated a proposition for most local critics.
There can be no doubt that when Hamilton Russell’s father, Tim bought the property back in 1975, he identified a site that would produce very serious wines but is the site the sole or even the most important determining factor in terms of what style of wine is produced?
I like the idea of terroir as the common denominator of organoleptic character that wines from a particular property show regardless of winemaker, and in order for a discussion of terroir to be relevant, then a property must have some kind of minimum history of production, something that HRV does indeed possess. But consider the monumental changes over its history and you have to wonder if it really is yet possible to talk of it as a “place wine”.
There’ve been frour different winemakers over the thirty vintages in question, namely Peter Finlayson, Storm Kreusch, Kevin Grant and currently Hannes Storm, each bringing subtly different approaches to bear. Then there have been significant changes in vineyard and cellar: Between 1981 and 1990, the property was planted to the lesser BK5 clone, plantings increasingly affected by leafroll virus. The 1990s saw the implementation of Burgundian clones and an increase in the use of new wood. From 2005, the introduction of an endemic yeast and the cessation of sterile filtration…
In fact, the most constant production factor other than site could be argued Hamilton Russell himself who joined his father in running the business back in 1991. Though he might be loathe to admit it, it appears that his particular aesthetic philosophy plays a key role in shaping the wines. At the tasting on Saturday, he was on record as liking the 2006 vintage in particular, which was savoury and austere and very much in line with what his personal understanding of “true” Pinot. Not unlike Ashbourne which is his somewhat eccentric take on Pinotage.
The 2007, meanwhile, showed pure dark fruit, fresh acidity and fine tannins, less striking but more delicate. To my mind, more in line with what is commonly understood as good Pinot but perhaps too generic for Hamilton Russell.
Footnote: a five-bottle vertical featuring the 2005 to 2009 vintages is available in a presentation case at a price of R2 000. The 2008 vintage currently sells for R250 a bottle from the tasting room.