Heat and drought were widely used descriptors for the 2016 harvest, but this was not the case in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. We have the good fortune of being closest only 1.5km from the cooling influence of the South Atlantic with its cold Benguela current forging up from the Antarctic. This close proximity to the sea also means we benefit from periodic rain from the southeast which seldom makes its way into the warmer hinterland. The crucial harvest month of February was actually wetter than our long-term average and no warmer. The same was true of March. At the end of the harvest, despite the use of irrigation for our youngest vines, not yet in production, our main dam was almost full. On June 29th our dams began to overflow.
Farm dams overflowingHeat and drought were widely used descriptors for the 2016 harvest, but this was not the case in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. We have the good fortune of being closest only 1.5km from the cooling influence of the South Atlantic with its cold Benguela current forging up from the Antarctic. This close proximity to the sea also means we benefit from periodic rain from the southeast which seldom makes its way into the warmer hinterland. The crucial harvest month of February was actually wetter than our long-term average and no warmer. The same was true of March. At the end of the harvest, despite the use of irrigation for our youngest vines, not yet in production, our main dam was almost full. On June 29th our dams began to overflow.
New Pinot noir and Chardonnay plantingsThe continuous upgrading of our vineyards has always been – and will always be – one of our primary concerns. This season we have re-planted three of our thirty three vineyards on Hamilton Russell Vineyards after resting them for two years and improving the soils with beneficial cover-crops. All our vineyards are named with the family names of the women who have married into the Hamilton Russell family (which explains some of the unusual names!). Northeast facing Bertrand, has been re-planted with Pinot noir, having been in its earliest days a Chardonnay vineyard. Northwest facing Boves, has been replanted with Chardonnay, having been a Pinot noir block earlier. And east facing Muschamp adjacent our barrel maturation cellar, has been replanted with Pinot noir, having been a Chardonnay vineyard before. East facing Campbell, once a Chardonnay vineyard and then the first Dijon clone Pinot noir planting in the country, is resting for a further year before replanting with the latest Dijon Selection Pinot noir clone, 943. This will be one of the first plantings of this very promising clone in South Africa. As you can gather, replanting gives us the opportunity to finesse not just our clonal mix by percentage, but to slowly ensure that each of our two grape varieties ends up in the specific sites that are optimal for them and the style we aim for.
Winter and Summer cover-crops taking wellWe are thrilled with the additional purity and precision that our move to organic farming of our vineyards has given our wines. It is significantly more expensive at this stage and, in addition, the approach leaves very little room for error. This means that canopy management has to be perfect – no exceptions – which is a great discipline and an important contributor to the purity of fruit we have seen in the 2015’s and 2016’s. Our push for a thriving, living soil, which affords easy access to natural nutrients by the vine, has been a focus for many years. Abolishing herbicides and maintaining a permanent growth in the vineyard rows has been achieved. Our current research is into the best permanent beneficial cover for the soil between the vines – which may well differ vineyard site to vineyard site. We want to reduce any soil compaction, promote microbiological activity, promote earthworm activity, cool the soil in midsummer, fix nitrogen naturally through beneficial plants and generally improve the vines natural resistance and ability to access nutrients without having to rely on inorganic additions. This year we planted a mix of forage peas, forage radishes (to break up heavy clay topsoil), clover and other medics to fix nitrogen and cock’s foot grass in some sites. This cover crop will not be routinely ploughed in late spring, but will remain through the summer to do its work. With the excellent fine rain we have been getting these crops have taken well.
Great reviews for our 2015’sA lot of water and far too little wine! From May we had to put our 2015’s on tight allocation to have at least some availability until our 2016’s are ready for release. The vintage was always destined to be successful – ripe, deep, sumptuous and pure, with characteristic Hamilton Russell Vineyards classicism and minerality. We were proud to once again receive two Platinum Awards (the highest) – one for our Pinot noir and one for Chardonnay – at the SAWi awards recently. We must be one of the only (if not the only) producer to get Platinum for all the wines we make. Our Chardonnay was once again awarded the trophy for best Chardonnay in the country. The South African Wine Index (SAWi) condenses results from 84 competitions across the world over a three year period to derive a score for each of 6000 wines reviewed. Something which gets far closer to the “collective wisdom of the market” than most competitions and reviews. And on the other side of the world, the highly experienced taster for South Africa for the Wine Spectator in the US, Senior Editor James Molesworth, who also reviews Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Loire, had the following to say about our 2015’s: Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2015 “Rippling with tension, featuring Jonagold apple, white peach, mirabelle plum and honeysuckle notes coiled at the core. Citrus oil– and mineral-edged finish.” 94/100 (the highest Wine Spectator score for a South African Chardonnay to date) Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 “Gorgeous, with a silky, persistent and racy structure guiding alluring rooibos tea, blood orange, damson plum and singed wood spice notes along.” 93/100 (the highest Wine Spectator score for a South African Pinot noir to date)
2016’s developing well in the barrelOne of the great beauties of the winter months is tasting the development of the year’s wines in the barrel. The different vineyards with their defined personalities. The different clones, the multitude of yeasts, the trials and the experiments. Each year a personality emerges for the vintage across the many parcels that will contribute to the final wine. While the wines are still, in some cases, ticking through the last stages of malolactic fermentation, 2016 is showing itself to be a beautiful vintage. Early like 2015, but unlike 2015, phenolically ripe at lower alcohol, even more classic and less open and sumptuous. The 2016 Pinot noir is deep coloured, tight structured, dark and spicy – built to last. It shows the layered, complex structure, tannins and spicy depth of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with its iron-rich clay soil. The 2016 Chardonnay has more on the citrus end of the fruit spectrum than 2015 and has our characteristic tight, lively acidity and dry minerality. More tastings to come, but we have been excited so far.All the best and we look forward to the possibility of seeing you on Hamilton Russell Vineyards at some point soon!