Breaking ranks from the herd and doing something unexpected is often regarded, initially, as a little mad or stupid. When Tim Hamilton Russell, an advertising executive, elected to plant a vineyard where no-one had thought to grow grapes before, it certainly raised a few eyebrows and caused heads to shake.
Walker Bay, in 1975, where Tim chose to plant his vineyard was practically un-known for wine-making. Apart from a few rows of vines planted around the fishing village of Hermanus, to serve for some domestic wine-making, the area was off-radar. Hamilton Russell had literally gone right off the beaten track in South Africa in his quest for making a wine. Furthermore he was not aiming to make something recognisably familiar in a South Africa context: he was aiming to make something that could stand comparison with Burgundy. He was clearly setting himself up for a fall, many decided.
Hamilton Russell planted his vineyard in Hemel-en-Aarde in 1975, believing Walker Bay offered the best conditions in South Africa for growing chardonnay and pinot noir. The empty coastal region, far to the east of False Bay, was not at first glance a good choice: too windy and too cool, would have been most locals’ sentiments. “Cool climate” were not the buzz words they are today, back then. The vineyard was just a few miles from the coast but mountains between the sea and the vineyard shielded the vines from the salt laden winds that whipped across this southerly stretch of land. In 1975 Walker Bay and Hemel-en-Aarde were unknown, un-used and unrecognised wine regions and the land was simply part of the Overberg District.
The reputation of Hamilton Russell wines, both red and white, grew year on year and this one vineyard effectively threw a spotlight on the whole of Walker Bay as a region for fine wine making.
Ashbourne is a Hamilton Russell label for two of their top wines produced on a property more-or-less adjacent to the original Hamilton Russell estate. Sandstone is the white from the Ashbourne. This is a Hamilton Russell flagship wine that has scored very well with the critics. I believe only 750 cases were made were made from the 2008 vintage, which I tried. It is predominately sauvignon blanc from a choice, sandstone vineyard backed up with some chardonnay and a dash of Semillon. Amphoras are used for some of fermentation, stainless steel for the rest. The wine is given more bottle age than is usual for sauvignon blanc but it benefits from it and, at nearly eight years old, shows well. The only other sauvignon blanc wine that I have tasted, which possibly exceeds the remarkable individualism that Sandstone has achieved, is Dada 1 made by Kate Galloway and David Ramonteau at Hawkes Bay. The 2010 vintage Dada 1 cleverly integrates small amounts of gewurztraminer, semillon and viognier that blend seamlessly into the finished product. Since the focus of this blog is Walker Bay, I will keep my comments for now, upon Dada 1, brief; suffice to say that this exceptionally unusual wine deserves more consideration, so I’ll talk about in a separately in another blog.
Tim Hamilton Russell’s winemaker, Peter Finlayson left in 1990 to start his own wine venture nearby, supported by Paul Bouchard of Burgundy. Bouchard Finlayson wines, like those of Hamilton Russell, quickly received critical acclaim internationally. I first tried them in 2009 and it was obvious to me, like others, that the wines demonstrated that this region had potential for top-end wine making.
A few other winemakers moved into the region; Luddite and Lomond amongst them. The latter’s sauvignon wine I tried in 2010 and again was struck by the purity of fruit and elegance.
In 2004 the winemaker then at Hamilton Russell, Kevin Grant, like Finlayson before him, de-camped and started his own vineyard. He named it Ataraxia, Greek for “a serene state of freedom from worry”. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Ataraxia is the most recent wine that I have tasted from this region. With two newer vintages available, the 2013 is going to be hard to find, and there’s no particular reason to bother looking for it in preference to more recent vintages. However, I had the chance to buy some and I did. It is still drinking beautifully. It is really good, cool climate sauvignon blanc: elegant, poised, very mineral, grapefruity and with a long finish.
The main focus at Ataraxia is chardonnay that will age and echo Burgundy stylistically. There are some informative tasting notes by Tom Cannavan which indicate that this is, without doubt, a property to watch.
The sauvignon blanc 2013 has a little over 13% alcohol, residual sugar is 3.4g/l and the pH is 3.10. The harvest around 12th March was some three weeks later than the previous and I think that extended ripening has delivered dividends. The 2013 sauvignon blanc is offered by the glass, only whilst rapidly dwindling stocks last, at The Horseshoe Restaurant with Rooms in the Scottish Borders.
I’m now going to have to try the newer vintages of Ataraxia sauvignon blanc and the chardonnay as well. Not withstanding Kevin Grant’s passion for chardonnay I think his Ataraxia sauvignon blanc is certainly one of the very best that I’ve tried from South Africa and I’m going to watch this property like a hawk.