Home Lifestyle Food & Drink The world of South African wine
Last update on June 11, 2021

The 2007 Hamilton Russell Pinot noir was rated by Wine Spectator as one of the world’s 100 best wines. What makes the South African wine industry such a global success?

Hamilton Russell Vineyard’s 2007 Pinot noir made the Wine Spectator list of that year’s top 100 wines. The list is based on all the wines the New York-based magazine had reviewed over the past 12 months.

Thirteen countries were on the year’s list, among them the single South African representative.

“Bold, aromatic and ripe, but very elegant, with racy acidity providing the ground wire for the rich black cherry, bramble, incense and sweet earth notes, followed by a long, multifaceted finish,” wrote Wine Spectator’s senior editor James Molesworth of the Hamilton Russell Pinot noir.

The estate’s owner Anthony Hamilton Russell said: “We were extremely proud of the inclusion this year of the Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2007 Pinot noir on the 2009 Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of the year.”
He added that the product was one of only seven Pinot noirs in the Top 100.

With an alcohol content of 13.6%, the 2007 Pinot noir lay for 10 months in French oak barrels before bottling. Also in 2009 it won a bronze medal at the annual Decanter World Wine Awards.

Quality and value

Only the most exhilarating wines make it to Wine Spectator’s top 100 list. The list, first published in 1998 and claiming to recognize exceptional producers, focuses on successful wine-producing regions, and taps into new trends.

Wine Spectator reviewed over 17,000 wines during 2009. Of these, more than 3,800 products received outstanding ratings, scoring 90 points out of 100.

The magazine uses the blind-taste technique. Wines come in a bag, with only a code for identification. Lead tasters focus on a particular region. That way, they continually gain knowledge of the range and quality of their specific region.

The 3,800-plus outstanding wines of 2009 were further narrowed down based on four criteria: quality, value, availability, and what judges describe as excitement.

The value of the product was determined by its retail price, quality was reflected in its score, and availability was defined by the number of cases produced or imported.

With the world tightening its collective belt during the financial crisis of 2009, the judges were very critical of value. After finalizing the list, the average bottle price (R300) was R15 cheaper than last year.

The average score for quality was an impressive 93, the same as the previous three years.

Ideal wine-growing region

Hamilton Russell Vineyards is the southernmost wine estate in South Africa and the first in this area. It sits near the sleepy seaside town of Hermanus on the southern Cape coast overlooking Walker Bay.

Cooled by the icy Benguela current, the warm summers and mild winters of the Walker Bay region offer an ideal climate for Pinot noirs and Chardonnays. In 1975, former advertising executive Tim Hamilton Russell bought an undeveloped property next to the Atlantic Ocean. In the decades since, he developed it into one of the country’s most celebrated wineries.

Hamilton Russell specializes in Pinot noir and Chardonnay, with 22ha of the former and 30ha of the latter. Both varieties lie in areas tested for suitability before planting.

The estate is not only making a name for itself as a producer of fine wines; they’re also as a champion for wildlife conservation and fynbos preservation. In 1994 a 38ha reserve was set aside to safeguard the indigenous Kogelberg Sandstone fynbos. The removal of alien vegetation allowed the reserve to thrive. In total 52ha, including wetland, are under conservation.

Anthony Hamilton Russell bought the adjoining Southern Right estate in the early 1990s. He continues to donate a portion of that estate’s profits to Southern Right whale conservation. Land from Southern Right has been allocated as a supplement to the Hamilton Russell fynbos reserve.

Grapes from Burgundy

Pinot noir, a red grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera, is the principal black grape in France’s Champagne and Burgundy grape-growing regions. It also grows successfully around the world in South Africa, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, the US, Italy, and Canada. It thrives in cooler regions.

The grape cluster resembles a pine cone, hence the varietal name, which comes from the French words for “pine” and “black”.

The wine regions of South Africa

The first wine grown in South Africa was that of Jan Van Riebeek, the founder of Cape Town, in 1659. The earliest estate, Constantia, was born just 26 years later in 1685. So, while the wines of South Africa may be ‘New World’ there’s really very little ‘new’ about them. Most of the vineyards are based in the Western Cape, surrounding Cape Town. However, the Northern Cape, fed by the Orange River, is starting to be developed, as well as the eastern region of the KwaZulu-Natal. Early efforts appear promising, but as the vast majority of wines comes from the Western Cape the following areas are all based in the lush surroundings of Cape Town:

Constantia

In an affluent suburb of grand houses and luxury hotels, South Africa’s Constantia region is famed as a pedigree of their wine market. South African wine finds its origins here and the area is currently undergoing a popular revival. The vineyards are ideally placed on the side of the Constantia Mountain where they are cooled by gentle sea breezes. Despite these ideal conditions only five estates are based locally: Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, Buitervenwachting, Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg.

Stellenbosch

Based just 50km south-east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is famed as the country’s greatest wine-producing region and as the largest university town in South Africa, trips here being based around the fertile valleys and historical towns of the agricultural heartland. With over 200 producers based in the area, Stellenbosch is the established capital of South African viniculture. Fringed by mountains that afford spectacular views, the geology of the area is of particular interest; the granite-based soils in the east are ideal for the cultivation of red wines, while the sandstone soils in the east lend themselves more easily to whites.

Franschhoek

To the west of Stellenbosch and by no means as large, Franschhoek lies surrounded by the Drakenstein mountains and enjoys relatively high levels of rainfall and warm temperatures. Because of this, producers here have the freedom to cultivate a wide variety of wine styles. Being only 50km east of Cape Town, and boasting a wide range of chic restaurants, it is included on the itinerary of many luxury holidays. South Africa can offer few better gourmet experiences.

Walker Bay

A cool coastal region that is very much on the up, Walker Bay houses such varieties as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and other traditional Burgundy grapes. Local estates include Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson.

Paarl

To the northwest of Cape Town, this famous region boasts a selection of leading producers such as Veenwouden, Nederburg, Fairview, Glen Carlou and Plaisir de Merle. Rhone-style grapes are being grown here, such as Syrah and Pinotage, representing a move from traditional white cultivation to reds. The summer heat in the area means that the best produce comes from the more elevated vineyards.

Written by Janine Erasmus. Reprinted with permission of Mediaclub South Africa.