Grape Town, South Africa

Heaven on Earth: Walker Bay
By Joanne Mills

As we drove over the mountains into the Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley, the Cape wind reared its ugly head, signaling a change in the prevailing climate and letting us know that we were moving into a completely unique South African wine-growing region.

The area around Hermanus, and Walker Bay in particular, is something of an anomaly in South Africa. Located close to the water, its climate is more like Santa Barbara than Cape Town, though the terrain most closely resembles Iceland, and our first vineyard stop in Walker Bay had a distinctly American flair as well.
When Anthony Hamilton-Russell returned in the early 1990s from a stint at Wharton Business School by way of the illustrious Elon College in Great Britain, he had big plans for his father's vineyard, which he purchased in 1994. His first task was to help make South African wines known around the world—a country-wide initiative that is still underway—and, more importantly, to put the wines of Hamilton-Russell on the map.

"At the time, no one knew what we had here in South Africa, whether it was desert or jungle," Anthony explained. "And they looked at our wines as we might look at Chinese wines today—although there’s some good stuff there!"

Rather than trying to recreate wines from such mainstays as France and Italy, Anthony decided the main focus of Hamilton-Russell Vineyards would be to produce a wine that had a real sense of place, vintages that drew directly from Walker Bay's native terroir. He scaled back production at the vineyard to only two wines, a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay, and prides his vintages as having "individuality and expression of origin."

Testing soil from across its 52 hectares, Hamilton-Russell Vineyards pinpointed the particular portions of the estate that produce the best cultivar and today only these particular sections grow Hamilton-Russell grapes. To reinforce this sense of place, the wine bottles are made locally. Anthony is even experimenting with drying his own oak right in the vineyard. The wood will then be shipped back to France and fashioned into barrels. Hamilton-Russell strongly believes in the power of wood, "If you cut corners on your barrels, you will ultimately diminish the quality of the wine."

Not surprisingly, quality is another big sticking point for Anthony Hamilton-Russell, who admits "the reason we became an estate was so that we could do stupid things financially in the name of quality." Following that line of thinking, Hamilton-Russell does not believe in reserve wines. "If you have a reserve, what does that say about the quality of your other wines? Why should you produce a lesser quality grape or a lesser vintage?" Why indeed? And Hamilton-Russell Vineyards certainly hasn’t skimped on quality; the six wines we tasted (three vintages red and three of white) went from better to best.

It is clear that Hamilton-Russell is an estate to be reckoned with. Its Chardonnay was the only South African wine served during a banquet dinner at Buckingham Palace honoring Nelson Mandela and the same vintage earned the highest score ever given to a South African white in Wine Spectator, a rating of 92 (90-94: Outstanding; 95-100: Classic).

Joanne Mills is a freelance writer focusing on the specialty travel industry. Whether its traipsing through the gardens of Britain, exploring the culinary traditions of Thailand, or drinking in the wines of South Africa, Joanne can often be found following her lifelong passions...wherever they may lead.

Published: 10 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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