Breaking ranks from the herd and doing something unexpected is often regarded, initially, as a little mad or stupid. When Andrew Gunn bought a run down orchard in the remote Elgin region of South Africa and planted a vineyard in 1997 where there was little history of viticulture, his move was probably regarded with scepticism. When Tim Hamilton Russell, an advertising executive, elected to plant a vineyard back in 1975,where no-one had thought to grow grapes before, it certainly raised a few eyebrows and caused heads to shake.
Walker Bay, in South Africa, where Tim chose to plant his vineyard in 1975 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.
There is, I think, something immensely satisfying when someone with vision and conviction gets on with doing something, watched by a cynical crowd and what seems impossible and foolish is accomplished and is then acknowledged as a great achievement. I love the stories of wine-makers who fly in the face of received wisdom and convention. One of my favourites has to be Eloi Durrbach at the amazing Domaine de Trevallon. If you have seven minutes to listen to an amazing story, follow this link and enjoy the film.
Anyway, back to South Africa…
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. Undeterred though Hamilton Russell cracked on with his project and the reputation of his wines, both red and white, grew year on year. Such was the quality of his wine and the international notice they had gained, the authorities in South Africa created a new wine region designation in recognition of what he had done.
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. I believe only 750 cases of this pretty wacky 2008 vintage were made. Predominately sauvignon blanc from a choice, sandstone vineyard backed up with some chardonnay and a dash of Semillon, it’s unusual but if you like it, then you’ll love it. Amphoras are used for some of the fermentation; 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. Most sauvignon blancs at that age are dead but this, somehow, tastes magically alive. 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, in New Zealand. The Dada 1 cleverly integrates small amounts of gewurztraminer, semillon and viognier that blend seamlessly into the finished product. Dada 1 is a serious wine but also seriously chaotic. Think fine wine made by Salvador Dali.
Writing that has just made me remember that Eloi Durrbach’s (Domaine de Trevallon) father, (himself a painter and sculptor) René, knew Pablo Picasso, another of the surrealists. Anyway, there are even less bottles of Dada 1 made than Sandstone, so if you find one, let me know what you think of it.
Right, back to South Africa again… 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.
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, which I suppose is a professional wine tasters way of saying that the wine is elegant without being obviously showy.
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 more recent 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 was harvested some three weeks later than the previous vintage and I think that extended ripening has delivered dividends. I bought a few cases for the Horseshoe Restaurant outside Peebles, where it available by the glass and tastes divine paired with plumptious hand-dived Orkney scallops.
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.
Finally, if this leads you to an addiction for truly fine sauvignon blanc, rather than tinned Del Monte fruit with added alcohol, style of sauvignon blanc, then check out Andrew Gunn’s Iona Vineyard wine made in Elgin. Not the one just east of Forres but the South African one. Climate change isn’t happening that fast, I hope!
Iona Vineyard sits at well over 400 metres above sea level. It was a run down farm of apple and pear trees when Andrew Gunn bought it. He’d looked at dozens of possible vineyards to buy and instead of choosing a vineyard in an established wine region he decided to start from scratch in a location that was remote and almost untried when it came to making wine. The vineyard is situated high above the Elgin Valley which is around fifty miles east of Cape Town and within sight of the sea.
I first met Andrew a few years ago not far from Elgin. Not the Elgin Valley of South Africa but rather the town of Elgin in the Scottish Highlands. In the company of the wine merchant who shipped his wines, he called in on me at my home and we tasted his wines.
Because of its high and cool location the grapes at Iona Vineyard aren’t ripe until close on two months after most South African vineyards. However that extended ripening season adds quality. The vines are planted in blocks – each block may be a different clone and may be trellised facing a different direction to another block. Each block of grapes is then harvested when that block is ripe and again each block is vinified separately. This represents a massive amount of complicated work but the objective is to make fine wine not simply good wine.
Andrew Gunn is clearly on a mission to make as fine a wine as possible so his wine isn’t exactly cheap but given the labour of love and the thought that goes into it, I think it is worth every penny. Having tasted countless Sauvignon Blanc wines over three decades I would say that all the hard work here pays dividends. The wine is gorgeous. When I swirl a glassful, the smell I get first and last is green apples and since Iona vineyard was once an orchard, that’s perhaps fitting.