Sixteen Hours to Johannesburg
For eleven consecutive vintages, an obscure, small production South African Chardonnay has wowed the Wine Spectator, consistently garnering a bevy of 90-93pt scores. But, the reason we boarded that flight from JFK to Oliver Reginald Tambo International had nothing to do with Wine Spectator. The tip that took us to the manicured rows of Walker Bay came from Stephen Tanzer, the stingiest and most respected Burgundy critic in the world. Over coffee at Le Pain Quotidien on 77th Street weeks before, Tanzer had compared the 2012 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay to the "best white Burgundies." We were determined to find out why.
Never had an airline done such a masterful job of treating international travelers like cattle. We sat on the tarmac for an hour before takeoff. Thirteen hours later, punch drunk from being sideswiped by the food and drink trolley, we felt the panic attack coming on. With still three hours and fifteen minutes to go, we reached for the Dopp kit. Thank God for Xanax.
The layover in Johannesburg was just an hour and a half. Too long, yet not nearly long enough. By the time we climbed on the smaller jet that would whisk us towards Cape Town, we no longer cared about the Spectator scores. We didn't give a hoot about Tanzer's most highly-scored Chardonnay bargain in a half decade. All we wanted was a hot shower, two twin beds, and as many beers as necessary to turn out all the lights.
The next day, we got our first look at the spectacular setting of Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Would that first sweeping view help explain the stunning mix of Sonoma Coast lemon custard concentration and textbook Meursault backbone? Sure. Did the southernmost planting in all of South Africa intrigue us in a way that few vineyard properties in the world ever have? Ditto. But, can we honestly tell you today that we'd be more than happy to hop another 16 hour flight to OR Tambo International? Not without Ambien.
Tim Hamilton Russell purchased 400 acres of rolling hills in 1975, set just two kilometers from the ocean. Extensive soil research in 1994 helped to identify just over 100 acres of stone strewn clay soil, set on a base of solid shale. That property was soon planted to a mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, each Burgundian clone selected to conform to each of dozens of micro-farmed blocks.
As we tasted through the back vintages behind the old fishing village of Hermanus, the windblown hillsides of Sonoma Coast seemed just around the corner. In many ways, we'd soon learn, the microclimate dictates as much. Daytime summer highs creep into the 80s, but at night, cooled by the brisk maritime breezes that whisk through the valley, the thermometer dips into the 50s. The poor shale soils (much like the Goldridge soils favored by David Ramey, Peter Michael and Steve Kistler) stress vines to the max, providing for small-berry, Montrachet-like clusters of high skin-to-juice ratio.
In very good vintages like 2008 and 2009, Hamilton Russell Chardonnay stands tall next to the cream of Sonoma Coast, marrying exotic fruit intensity with fine New World cut. But in a truly great vintage, the most inaccessible world-class Chardonnay planting on the planet stands tall in lineup of Montrachet's greats.
Wine Spectator will weigh in shortly. As to Tanzer, he's already drawn a bold line in the Walker Bay clay. Brilliant straw-yellow in color, with pungent aromas of pear and apricot, high-toned and almost saline. Rich, deeply concentrated, but showing off Chassagne-like balance, Tanzer said this one "conveys a powerful impression of intensity without weight, like the best white Burgundies," before he'd drop the whopping 93+ point rating that seems almost out of character.