A touch of South African winemaking flair hit America in September when Hamilton Russell Vineyards cellarmaster Emul Ross headed to Oregon to oversee the maiden harvest of Hamilton Russell’s first Pinot Noir to be made in the American North-West. That’s right, folks: the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s pioneering Pinot Noir producer has decided to spread its wings and make Hamilton Russell Oregon Pinot Noir, which is to be released in October 2019.
According to Anthony Hamilton Russell, proprietor of this iconic property, the reason to make Pinot Noir in Oregon is two-fold. “We have worked long and hard for 25 years to build up strong sales and very good distribution in the US,” he says, “and today we simply don’t have enough Pinot Noir for that market. We thought making a little wine in Oregon would be a solution to this, as well as being a great learning experience and a lot of fun.”
Secondly, Anthony believes in Oregon’s ability to deliver wines the Hamilton Russell brand would be more than honoured to be associated with. “I’ve followed Oregon from a first visit in 1993 and over time have been extremely impressed by the increase in the quality of the region’s Pinot Noir,” he says. “After tasting the wines and visiting the vineyards sites through the years it became apparent that we could make Pinot Noir there in a style we believe in and love. We also had the good fortune and privilege of having access to the very best of sites we were interested in, in two of the sub-AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s premier Pinot Noir region.”
For its first harvest this year, Hamilton Russell used the Jackson Family Wines Cellar in McMinnville under a “custom crush” contract. “It’s a pretty formidable cellar – as things are in the Jackson Family stable – but well equipped for smaller lots as well,” says Emul.
Pinot Noir is Oregon’s most widely planted variety with over 7 000ha in the ground. And according to Emul he can see what makes Oregon, and the Willamette Valley conducive to growing this cultivar.
“I must confess, I had my doubts about the region when I was out here with Anthony and Olive (Hamilton Russell) in July for a Pinot Noir conference as it was blistering hot,” he says. “But during harvest in September I can see why Pinot thrives here: cool nights, moderate days that only start to warm-up to the low 20°C’s from 11:00 onward. Also, there’s plenty of winter rain – average annual rainfall of just over 1 000mm.”
Hamilton Russell is making two Pinot Noirs under its Oregon label, each representing a different AVA, namely Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity.
“The Ribbon Ridge vines are on the Bramble Hill farm, set in Willakenzie soils which are basically sedimentary clay producing intense grapes with firm structure and dark fruit,” says Emul. The Zena West Vineyard lies in the Eola-Amity AVA and grows on volcanic Jory soils that provide more lifted red fruit aromatics.
If there is one thing he found working with the grapes in this year’s Oregon harvest, it is that Pinot Noir is not Pinot Noir. “The Oregon grapes tend to lose acid faster than back home and the pips stay greener for longer,” he says. “Grape health is just unbelievable, reflecting the environment.”
The biggest challenge was to pick when tannins were just ripe enough but before sugar spiked and acid began to fall out. “The soil is very uniform throughout the various vineyards, allowing the different clones to show themselves clearly.”
Harvesting is done by hand into buckets and transported in half-ton bins to the cellar. “Picking is done only in the mornings – when our fruit arrived at the cellar at 11:00 the fruit temperature was 11°C.”
With the winemaking being done in the Jackson cellar, Emul’s responsibilities were to take the decision on when to pick and then to do the fermentation. “It’s a pretty modest volume at this stage, six tons in total, so I could do all the punch-downs and fermentation management myself. Once the wine is pressed and in barrel I go home. Then the Hamilton Russell team will monitor the monthly analysis sent to us and samples will be flown over for tasting.”
The wines get a 30% new French oak component courtesy of Francois Freres, with the rest resting in older oak barrels rented from Jackson. “As the vintages go by we’ll build-up our own stock of barrels,” says Emul.
Bottling will be done after next year’s harvest under two separate labels: Hamilton Russell Oregon Bramble Hill and Hamilton Russell Oregon Zena West.
“Of course, we are all champing at the bit to experience the results and compare with what our style and terroir offers us here in the Hemel-en-Aarde,” says Emul. “But at the end of the day the American adventure is a reflection of our curiosity at and love of Pinot Noir, and using our privilege of being able to make wine from this fantastic grape.”
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