Ashbourne – Anthony Hamilton-Russell’s second estate in the Hemel en Aarde (if Hamilton Russell Vineyards is first and Southern Right is third) – is perhaps the most confused of them in terms of consistency of profile and shape. And, it’s becoming clear, the most fluid (but now I’m mixing metaphors and must claim that I’m merely joining in the merry mix). This much (“mismanaged as a brand”) was disarmingly and unusually admitted by Anthony this evening at the launch of Ashbourne Cinsaut-Pinotage 2017 and, more importantly perhaps, certainly more portentously, Ashbourne Pinotage 2015.
But, he indicated, the Ashbourne strategy is now clear. While flinging to the winds his oft-stated principle that a label should not include more than two wines, he didn’t quite say that Ashbourne is going to be the most relentlessly “commercial” of his three labels. But I have a feeling that that’s what’s involved. The Ashbourne Pinotage will be very ambitious in terms of pricing no less than winemaking (R750 per bottle for the 2015). But there will be three other wines. Sandstone (one of the confusing bits) will be no more – instead there’s a relentlessly cheerful and charming and inconsequential Sauvignon Chardonnay (I tried the soft, showy 2017 this evening – I do think it could aim just a bit higher), as well as the Cinsaut-Pinotage and a projected rosé from pinotage.
Apologies: I realise I have used the word “relentless” twice already, and can’t promise I won’t use it again – it’s a word that springs ineluctably to mind whenever I attend one of Anthony’s presentations.
The only mistake at this evening’s launch (at the old Welgemeend manor house in Cape Town, with rather good canapés appearing relentlessly often, happily) was in serving the Ashbourne’s Pinotage-Cinsaut 2017 first. It is such a delightful, pleasing wine – perfect in itself – that it took some concentration to not allow it to dominate the proceedings. It’s an unwooded wine from Swartland fruit (R165 per bottle), which was served on the cold side of cool, which seemed just right, with an easy tannic tug, fruit that was just right in its prominence, and was altogether beautifully balanced for easy but sufficiently thoughtful and not trivial drinking.
Anthony H-R is justifiably proud of his continuing (even relentless) commitment to pinotage – and his insistence that any problems are not with the grape but with the way it has generally been managed in Cape cellars, something that I agree with entirely. This blend is in tune with the dominant modern Swartland way of doing things, including pinotage, and it’s an idiom that winemaker Emul Ross shows perfect mastery of. Incidentally, talking of relentless, Emul is the latest in a succession of Hamilton-Russell winemakers who are destined for pre-eminence. Anthony H-R is the equivalent of Bordeaux regarding vintages and probably genuinely convinced that each time a winemaker leaves him to go solo (and the Hemel-en-Aarde is, not least to his great credit, seeded with the HRV genes), the successor must be superior. Whether Emul is indeed not only better than his predecessors but also South Africa’s greatest winemaker I don’t want to comment on (there’s quite a bit of competition, and I would rather remind Anthony that terroir is what it’s really all about) – but he is undoubtedly a very good one, and pleasingly modest himself.
As I intimated, I initially found the Ashbourne Pinotage 2015, from Emul’s first vintage here after leaving Chamonix, rather disappointing after the more obvious delights of the blend. From the clay-driven soils of the Hemel-en-Aarde, and without the superficial blandishments of cinsaut but with rather more obvious oak influence, it showed as richer, sweeter-fruited, and less elegant (if I may partially equate elegance with sprightliness, in a Fred Astaire sort of way), certainly less charming. But I kept on going back to the wine, and more and more I was convinced that it is, as Anthony wants it to be, a “wine of relevance”; a serious wine, at least, which is going to develop well over a decade or two to come. Nothing obvious, not the fruit flavours or the spiciness, not even the structure: I wondered if it was lacking that famous “mid-palate weight”, and decided it wasn’t. Certainly a wine at the upper end of modern Cape pinotage – and that, as Anthony H-R would certainly agree, is not saying nothing.