Tim Hamilton Russell: passing of a pioneer

Tim Hamilton-Russell, who died last Wednesday, 17 July, was an important pioneer of modern Cape wine. His death must be acknowledged with respect and regret by the wine industry as a whole, not just the Hemel-en-Aarde area – now so different, so packed with wine innovation and success, from the mid-1970s, when his vinicultural venture, inland from the then sleepy little coastal village of Hermanus, was so alone there.

Tim HR

Bridget Bird’s bust of Tim Hamilton-Russell

For a decade at least, at that time when the wine industry was starting to acquire a few of the more positive aspects we recognise today, Tim was one of remarkably few spokespeople for terroir in the Cape – certainly he was the most passionate and outspoken. He founded his winery in this lonely place, then the most southerly such establishment, and one of the coolest, in the country. But it was the heavy time of the KWV domination, in an atmosphere of looming isolation of apartheid South Africa, and not only did Tim have to endure scoffs and sneers at the absurdity of his growing wines in these parts, he had to challenge, amongst other things, the quota system which (while allowing expansion into mass-producing, irrigated and sunny areas) was not interested in the possibility of new, quality sites.

As Michael Fridjhon says in his Penguin Book of South African Wine: ‘In order to make [his venture] work, he had to bend so many rules and break so many regulations that he had no alternative but to become the enfant terrible of an industry unaccustomed to political mavericks.” Fridjhon also points to the irony of this rich man (an advertising executive) becoming such a rebel, in his pursuit of fine wine. He was a serious wine buff – whose first wine-growing adventure was planting a few hundred vines in his (large) Johannesburg/Sandton garden….

It’s a long and complicated pioneering story. He was an important early champion of chardonnay and pinot noir – still, to an extent, the signature grapes of the Hemel-en-Aarde. The KWV eventually felt obliged, in a face-saving measure to resolve “the highly publicised stand-off between Hamilton Russell and the Wine and Spirit Board” (says Fridjhon) with a few concessions – allowing the Hamilton Russell wines from the 1986 vintage onwards to be sold fully certified as to variety, vintage and origin, and without the circumlocutions and strange names that had characterised earlier releases.

I know nothing about Tim Hamilton-Russell’s later life, or his personal or business life. But if a wine-lover seeks his monument it’s easy: stand on a high hillside in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, look about you, as far as your eye can discern a vine – and further.

My sympathies to the Hamilton Russell family.

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