The first time I remember meeting Tim Hamilton Russell was at an early Nederburg Auction; it must’ve been around 1974/75, because the discussion around the lunch table was all about the land he’d purchased in the Hemel en Aarde valley. The land and his plans to pursue his unfailing love of and goal to show South Africa could make good pinot noir and chardonnay.
For those who don’t remember, this was an era when South African wine was dominated by the big guys like Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers (since amalgamated into Distell) and the biggest of the big brothers, KWV. The former didn’t like competition from the private producers from whom they bought grapes, the latter was both player and referee.
It wasn’t a favourable time for individuals to be starting private wineries, let alone on land without quota for wine grapes, which part of his 170 hectare purchase didn’t have.
But Tim was nothing if not tenacious, not a characteristic one might immediately associate with this quietly-spoken, Oxford-educated, advertising director. I always found it difficult to imagine him in the rough and tumble of the advertising business but then I guess the wine industry offers more of the same!
It was only after 1983, when I officially became a wine professional that I got to know Tim a little better and really appreciate the importance of the groundwork he was doing.
Tim was a prolific correspondent – this was long before email and the internet – whether it be press releases – he delighted in passing on the positive comments his wines received from around the world as well as locally – or letters.
He would lose no opportunity of making sure the media knew of what he saw as idiocies in the local laws. In digging through my thick Hamilton Russell Vineyards record file, I came across this gem dated 25th November 1991:
As a leading figure in the wine industry, I’m taking the liberty of sending you some information on a summons I’ve received for using Chablis and Bordeaux in an order form and Chablis, Meursault and Burgundy in a newsletter (both enclosed).’
What is significant for the wine industry is that if I win my case … this will help us greatly when competing with the Americans, Australians and New Zealanders in the export market.
Currently … the Liquor Products Act, 1989 .. will not permit me and other wine producers to say, for example:
1 Our winemaker will be spending a few weeks with our Burgundian associates, Prosper Maufoux.
3 Our barrel maker is Francois Fere (sic) of St Romain.’
And so on.
Tim made it clear that ‘The intention most certainly is not to pass off South African wines as French wines’ which he believed was the intention of the Crayfish Agreement with the French, but not ‘to preclude the use of certain French terms in any form whatsoever in connection with the sale of a wine,’
I have no note of what happened to this case, but it was just one of many altercations with the authorities.
If Tim was a determined fighter, emerging with a glint of satisfaction in his eye, the glimmer of a smile on his lips when he succeeded, he was also extraordinarily generous. He organised tastings of international chardonnays and pinot noirs, (rare events back in the 1980s), to which he would invite local winemakers and media. I was lucky enough to be included, as I see from my notes on a pinot noir tasting of 25th August 1984. Pinots from America, Australia, France and South Africa were tasted blind and rated. On this occasion HRV 1981 (than labelled Grand Vin Noir as it couldn’t be certified) came third behind Drouhin Chambertin Clos de Beze 1978 and Louis Latour Chateau Corton Grancey 1981 in the 23-wine line up. Tim wasn’t frightened to put even his earliest vintages up against some top Burgundies and they did well.
At a 1986 tasting of international chardonnays, the maiden HRV 1983 (Premier Vin Blanc) came a credible 5th out of 24.
The purpose of these was as much to educate the media as winemakers, including his own, then Peter Finlayson.
Much of what we take for granted these days was pioneering stuff thirty years ago. South African wine was very fortunate to have Tim Hamilton-Russell as one of those pioneers.
His foresight in seeking out then unknown and ‘illegal’ cooler climes has been vindicated not only in the ongoing success of his eponymous winery, run with equal dedication by his son, Anthony, but international recognition for the now many chardonnays and pinot noirs of Hemel en Aarde valley.
PS I learn Tim was cremated this morning; he and Athene would have celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary today.