Wine and service: South Africa's finest

04 April 2014
Wine and service: South Africa's finest

South Africa is on the brink of becoming a major force in the premium wine market. The Harrow at Little Bedwyn owner Roger Jones examines what the country has to offer, and why these wines should grace your list

Over the past decade, South Africa has been quietly developing young, focused winemakers and we are now seeing the fruits of their labour with some great wines sweeping into the UK marketplace.

In the upcoming months we will focus on a number of different regions with a closer look at the wine and the style of food currently on trend in South Africa.

On a recent visit to the country it became clear that South Africa is on the brink of becoming a major force in the premium wine market. But what can South Africa offer that is different, and why should these wines grace your lists?

The exchange rate is currently so good that these wines can offer exceptional marks-ups compared with wines of the same quality from other regions. Secondly, and equally as important, is the clarity and finesse that many of these wines offer. Words like balance, clean fruit, velvety, bright and refreshing all come to mind, which resonate with the consumer.

We start our wine safari in Walker Bay, specifically in the Hemel-en-Aarde region, which translates as Heaven and Earth in Afrikaans. This area was pioneered in the mid-1970s by the late Tim Hamilton Russell, who came from a very successful advertising business and was chairman of J Walter Thompson.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards has gained a global reputation, especially for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and has been a building block for two great wine makers: Peter Finlayson (Bouchard Finlayson) and Kevin Grant (Ataraxia). It has been run by Anthony Hamilton Russell since the early 1990s.

New kid on the block: Crystallum Having been advised to go it alone by 
his father Peter Finlayson (Bouchard 
Finlayson), Peter-Allen Finlayson produces some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in South Africa.

It is distributed under his Crystallum label, based at his small winery in Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge (which he shares with Chris Alheit, who makes iconic wines with grapes brought in from other regions, namely Cartology and Radio Lazarus).

Finlayson specialises in making single vineyard blocks of wine and continues to develop new blocks. Two favourites are Crystallum Agnes Chardonnay 2013 (£15, Liberty), a restrained wine with notes of soft pear drops, toasted hazelnuts and a touch of tropical pineapple and honeysuckle. It bounces around the mouth with great freshness and purity.

Crystallum Pinot Noir Bona Fide 2012 
(£21, Liberty) is controlled, luscious, clean and fresh. This wine has hints of delicate perfume on the nose, precise summer berry fruit with hints of roast lamb juices. This is a fantastic Pinot Noir that offers everything you might want from this noble grape.

A Family Affair: Newton Johnson Newton Johnson, set up in the 1990s by David Johnson and wife Felicity (nee Newton), is based in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde district. The enterprise now involves two generations of the family, and includes one of South Africa's top restaurants.

Besides producing many 
single vineyard wines, and some Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah blends that are worth searching out, two flagship Family Vineyards wines stand out. Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2012 (£12.59, Bibendum) is restrained and youthful, with silky fresh zesty flavours, evolving in the mouth. With 12.5% alcohol it is well balanced and offers fantastic value for a wine perfect with food.

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012 (£14.56 Bibendum) is a blend from the estate's three sites - this is soft, delicate, perfumed and hedonistic. For the price it's 
a world-class Pinot that is both restrained 
and elegant.

One to seek out: Restless River While the rest of the valley concentrates on Burgundian styles, Restless River - besides making a superlative Chardonnay - makes a Cabernet Sauvignon that defies the region's personality for Pinot Noir. It sits up there with the very best.
Owned by graphic designer Craig Wessell and ex-model wife Anne, Wessell is meticulous in his winemaking and wants perfection so much that the vineyard holds back its wines for a number of years before release.

The 2007 Restless River Cabernet Sauvignon reminded me of the great Margaret River Cabernets from Western Australia, such as Moss Wood, while the current release, 2009, is classy and stylish, with dark, up-front cherries, berries and plums. Only 30% of new oak is used, giving soft tannins.

The Master: Hamilton Russell Hamilton Russell is one of South Africa's top wineries and has a global reputation. Recent highlights include getting 95/100 from Neil Martin in The Wine Advocate (Robert Parker) for the 2010 Pinot Noir, although personally, I think the 2012 is even better.

Besides these two classic Burgundian style wines, Anthony Hamilton Russell also produces a range of exquisite wines under the Ashbourne label, with the white based on Sauvignon Blanc in the Bordeaux white style, and the red based on Pinotage, with Cabernet and or Syrah added. Both these wines are aged in their cellars before release.

The current UK vintage is 2007.

Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2012 (£16, Hallgarten Druitt) is to me comparative to a great Puligny Montrachet - lovely and pure with hints of zesty, nutty flavours, restrained oak, and some ageing in clay amphoras.

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2012 (£21, Hallgarten Druitt) is one of the best from Hamilton Russell, with a perfumed and wonderful texture, delicate forward fruit, and voluptuous. It's great now but will evolve.


Kensington Roof Gardens, 21 May
Fifteen of South Africa's wineries will be
showcasing their wines together with wine
safaris, blind tastings and a traditional South
African braai.
To register, email

South African Wine Week
30 June -6 July

Wines of South Africa are looking for independent restaurants to join in with this promotion, and are offering five cases of wines free to support each restaurant. They
are also offering your customers a chance to win a trip to SA. Contact


Both Chardonnay and Pinot offer a great diversity of food matching and it is always worth taking the consumer out of their comfort zone to show how exciting food and
wine matching can be. This also encourages repeat business. It is important to offer consumers a reason to return, not just for their staple dietary meal.

Competition is strong out there so it is essential to be able to enhance their experience.

Both of the following dishes were served to us at the restaurant at Newton Johnson. They challenged the normal perception of food matching and worked perfectly together.

Chardonnay with slow-braised beef tongue with carrot purée, pickled celeriac, mustard and bone marrow. Lots happening with this dish, but the elegance and freshness of the Chardonnay was a triumph.

Pinot Noir with fish, at Newton Johnson's winery. The wine was matched with cashew-crusted hake, vegetable ragoÁ»t, dashi and sea lettuce. Lots of interesting flavours here, but the nutty crust highlighted the savoury aromas of the Pinot, while the fresh, vibrant summer fruit in the Pinot lifted the dish to new heights.

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