Enter a lion, passing

Andrea and Chris Mullineux will get all the kudos – a lot of it – for the first release of Leeu Passant wines, and they’ll deserve whatever they get, for their focus on quality, their rigour, the vision and comprehensiveness of their endeavours. But when I, together with Angela Lloyd, spent much of Tuesday with them and viticulturist Rosa Kruger, in vineyards in Wellington and Franschhoek and in the cellar, tasting room and restaurant at Leeu Estates in Franschhoek, the Mullineux were generously and genuinely insistent on the team effort behind the launch of these three remarkable wines.

Chris, Andrea and Rosa in the nondescript but ancient and fine cinsaut vineyard that’s the Wellington component in the Dry Red Wine.

Above all, Andrea used the word “symbiosis” for their relationship with Rosa , who “discovered” the vineyards that provided the grapes for the wines. “We make wine from what Rosa offers us” – and in fact a great many more component wines were made in 2015 than eventually made it into the two chardonnays (from Elandskloof and Stellenbosch vineyards respectively)  and the Dry Red Wine (from Helderberg cabernets sauvignon and franc, and Wellington and Franschhoek cinsaut). It is Rosa, too, who brought back the ancient, 117-year-old Wellington vineyard, somewhat neglected in recent years, back from the gates of death it seems, and is devotedly caring for it.

The other person who gets credit is Analjit Singh, the Indian businessman who is the financial partner in Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines: he’s deeply interested, but, the Mullineux say, has never been less than supportive, never questioned any of their decisions on winemaking matters. Singh means “lion” in Sanskrit, the image behind the Afrikaans-French-heraldic name of this, the non-Swartland part of the wine partnership – not to mention being behind the proliferation of metal and plaster lions throughout Franschhoek, as I described here not long ago). The separation of Leeu Passant and Mullineux wines under the MLH umbrella will be even clearer next year, when the Mullineux wines will be made at the new cellar on Roundstone, near Riebeek-Kasteel, while the Leeu Passant wines will, of course, continue to be made at the Franschhoek cellar – with Andrea the chief winemaker (along with permanent assistant winemakers) in both, and Chris fulfilling his fulltime role and Rosa her part-time one.

So what of these three new 1915 wines, which have already been receiving enthusiastic notices? Any danger that the Mullineux will be revealed as entrenched specialists in Swartland syrah and chenin and not quite up to handling chardonnay and cabernet? Well, thankfully, no … not at all. The last time I was so thrilled by a new wine as I was by these, especially the Leeu Passant Dry Red, it was Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton, a wine which I was even a little reminded of yesterday when trying – with difficulty – to place the new red in a South African (and international) context.

It’s inspired, the Mullineux pair say, by the great Cape reds of the middle decades of the twentieth century – wines like Chateau Libertas, and those of the cabernets (most of them) which included cinsaut. Inspired by them, but not an attempt to re-create them, rather the result of deconstructing and reconstructing in the light of modern, scientific winemaking, in contemporary conditions. It’s very different from almost every Cape wine oriented to the Bordeaux grapes, and reminded me of Lukas’s wine because both recall Loire cab franc-based wines rather than Bordeaux ones, especially in their freshness and focus and comparative lightness of feel, the dry, fragrant leafiness of cab franc of great significance, with oak a minimal presence in effect (30% new barrels in the Leeu Passant).  (I’m looking forward very much to trying these two Cape wines together to see if my memory of the one is inadequate, and causing me to make a nonsense connection.)

In sum, the Dry Red seems to me a superb wine, with few equals in Cape reds from mostly Bordeaux varieties: the few quality red equals would be in some syrahs and syrah-oriented blends, and perhaps the occasional pinot noir. It has full fruit, focused and subtle, in a more savoury context – and, I found yesterday, a winning and wistful hint of dark chocolate on the finish. Significantly, it is bone-dry, the fairly modest alcohol in fine balance with the other components; the tannic structure is wonderfully indescribable – or vice versa. Having tasted the 2017 versions of the cinsaut components of this wine I find it difficult to think that cinsaut is playing a significant “softening” role here – more an aromatic one, I think, and perhaps accentuating the vitality and freshness. Remarkably, the wine is perfectly drinkable in youth, something I rarely find in serious Cape cabs and cab-based blends, but I’m certain that it will repay its (by local standards) immodest price of close to R1000 per bottle by doing more than “keep”, by gaining in complexity and presence, over a good few decades.

Andrea Mullineux pouring her wines. Analjit Singh just visible peering over the Red’s cork from the wall…

By the way, I must mention that the successful, idiosyncratic Leeu Passant label design fittingly incorporates many aspects of tradition: the shape of the separate small vintage label nods to a florid Cape-Dutch gable, for example, and the words “Dry Red Wine” are close typographically to those words on the classic Rustenburg wine of that name, which was one of the inspirations for this one. That’s nice. (I can swallow hard and loyally live with the “celebrity signatures” on the labels, but confess I’m less thrilled with the tapered bottles, which are not good for laying down and therefore, in my opinion, an unfortunate part of the design.)

What of the chardonnays? If I’m not quite so over-excited by those, it’s simply because we already have a number of 2015 chardonnays of great quality compared with the equivalent number of cab-based blends…. But these too are excellent, and effortlessly slot into a high place in that high-achieving category (at a price of R624 per bottle – certainly higher than most). Importantly, they differ notably from each other. Happily I don’t give scores, and certainly wouldn’t be able to declare that one was superior to the other with any sense of conviction – in fact, tasting the wines in the tasting room, and then drinking them both later with the superb meal (specially prepared to accompany these wines), and in the context of a pair of fine white burgundies (which most certainly didn’t diminish the locals’ presence), I couldn’t decide which I personally preferred – as I say, I couldn’t and wouldn’t “rate” them apart.

  1. Ultimately, if I had to choose one of them, it would probably be the Elandskloof, for its greater delicacy, and the hint of floral charm on its aroma. It also reminded me, in kind though obviously not in intensity, of the essence of a subtle old brandy – partly the flowers, partly the fresh citrus and a light nuttiness. I find that pleasing and full of grandeur. And then so supple, light-textured in a way, definitely more summoning up ideas of rippling silk rather than of a richer fabric or cream.

The Stellenbosch is perhaps the more obviously exciting of the two, just a touch more showy. Sniffing it one is already aware of a vibrancy, but taste it and after a second it seems to explode in your mouth – explode with zinginess, a brilliant lemony acidity. But there’s depth too.

Ah well, I seem finally to run out of the adjectives and adverbs and general excessiveness that I am prone to on occasion. Great wines – even better, I confess, than I was expecting when I set out for Franschhoek in the dreadful Cape Town morning rush-hour traffic. An extraordinarily satisfying day, centred on three fine wines and three people – Andrea, Chris, Rosa – who are doing as much as anybody, and more than most, to keep the Cape wine revolution singing.

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