And now, Mullineux Chenin Blanc Schist

Any new wine from Chris and Andrea Mullineux – the Pride of Riebeek-Kasteel! – is to be welcomed. Particularly such a fine one as the white that is set to join the Syrahs from specific soil types (Schist and Granite) that were released to such acclaim last year, and are shortly to be joined by a third with the 2011 vintage: Iron.

mullineux-schistThe new wine, also called Schist (from a pair of vineyards on the slopes of the Riebeekberg), is a pure Chenin Blanc from 2012.

Chris brought an open bottle round to me this afternoon while waiting to get back to Andrea, who’s in hospital just round the corner from me, following an operation on a benign but troubling growth on her oesophagus. We had it at room temperature – which, given the coolness of the room this winter’s day was just about right; this isn’t the sort of wine I like drinking too cold.

Unsurprisingly (this is a Mullineux wine after all) there’s a fine delicacy to the Schist Chenin Blanc – aromas of orange blossom perhaps (well, at least something floral with a hint of citrus to it). There is, of course, also schist-origin chenin in the Mullineux white blend, supplying some of the nervy finesse of that wine, and that is characteristic of this wine too, along  with a supple light richness and amplitude. If I might be allowed a flight of fancy, I’d say it finishes lingeringly with a little nut of ripe citrus (tangerine, perhaps – something more orange than lemon or lime, anyway); a flavour that is somehow wrapped into a shape, a round, perfect shape rolling and settling smoothly in the mouth.

The terroir-chenins are also going to be augmented in vintages to come – there’s a Quartz Chenin 2013 still resting in its barrels. Meanwhile, the Schist Chenin will be released in August, along with its red counterparts. As you can see from the pic, the label (this one a proof) is similar to those, but with silver foil rather than the copper-gold used for the reds. The price, I believe, is going to be about two thirds of that of the Syrahs, making it something of a bargain, in line with so many brilliant Cape whites of the highest order of ambition.

Incidentally, another major Swartland release coming up around then (22 July to be precise) is from Sadie Family Wines (making yet more demands on an emptying bank account and a filling cellar). Sadie release 2011 Columella and Palladius, and the 2012 wines in the Old Vineyard Series. Out of the Swartland always come wonders.

Not even dinner time now, and I’ve polished off the remnants of the Schist Chenin that Chris brought; with a mental toast (and thanks!) to poor Andrea languishing there – though on her way to recovery, I’m assured, following a wholly successful operation.

The glories of Swartland shiraz

My most conclusive response to Leeuwenkuil Shiraz 2010 (and I’ll be writing more about Leeuwenkuil’s lovely wines shortly) was to yet again celebrate tannin – one of the glories of the Swartland. It’s not flavours and aromas that most characterise Swartland shiraz for me, but the quality of the tannins.

That might sound pretentious, but I really don’t think it is – what I mean is that the Swartland somehow produces shiraz where there’s a tannic grip, a real firmness that is a spine for whatever flesh may be offered, but which is also silky, smooth and gorgeously integrated from youth in a way that is extremely rare from other Cape regions. (Right: a pic of the Swartland in green and sunny winter.)

I think this is the basis of the excellence of Sadie Family Columella, incidentally – the latest release of which, 2010, has been getting some deservedly great notices from people who haven’t always seen the light about these wines (perhaps they’ll say it’s the wines that have improved, rather than their perceptions!).

As I say, I’ll come back to Leeuwenkuil soon (in brief: great value, lovely wines), but I’ve also recently been having a few older Swartland shirazes. Actually both wines  call themselves Syrah, something about which I have mixed feelings. Ordinary South African winelovers call it shiraz, and I’m sure than many don’t know what “syrah” means, which maybe means that it’s little more than pretentious and elitist to use the fancier name. On the other hand, for international audiences, using the French version rather than the one associated most with Australia, makes sense, if you’re aiming at finesse rather than power. Which a few local wines are, thank heavens.

Interestingly, the wines I’ve tasted are all very much of the past, in different ways. The 2005 and 2006 Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Swartland Syrahs were made by Chris and Andrea Mullineux before they set up shop in Riebeek Kasteel on their own account. It was making a few wines from bought-in Swartland grapes for TMV (now called Fable under new ownership) that prompted their relocation and independence. The wine’s maturation in only older oak barrels is a common theme between then and now, perhaps – a big difference is the alcoholic power: at a declared 14.5%, the TMV wines have a good percent more than the shirazes of Mullineux Family Wines.

And it shows. A little too much ripeness and power, especially in the 2005, which no longer (my bottle anyway) showed much freshness or bright fruit; past it’s best, I think. The 2006 TMV Swartland Syrah is, however, drinking very well indeed still, though I wouldn’t see any advantage in keeping it longer. Not as elegant as the current Mullineux creations (especially not the two single-vineyard Schist and Granite wines, which are the most elegant wines to have come out of the Swartland, and the best straight shirazes to have come out of the Cape), but rather delicious, beautifully structured and balanced – with a fine integrated acidity and those magnificent Swartland tannins!

The style of wines made at Lammershoek has changed even more radically. I love the lighter, fresher, less-oaked wines that Craig Hawkins has been making there since 2010, but drinking the 2007 and 2008 reminded me how much I enjoyed the older style made by Albert Ahrens too. The 2007 particularly is drinking very well now. Powerful, yes, but the oak is integrated and the balance is great. I can think of so many other shirazes that I would like to change their style – I’m rather sorry I can’t have both the old and new versions of Lammershoek.

I used to measure how much I enjoyed a wine by whether, drinking by myself, I would have more than a third of a bottle in an evening. Inflation has unfortunately meant that the standard one-third has crept up to one-half. So my enjoyment of the Lammershoek Syrah 2007 is indicated by the fact that I drank nearly the whole bottle. (I avoid scores as much as possible these days – such a crass business it seems to me, and not much to do with what I want out of wine.) Second place in the four wines I’ve mentioned went to the TMV 2007, not far behind.

In fact I have a glassful of the TMV beside me as I write, two nights later, and it has improved with the time open. A little too “big” perhaps, but lovely, fragrant Northern Rhone-style notes of lilies (that fascinating floral-herbaceous character that is what I love most in fine shiraz), along with subtle red fruit. Really well balanced and harmonious. I think I was wrong in suggesting it would not benefit from further ageing, given what’s now revealed after a few days. Perhaps this is my favourite after all. An excellent wine that’s a tribute to Mullineux sensitivity to shiraz as well as to the terroir of the Swartland …

Mullineux and value

Finding good value is not always straightforward. Although generally good value is associated with cheaper wines, I can think of plonk that is a poor bargain at R40 and a few excellent buys that are more than R200, one of which is among the latest releases from perhaps the twinkliest new wine star of the Cape – Mullineux Family Wines, based in the Swartland village of Riebeek ­Kasteel.

It is hard to think of another local producer who has achieved not only local fame (three five-star wines in the current Platter’s Guide have made Mullineux a familiar name to more than the cognoscenti) but also international eminence so quickly. Even for the renowned Eben Sadie, it was longer and harder – although the crucial difference, is that Sadie was the pioneer of Swartland ­excellence, clearing a way for others to follow.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux would not deny this advantage, although they are cutting their own path. Sadie’s Columella, for example, remains the Swartland’s pre-eminent shiraz-based blend but the Mullineuxs, for red wines, are looking to single-varietal shiraz – or syrah, the synonym often used by winemakers striving for classic French finesse rather than Australian-style blockbusterdom.

The perfumed, lightly rich, fresh-fruited Mullineux Family Syrah 2010 retails at about R225, which is fine value. Few local shirazes offer anything like this quality, but many cost more. What, though, of the other 2010 Mullineux syrahs? There are two, Granite and Schist, which refer to the dominant soils in which the vines grow, giving different characters to identically made wines.

Both cost R675 a bottle. Their quality is undoubted, though I dither happily as to which I prefer. They do not make the standard wine seem remotely inadequate but have an added refinement, a distinguishing grace and fascination — they are surely the most elegant (but not necessarily the most profound) red wines to have emerged from the Swartland.

But for that sort of money (even less) you can buy some famous labels from syrah’s great heartland in France’s northern Rhône valley. This proves nothing but should be borne in mind. The Mullineux wines probably compare in quality with many of those fine examples. Moreover, they are made in tinier quantities, and are remarkable in South Africa in the way they reflect their origins.

They are wines for us to celebrate.

Hard vineyard work and much insight and flair is bottled here. Chris Mullineux says: “These are two specific blocks that have taken us since 2004 to find and fine-tune to the point where they can stand on their own and reflect their unique terroir in a complete and balanced way.”

Reasonable, if not brilliant, value must be the sober conclusion. It is not the sort of opportunist overpricing we see too often when producers seek attention with wines from their usual vineyards – just tarted up a bit with extra ripeness, power and showy new oak.

If even the standard syrah is too pricey, the Mullineuxs descend to the somewhat more affordable with their Kloof Street Red 2009, a juicy, delicious shiraz-based blend at about R90 (Kloof Street Chenin Blanc is R10 less). Last year I counted the Kloof Street wines as great value but this vintage is 20% more expensive and I am a touch less sure.


First published in the Mail & Guardian, 30 March-4 April