Riebeek-Kasteel emerges

Black, green and gold indeed – the Swartland could be the ANC’s official wine region, if the leadership abandoned the comfortingly branded world of whisky and glitzy champagne and if ordinary members took to wine.

An unlikely scenario, but the colours do work. The Dutch settlers called this part of their claimed domain Het Zwaarte Land, “the black land”, probably because of the notably dark indigenous vegetation. With the colonising culture having despatched most of the plants (as well as the original human and animal inhabitants) the characteristic colour of the southern Swartland in winter is the intense green of young wheat, for this is the country’s breadbasket. In summer, the flatlands and gently rolling low hills covered in dry stubble are a lovely ochreous gold.

Wine-growing in the Swartland (a huge region inland from the Cape’s Atlantic coastline) mostly hugs two mountainous outcrops in the south: the sprawling Perdeberg and the grander Riebeek Mountains. The Perdeberg (aka Paardeberg) has been for a decade the dynamic centre of the regeneration of the Swartland, one of Cape wine’s most exciting areas.

Which is why it was important when two young recruits to the Swartland a few years ago bucked the trend and set up their small maturation cellar in the middle of quaint Riebeek-Kasteel village. Chris and Andrea Mullineux had previously made a few acclaimed Swartland wines at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, where Californian Andrea had latterly been Chris’s assistant before they got married (Swartland baby and Swartland winery arrived pretty close together).

Chris and Andrea had built a formidable reputation as a winemaking partnership, and it’s now only likely to rise, judging by the early releases under the Mullineux label, and by what I’ve tasted from barrels in their cellar (which is as pleasing as the winemakers themselves, and worth a visit, as is Riebeek-Kasteel).

The Mullineux Syrah 2008 is made from six parcels of shiraz scattered around the Swartland. Chris and Andrea don’t own vineyards of their own, but are closely involved in caring for the vines whose grapes they buy. Like the winemakers, this fine wine is equable and unshowy, honest, deep and thoughtful. It’ll certainly show even more harmony in a few years but is so subtly put together that you can enjoy it in its youth – though decanting a few hours in advance does open it up. Think dried herbs (lavender!), flowers, dark berries, all carried by a structure so finely balanced you almost forget it’s there.

I was interested to note, as I re-tasted the wine over three or four days, how that tannic structure became more and more obvious as the fruit intensity retreated – the reduced flesh exposing, as it were, the bones. The fact that the wine stayed in such good shape for so many days after opening is, I reckon, a sure sign that this wine is going to evolve splendidly in bottle over many years.

The subtlety of tannins in Swartland wines is, incidentally, to my mind one of the foremost marks of this as a great South African terroir. They easily achieve a smoothness and integration, forceful but not aggressive, that is not common; a sign of real quality.

The Mullineux White bottling is 60% from chenin blanc, the grape that is the great treasure of the Swartland. The balance is made up of clairette blanche (a minor variety that can add good freshness to a wine, as it does here), roussanne (one of the great varieties of the northern Rhône valley), viognier (similarly so – but needing discipline if its voluptuous fruit is not going to overwhelm!), and grenache blanc (an equally great variety of southern France).

If straightforward fruitiness is what you’re after (and it’s a valid preference) this is probably not for you. But just sniffing this complex wine sends shivers of anticipation through me, and I find it a joy from there all the way to the long-lingering finish with its notes of peach, fennel and lemon. At around R150 it’s not cheap, but a good buy, as is the Syrah at R190 – better bargains than some other top Swartland wines.

Perhaps even better value are the Mullineux’s second-label pair, at around R65, under the Kloof Street label: delicious, easily approachable but untrivial. The red is named for its blend of mourvèdre, syrah and carignan grapes, and the white is chenin. They’re worth looking for; you won’t easily do better at the price, anywhere. Incidentally, my appreciation of the red grew enormously over a few days – it really is a good, serious but utterly joyful and unpretentious wine that is drinking more than satisfactorily now, but should keep well: I have ordered a case for mysef, and hope I have the self-control to monitor it over the next half-dozen years.

This is an extended version of the column that appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 24-30 September 2010

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