Banking on Tulbagh and Stellenbosch

The history of the major investment by American Charles Banks in South African wine (buying both Mulderbosch and Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards) has had some unexpected turnings over the past two-and-a-half years. This became obvious to me in the course of a long chat with Mr Banks this morning at his guesthouse in Stellenbosch during his current brief visit to the country (his eleventh or twelfth, he thinks – he has clearly grown attached at a more fundamental level than the actuarial bottom line).

charles banksMost interesting, perhaps, is that the much-rumoured plan to buy Cordoba was subsequent to the initial intention to look at Mulderbosch, which Banks’s friend, Andre Shearer of Cape Classics (the largest importer of South African wines to the US), had interested him in as a place with much potential. Given the high price being asked for Cordoba, however, the purchase hinged largely on the viability of building a luxury hotel on the property on the slopes of the Helderberg. (Charles Bank’s company, Terroir Capital, is mostly associated with the hospitality trade.)

Unfortunately for such prospects – but fortunately if you care more about the preservation of the mountainside from such development – it became clear that getting planning permission was fraught with problems. Such clarity took a long time to reach, however. Not to mention enormous expense – including the design of a hotel by chic architect Stefan Antoni. There’s no doubt that the idea of building that hotel sometime, somewhere in the Cape has not been abandoned (“We’re still poking around for hotel sites…”). And there’s regret shown for the Cordoba vineyards too, but that episode is effectively in the past, although some Cordoba grapes will find their way into Mulderbosch wine.


THE TULBAGH STORY

Meanwhile, negotiations over Mulderbosch continued (in much more amicable fashion). Then suddenly, the Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards purchase “happened out of the blue”. The then owners of the estate, the British Scott family, had offered it to Banks (no thanks, he said) many months before he and his wife decided to take a drive out there on one of their visits to South Africa. “We were blown away by the place”, he says. “We fell in love with it.” More prosaically, he adds that he quickly came to see its enormous potential for wine, despite the neglect and deprivation of investment which the estate was showing.

Major work has being going on at the property for some months now under the new owners – although the fairly recently established old-regime team of Rebecca Tanner in the cellar and Paul Nicholls in the vineyard remains. But clearly directing the process of revolution has been Charles Banks’s friend and established wine-partner, Andy Erickson, the winemaker at Screaming Eagle, the cult Californian winery of which Banks was part owner until a few years ago, and Erickson’s viticulturist wife, Annie Favia.

There is, all are convinced, plenty of room for ambition with the wines. While some vineyards are being grubbed up (first of all the cabernet, which has no place in the plans here) and 10-20 hectares of vines will be planted, the cellar is being remodelled, particularly to cater to vinifying grapes off small blocks – notably important in the early phases of coming to understand the possibilities here. Viticulture will remain organic, with some experiments in biodynamics (I think I’m right in gathering that Charles Banks himself views biodynamics much as I do, as evidence of a serious concern for vine well-being rather than a serious enterprise in itself).

Incidentally – and Banks, recognising the challenges and problems associated with downtrodden agricultural labour in South Africa, seemed pleased that I asked about this – there is some renewed attention being paid to the condition of workers on the farm: better training of a core team, and better pay are part of the process.

The Tulbagh wines will initially be marketed primarily in the USA and locally (projected price increases have already led the British importer to abandon interest in the estate wines). The name “Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards” will disappear (the gutteral place-name apparently too appallingly difficult or ugly for most Americans!). Current favourite as a new name for the estate is “Fables” – but this is not definite. The red Rhône varieties, led by shiraz, will remain the focus, with a varietal Syrah initially in the lead. This will emerge with the release of the 2009 vintage, the 2008 wines not having been bottled. A chenin blanc-based white wine will continue to be made from bought-in grapes – Banks is immensely impressed by the availability of great, old-vine chenin in the Cape.

Ambitions are high for the Tulbagh estate, but Banks refreshingly refuses to offer hype (what? no definite intention like everyone else to make one of the best wines in the world?). He does cautiously venture, though, that he thinks they “can do something really special with Tulbagh”. He’s not at all sure when it will happen but he is firmly expectant that “one day he will be stunned”!


MULDERBOSCH

No name change here – Americans can pronounce it well enough, and it is, in fact, a relatively well-established brand in the USA. But destined to be even more successful. Again, Charles Banks is confident that major improvements in wine quality can be achieved fairly quickly.

Although the purchase deal is not quite finalised in all its details, the Screaming Eagle team have been involved here for six months already, and a great deal of strategic work has been done (and a brand new cellar has been designed by leading architect Gerard de Villiers – testimony to the continued heavy Terroir Capital investment in Cape wine).

There’s little focus on vineyards at Mulderbosch, however: this will primarily be a negociant winery, mostly but not exclusively working with Stellenbosch fruit. Long-term contracts with a few grape-growers “who are keen to grow with us” have been initiated, enabling Mulderbosch essential control over viticulture.

As consultant, Andy Erickson will continue to be involved (he expects to come out to South Africa perhaps four times per year), though Richard Kershaw remains cellarmaster. The style of Mulderbosch seems set to change somewhat – to the satisfaction of those who have with some dismay seen substantial residual sugar, for example, become a fixed component of the wines. There will be a return, promises Charles Banks, “to real structure and balance”. (He’s careful to add diplomatically that “it’s not to say it wasn’t right before, but now it’s different; there’s a different philiosophy”.)

The Mulderbosch range will be tweaked. The famous Faithful Hound is set to be separated into a stand-alone brand, probably changing the nature of its components within the Bordeaux-blend character. Interestingly, again illustrating Banks’s commitment to Cape chenin, it is expected that the Chenin Blanc will become the flagship wine, with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé and a dessert wine in support.

Ambitions for Mulderbosch are rather different from those for the Tulbagh estate. The aim is to make “shareable, drinkable wines” – there’s no expectation, it would seem, of being one day “stunned” by them. But I daresay that Mulderbosch (obviously a much larger investment, particuarly given the new cellar; Charles Banks did not think it was up to him to mention the figures involved in the purchases) Mulderbosch should be the main generator of revenue, for the time being at least – unless the Tulbagh property produces another Screaming Eagle perhaps.

Charles Banks does instance as a significant reason for being in South Africa his confidence that he “can make better wine for the same money” here than he can anywhere else. It’s no doubt a lot of money already invested, and there will be more. Banks certainly doesn’t exclude the possibility of further purchases here – and, without a doubt, that grand hotel is already rising in his mind, and just needs a suitable mountain slope and spectacular view for it to be realised in fact.

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