Contrasts in Tulbagh (3): Fable Mountain Vineyards

It must have been in 2005 that, together with Platter editor and friend Philip van Zyl, I first visited the Tulbagh winery now called Fable Mountain Vineyards. Back then it was Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, just releasing its first 2003 wines from syrah and mourvèdre off its own organically-farmed vineyards, and a (mostly 2004) range made from bought-in grapes – notably syrah and chenin from the Swartland.

It was a few years since I’d returned, when I paid another visit in May this year, after sampling the wildly contrasting offerings of Saronsberg and Lemberg. Fable was to provide a third very different experience.

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The view from the tasting room at Fable

TMV had been established on virgin soil, somewhat isolated from the heartland of Tulbagh winemaking (Tulbagh is actually an enormous valley, in which grapes still play a rather small role in its farming activities); importantly, its higher slopes make for slightly cooler conditions than generally prevail there.

The farm was owned by a pair of British investment bankers; the winemaker was a young (even younger than now!) Chris Mullineux – who’s since famously gone with his later assistant winemaker, then wife, Andrea, to set up shop in the place from where they were acquiring grapes for TMV. Financial problems led to comparative neglect of the TMV vineyards for a while, but then the American knight in white armour came galloping up, and the most exciting project in Tulbagh winegrowing was saved.

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Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nichols, serenely in control

Not that Charles Banks and his “Terroir Selections”  portfolio did everything right after taking ownership in 2010. In terms of vineyard and cellar management, yes, it would seem so. They kept on the new local team of Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nicholls (respectively ostensibly responsible for cellar and vineyard but in practice an excellent team sharing responsibility for these two unutterably intertwined aspects), and supplemented them with good advice from Banks’s own United States people.

But of the dreadful and no doubt expensive experiments with Afro-kitsch names and labels the least said the better (though I confess I’ve already shot my mouth off with every sign of happy unrestraint about the mistakes!). Enough to say that the labels are now OK, and pleasantly interesting in a quaint sort of way albeit still a bit too folksy for elegance; the name re-includes some suggestion of terroir with the “Mountain Vineyards” suffix and the Fable elaborations are largely abandoned even if, one assumes, “Tulbagh” remains too difficult for American tongues to be expected to grapple with. (“Why ‘Fable’? one can imagine people asking in 50 years, and getting no comprehensible answer.)

And the wines. The wines are great. And the place was looking really good on my visit in May. Not only has Banks spent generously on improving the cellar, ripping out unsuitable vineyards (it’s hard to imagine a good excuse for cabernet sauvignon in Tulbagh) and planting new ones  (grenache noir, mourvèdre and above all syrah are the focus), he’s also brough tin some good landscape gardeners, and the place is looking great. One day, when and if they want visitors, they’ll put up a proper sign on the R46 between Tulbagh and Wolseley, and I’ll be more sure of the road to take.

Rebecca and Paul are full of natural charm as well as impressive insight and rigorous focus on quality. All these aspects are inherent in their wines, and one gets a real feeling that this is only the beginning. Banks said, years ago when he bought the place, that he was confident  he could “do something really special with Tulbagh” and was sure that “one day he will be stunned”! We all will, perhaps, but meanwhile we can be genuinely impressed. Especially the wines off the home farm seem to be improving each year.

I must say, though, that for me the most impressive of the trio is still the Swartland white (there are no white grapes planted at Fable). It’s grown more complex and since Chris Mullineux’s forerunner. Now it’s a chenin-based blend with chardonnay, roussanne, viognier (a subtle contributor to the fragrance) and grenache blanc (whose floral top-notes are key). Unlike many Swartland white blends, this is not at all oxidative in effect. It’s restrained and elegant, with real grace and harmony and no fatness; one of the most refined of the Cape’s chenin-based wines. A few years will see the 2012 start to open up into something really special and exciting, I am confident.

The two reds are undoubtedly very ripe, to an extent that I feel myself verging on a little criticism, though I thoroughly like the wines. I could do with a bit more restraint and elegance, though. Perhaps (I say unconvincedly) this later picking is needed here, despite the comparative coolness of the sites, but perhaps it’s a matter of style and this is the style that is wanted. It’s going to take a few vintages before we can start to guess reasonably at what  is terroir and what is style at Fable.

Night Sky 2011, with its slightly better name than the previous “Lion’s Whisker”, is predominantly syrah, with a pleasing perfume augmented by a little grenache and mourvedre. There’s a sweet charm to it, and an admirable silkiness, but the finish is dry and (I must admit) rather elegant). Fine balance, with firm but gently succulent tannins.

Syrah 2011 (hard to believe that they could have called previous vintages “Bobbejaan”), is really lovely drinking, even now – though I’m sure it will grow for a good few years in bottle. There’s a lot of power, but it’s well reined in and pretty harmonious, as well as expressive. (I persist in wondering, though, if more freshness and energy could not be achieved by earlier picking.)

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One of the newly-planted vineyards at Fable

New vineyards will be brought into play over coming years. Already there’s enough happening here to justify Chales Banks’s insightful investment, but I am full of hungry curiosity – more than with almost any other winery I can think of – to see what is going to happen at Fable over the next decade, given the progres already made. It could well be, as Banks hopes, stunning.

3 thoughts on “Contrasts in Tulbagh (3): Fable Mountain Vineyards

  1. Hi Tim. I’ve been looking forward to your views on Fable for some time now. I was lucky to visit Fable back in April – thanks to Paul and Rebecca’s generosity. If I remember correctly, I asked Paul and Rebecca about picking earlier (because one can’t help but draw comparisons with the Mullineuxs) and was told the Fable focus is on gentle, slow extractions. I think the Fable method works rather well and there is a lovely (paradoxical) balance to their wines. I love that Paul and Rebecca aren’t just replicating what others are doing – whether it be the heavy handed approach of their neighbours in Tulbagh or the new-wave Swartlanders’ emphasis on early picking.

  2. Good points, Dean; thanks. You’re right about the extractions. They do something I’ve not seen before: ferment the reds in barrels and later wrap those barrels tightly in plastic to keep oxygen out, allowing the long slow, gentle extraction. And yes, the wines are beautifully balanced. But don’t forget the fresh wines of Lemberg when you talk about the Tulbagh neighbours. As to the Swartland – perhaps the contrast is more, as I suggested, with the non-oxidative approach to white winemaking. By no means all the Swartlanders are picking notably early, though the achievements of the Mullineux pair and the radicalism of Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek/Testalonga is definitely having a wide influence, and ultra ripeness, anyway, is generally avoided. I certainly wouldn’t accuse Fable of anything approaching over-ripeness, either. And their big alcohols do not show at all.

  3. I visited Fable yesterday. Paul was a great host, showing us the cellar and answered all our questions. His pleasant and calm personality shows in the wine. Night Sky is fragrant, dense but not over the top. The Syrah is more serious in its structure. Very classy. For sure I will be back for more.

    What I found interesting is their approach to fermentation. The reds ferment slowly on its own time for about 2 weeks on natural yeast. Occasional punch downs are done by bare hand. Kanonkop for comparison complete fermentation in 5 days with punch downs every 2 hours. And in both cases the wine ends up great.

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