A change of ownership at a winery is nothing unusual, but when that winery also physically moves, while retaining its name, it induces several moments of head-scratching puzzlement.
This is exactly the scenario when Charles Banks via his investment company, Terroir Capital, purchased Stellenbosch property Mulderbosch in late 2010. With the mutual agreement of its former sister winery, Kanu, Mulderbosch took over on the Polkadraai road, while Kanu moved to the former Mulderbosch farm on the Bottelary Hills.
‘You know, in a way that wasn’t a negative thing,’ admits Mulderbosch cellarmaster, Adam Mason; ‘the new venue meant we could more easily make changes that would have been more difficult had we taken over the original property.’
Mason’s positive perspective is well vindicated, as I found out on my recent visit to re-discover Mulderbosch. Arriving from Klein Constantia in December 2011, Mason remains full of enthusiasm for this new venture and the people involved with it; he got to know both Banks and his US winemaker, Andy Erickson when working with them in the States.
The changes already made and those yet to appear herald a new and exciting era. Since I had tasted the range for this year’s Platter guide, I had some inkling of developments but Mason and his co-winemaker, Australian Mick Craven shared many unfinished 2013 wines or others not submitted for Platter. They also included the joint venture wines with Peter Tempelhoff; the Yardstick and Marvelous labels. If Mason and Craven’s enthusiasm is palpable, so is their focus.
The brief from Banks is quite simple: ‘make the best wine possible’. A free hand might sound ideal, but it involves a huge amount of work (Banks does expect his employees to give everything!) and travel to find the right vineyards for that ‘best wine’. Vineyards from Elim to Agter Witzenberg to Piekenierskloof and many stops in between are being trialled. ‘The biggest quality factor is the large number we can draw from,’ Mason explains, ‘there are 30 growers, some with more than one vineyard. It is a logistical nightmare, but until we know which ones work, we cannot start eliminating.’
The main changes to both reds and whites are a more textured, rounder profile and definitely dryer finish.
The first is clearly evidenced in Faithful Hound 2012, a five-way, cabernet sauvignon led Bordeaux-style blend. (We tasted reds first, not unusual with Burgundian varieties, but here it even worked with the Bordeaux varieties.) It is fragrant, fresh and eminently drinkable but certainly not without structure. The fine tannin integration is due to Mason’s preference for long post-ferment maceration rather than the extraction derived from many pump overs. Oak is also restrained. Altogether a lovely and satisfying drink.
I might mention here that labels across the range have also been spruced up but without obliterating the familiar Mulderbosch brand. In the case of Faithful Hound, lettering and lighting have been cleaned up and lifted; the well-known picture of the dog is now more prominent.
The Marvelous labels have undergone a more dramatic change; the Kaboom!, Ka-Pow! names have (thankfully) been dropped; the wines are now distinguished simply by the colour of the label – red, blue and yellow – in what Mason calls a poster effect.
Back to the wines. Sauvignon blanc established Mulderbosch’s reputation and has long been its signature wine in a linear, high acid style tempered by around six to eight grams of residual sugar. ‘People have moved on from acid,’ Mason asserts as we sip on the 2013 which is much more Pouilly Fumé than Sancerre with its textured richness and pithy finish coating a fresh, mineral core. Flavours, at the riper end of the spectrum, include white peach and fig, but they’re subtle rather than in your face. This is interesting, as the majority of the fruit comes from Elim with Elgin, Piekenierskloof and Darling adding their own individual notes. Even those who believe they’ve moved on from sauvignon should enjoy this wine.
There’s also a cracker of a 2012 Blanc Fumé, barrel-fermented sauvignon alive with crunchy blackcurrant fruit and vibrant freshness, oaking merely a weight-enhancer. Fruit for this was sourced from Elgin, Simonsberg and Darling. For R200 it’s no giveaway, but well worth it. All this mixing and matching may distress the terroirists, but rather these delicious wines than a single vineyard that isn’t.
Which makes a useful segue into the up-coming single vineyard chenins, three of them, all from sites in Stellenbosch. Currently still in barrel, they still show easily identifiable differences, despite all being made in the same way. Rustenhof is the ripest, Eikenhof is shy and Sonop the happiest to show off its delights. Once again, oak is a background enhancer.
If sauvignon blanc is indelibly associated with Mulderbosch, so is Steen op Hout. There’s a clear line of progress from 2011, through 2012 and 2013, with the percentage of oak decreasing – just 8 to 10% in 2013 – but enough to give weight to the concentrated fruit and natural vibrancy.
Without wishing to make this a turgid litany of every wine we tasted, I do need to mention the Marvelous red 2012, which does a marvellous job of capturing character and deliciousness in its supple, mainly syrah, cinsaut, grenache and mourvèdre composition. An absolute bargain for R70, the same price as the other Marvelous wines.
Elgin and Agter Witzenberg fruit features in both the 2012 Yardstick Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The former tempting with its fragrance, freshness and velvety mouthfeel but also with good form. For R150 this offers good value, fulfilling Pete Tempelhoff’s wish for ‘a decent pinot at a mid-price point. Richly dry yet full of freshness, the (no new) barrel-fermented chardonnay offers waves of flavour.
Even though Banks is acquiring other wineries around the world which keep him busy, and limiting the time he spends in the Cape, it’s obvious there’s a symbiotic relationship between him and the Mulderbosch team. ‘He’s empowering, believes in dreams and likes to see people succeed,’ Mason lists his boss’s attributes, but perhaps the most important is that he drinks wine and likes to share wines from around the world. Having met him on several occasions, I find him personable and approachable, finding great pleasure in his acquisition of both Mulderbosch and the Tulbagh winery, Fable.
Andy Erickson, who was the winemaker at Screaming Eagle and has his own label, Leviathan, visits Mulderbosch twice a year, before harvest to give guidance on winemaking and later in the year to help with blending. ‘It’s useful to get an outsider’s input,’ says Mason, while acknowledging that Erickson also needs to understand what is possible in California isn’t always possible in Stellenbosch.
Mason mentioned earlier that he didn’t see the physical move in a negative light. I wondered how the many fans of the old Mulderbosch in its old place have taken to the new look. ‘There aren’t so many wineries where you can get pizza and a family atmosphere; the many loyal locals have made the change with enthusiasm.’
By the time I left, after our pizza lunch, the tasting room was buzzing. A buzz that is sure to increase as winelovers discover the new Mulderbosch.