Put me in a vineyard and I’m happy. Put me in an old vineyard and I’m even happier. Put an old vineyard in a bottle and we should all be happy.
Standing among 117-year old vines is an inspiring and humbling experience; an experience which becomes that much more tangible when tasting the wine those wrinkled but sturdy old plants have produced. To passing traffic, including myself many times, this Wellington cinsaut centenarian is just another vineyard, but for the past four years or so, it has become a special place for viticulturist, Rosa Kruger and winemaking team, Chris and Andrea Mullineux. It is now an integral and important contributor to their new Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine.
To divert a minute, Leeu Passant is the Mullineux’s project that’s caused much speculation and anticipation over the past few years; the idea was sparked when Kruger showed the couple old vineyards she found. It became reality when Analjit Singh, the Mullineux’s business partner, urged them to make something from these vineyards. I suspect few speculated correctly but here we now have two chardonnays – as different as only high, cool Elandskloof and lower, warmer Stellenbosch fruit, plus Andrea Mullineux’s sensitivity to site, can produce – and a Dry Red Wine whose cabernet sauvignon, cinsaut components hark back to the Rustenberg Dry Reds, Chateau Libertases and similar others of yore; a spicing of cabernet franc lends a modern touch (or as the Mullineux’s put it; ‘We’ve deconstructed and reconstructed’). It’s a near equal partnership where each variety plays so harmoniously with yet individually off the others. Truly a wine with soul.
As is that Wellington vineyard. Here there’s no neat trellising; each vine is self-supporting, has its own way of growing and rejuvenating and has to be tended as an individual. Dead branches are allowed to fall as and when they will to avoid risk of infection by removing them with a saw.
A thick layer of straw mulch keeps the soil cool around the vines but underneath that scrappy, sandy surface (a carpet of cover-crop green adds colour in spring) is moisture-retentive clay; both allow this dryland vineyard to survive even 2017’s long hot summer.
Beyond surviving, four years down the road the vines are starting to thrive, but not without regular fortnightly visits from the vineyard team. The mere 500 kgs harvested in 2014 increased to just under two tons (or around six tons per hectare) by 2017.
One only has to look at the younger, but neglected, neighbouring vineyard, to gauge the work and care that has gone into producing the beautiful, healthy fruit which plays an important role in the Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine. All this at a cost; R100 000 last year. For just one vineyard.
The slightly-younger, Franschhoek cinsaut vineyard (a sprightly 91 and overlooking the Mullineux’s cellar the other side of the valley), yields around half of its Wellington counterpart (three tons/ha). For the real viticultural geeks, the red leaves indicate virus, but it’s not leafroll; there’s no problem with photosynthesis (brace yourselves – this year’s wine, spontaneously fermented, clocks in at just over 16% alcohol; less noticeable than one might think, thanks in part to being bone dry and with a firmness of tannin from fruit Andrea Mullineux describes as having ‘skins as thick as cabernet’.)
These are but two of 14 scattered vineyards currently providing fruit for the Leeu Passant wines. There have been others, but once vinified, the wine was deemed ‘not compatible with what we’re looking for’ and so dropped.
To produce wines of this calibre requires attention to detail (in the vineyard and cellar), understanding, good organisation and stamina. When their Swartland Roundstone cellar is in operation next harvest, the Mullineux’s, Andrea especially, will be doing much driving back and forth between the Swartland and Franschhoek; fortuitously, their two children go to school en route in Wellington. The search will soon be on for someone to assist at Roundstone.
If this has been more about vines than wines, it’s mainly because vines are rarely the focus of attention but also hopefully to give some context to the price of the wines (R625 for the chardonnays, R975 for the Dry Red), which, have unfairly raised eyebrows; they’re certainly not the first at this level and the Mullineux’s already have an established reputation for quality.
Generally, rather than too specifically, texture is important in all three: shot-silk, a ripe peach-skin bite and refreshing natural acid in the Elandskloof, the flavours bright, tropical lemon flesh. It is more pleasurable now than the intense, austere and vibrant Stellenbosch version, which will, undoubtedly, blossom with time. I’d like to think anyone willing to pay these prices will give the wines time. The Dry Red – ah the red! – gently perfumed soft berries, leafy spice; a graceful glide across the palate, shaped by caressing tannins. Distinctive and full of soul, it will reward in many ways for years to come.
Each wine is beautifully interpreted, but ultimately the vineyards are where these great wines are born.