Chameleon of Terroir

In Tim Atkin’s 2021 Special Report on South Africa, one of the most quoted or referred to views he airs relates to South Africa’s progress: ‘What it (South Africa) has achieved, not just since 1994 but in the nine years that I have been writing this report is truly remarkable. No other wine industry has made such strides, no other wine industry possesses such energy or excitement.’

Everyone has their own starting point for our break-out vintage (mine is 1997, and the first Boekenhoutskloof Syrah), but whichever year marks the change for you, it is relatively recent, recent enough for many pieces of the multi-layered jigsaw yet to be fitted into place. That shouldn’t and doesn’t stop the excitement.

Chris & Andrea Mullineux at launch of the Soil range

The recent launch of Chris & Andrea Mullineux’s latest vintages of their single vineyard, soil-focused syrahs and chenins, together with a vertical of the syrahs, was most instructive, illustrating how far and in what ways they have come since the first 2010 vintage and, frankly, why 20-years hence these wines will likely generate even more excitement.

It was in 2008 and again 2009 that the Mullineux’s noticed the particular character each vineyard/soil displayed in their syrah; a particular character they felt warranted individual bottlings. So it was in 2010 the Soil range was born. Why syrah and would any other variety rooted in the Swartland respond in the same way? I asked. Andrea had no hesitation in confirming ‘Syrah is a chameleon of terroir,’ in other words it easily reflects the soil on which it grows. And her view is; ‘Soil must always be the strongest character, not just the vintage.’ The soils in question are Paardeberg granite, Kasteelberg (Roundstone home farm) schist and Malmesbury hills, Iron.

Their approach in the vineyards is to farm organically and, depending on the needs of each, cover crops with carbon or nitrogen will be planted. Specific rows within each site have been determined for the Soil syrahs, the balance directed into the regular syrah.

Vinification sees crushed whole bunches fermented in 500kg batches with hand punch downs in 500 litre barrels, extended four to six weeks’ maceration on the skins, and a year in barrel with a second year in foudre.

Both viticulture and winemaking are open to refinements per se and according to vintage, thus adding a further layer to the quality dial.

Their observations have been well-rewarded; the ten vintages of Granite & Schist so clearly illustrate (Iron isn’t made every year) the consistency of terroir, vintage variation providing extra interest.

As Chris and Andrea suggest, granite is more linear, schist has more flesh and density. Or the Hermitage and Côte Rôtie of the Swartland.

A few stand-outs from the tasting: for me, Schist performed better in difficult vintages eg 2013, which was preceded by a cool, wet winter and heat spike which required a rush to harvest. Schist is lovely, deeply aromatic, densely fleshed and bearing fine, ripe tannins. No Granite was made that year. Schist is also the better of the pair in disease-ridden 2014, well-balanced if lacking great depth.

Both 2015 (the ‘dream’ vintage) and 2017, the second drought year, produced excellent wines. The 2015s are still tight; time may see Granite the better wine. The Mullineux’s were better prepared with viticulture and winemaking in 2017 than 2016, though, thanks to their use of the cover crop as mulch, which helped prevent stress in the vines, the latter vintage is remarkably good. Both wines are concentrated, structured and will take time to harmonise and relax.

In 2017, the second drought year, the wines responded splendidly to the Mullineux’s better understanding of dealing with this phenomenon. Granite is taut, linear with an expansive tail; Schist, broad, fleshy texture, dense and with integrated tannins. By 2018, they were on top of dealing with another drought vintage; the wines are perfectly ripe, fresh, individual and have a lovely depth of flavour.

Better rains were experienced in the lead up to 2019, the latest release, though the drought wasn’t entirely gone. Nevertheless, the vines had adapted and were what Chris and Andrea delightedly called ‘happy vines.’ The wines are equally happy and have reached what Andrea calls an equilibrium. Granite, with its dense grape tannins and expressive spice. Schist’s red earth character, flesh and well-integrated fine tannin. Iron is perfectly matched intense bright red fruit, structure, freshness and general taut feel.

The 2020 chenins are the best the Mullineux’s have made. From 400 metres on Paardeberg, Granite has understated purity, silky texture and charm. Schist, from home-farm, Roundstone is a structured, grippy wine, with savoury, stony flavours, while Iron is lean with marked acidity but also deep flavour in its energetic body. Such an expressive trio with assured ageing potential.

Soils (l to r) Schist Granite Iron

There are yet more pieces to be slotted into this jigsaw, ones that will surely propel further excitement in these and other quality-focused producers’ wines.  One that is obvious now, lies with Chris and Andrea themselves. How they have developed as people and in their wine journey; they wouldn’t have got as far as they have without developing within themselves.

It is all these progressive steps that lead me to feeling confident Tim Atkin will have good reason to repeat the quote I open with in another nine or 27 years’ time.

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