Any tasting with Chris and Andrea Mullineux is as much geology lesson as it is dégustation – at least, in a cool Bill Nye kind of way, where you leave feeling weirdly excited about rocks and look at dirt in a way you never quite did before.
Maybe that’s just me – but it’s exactly how I felt after attending the 2019 release of the Mullineux Single Terroir range.
TASTING IS BELIEVING
It would be fair to say that I started out my career in the wine industry as somewhat terroir agnostic. I guess I found it a little weird (maybe even borderline culty) how at some tastings I attended, producers would curate a pile of rocks or dirt on the table next to their wines – followed by an earnest explanation of how the ‘terroir’, i.e. the soil, supported by other environmental factors, made the wine. To my skeptical, millennial, consumer mindset, this seemed like one of two things: a sales gimmick (a weak one at that) – or hippie bullshit.
It’s taken a few years of getting to know terroir-driven producers and their wines to appease my inner doubting Thomas and realise oh – this really is a thing. But there’s still always been a part of me hoping for that Damascus moment, where the scales fall from my eyes and I suddenly know with utter conviction that terroir has the ultimate say when it comes to the quality and character of a wine (at least, one that has been made with minimal manipulation and additions).
THE CONTROL VARIABLE
If there’s a terroir litmus test, it has to be tasting the Mullineux Single Terroir wines side-by-side: for the 2019 release, two Chenin Blancs and three Syrahs, made in exactly the same way (reds and whites respectively), the only major difference being the type of soil in which the vines are planted. It’s possibly the closest one can get to a controlled variable experiment in the wine world: the inner scientist practically claps with glee.
SERIOUSLY OLD DIRT
But why the Swartland, a region that premium producers once refused to touch with a ten-foot punch down tool? Well, let me tell you: long before the Swartland Revolution, Geology students knew the Swartland was where it’s at (if you’re into rocks). According to Andrea Mullineux, for years, Geologists have been flocking from all over the world to examine the region’s topography, mainly because it has some of if not the oldest viticultural soils in the world: soils that “predate life”. A long, long time ago (talking in the hundreds of millions of years), the southernmost tip of Africa was dominated by a towering landmass (“higher than Mount Everest,” says Andrea). Over hundreds of millions of years of erosion and tectonic shifts, we’ve been left with vast swathes of some of the most ancient rocky soils imaginable. And it’s in these barely penetrable soils that Chenin Blanc and Syrah are deeply rooted.
Chris Mullineux is quick to clarify that the wines don’t actually taste like soil, but rather take on different characteristics according to how the soil type and terroir in a broader sense affect the vine. “Our goal, in the beginning, was to make one wine… but the different areas had completely different characters. So in 2010, we decided to start bottling these separately.” Almost a decade later the Mullineuxs continue to make these wines every year – but only bottle them when they are satisfied that they adequately express the terroir in a given vintage. Chris is careful to note: “we wouldn’t put out names and the soil types in big bold letters on the bottle if we didn’t believe they were the best expression of these varietals in the Swartland.”
According to Andrea, decomposed granite soils allow a vine’s roots to penetrate incredibly deep, in search of their own water source. These vines thus have the greatest canopy area: meaning more shade, that translates into freshness and ultimately a limey, flinty, linear acidity in the Granite Chenin Blanc. For the Granite Syrah, this linearity is more pronounced in the quality of the tannins which are tightrope levels of lean and supple. It’s a wine that’s elegant and perfumed – restrained, but not shy.
Andrea says, with a glimmer in her eye: “when you strike pieces of quartz together, you get a spark.” It follows that the Quartz Chenin Blanc, coming from a single parcel of 35-year-old vines planted in a quartz kloof on the Kasteelberg (“Leliefontein”), conveys a sense of energy with notes of white peach and citrus. It has a slight oiliness reminiscent of Chenin from the Loire; a lovely rich texture that surely comes from the extra light and warmth reflected by the silica in the quartz soil. The 2013 we taste comparatively is a more intense, but equally lovely version of the 2018: good vibes all around.
Andrea has a wonderfully visual (and practical!) way of explaining the schist soil. “Schist is slate. We use it to make roof tiles. Think about it – when it rains, the water runs away.” It’s the same story in the vineyard. Diminished water retention means smaller bunches and thicker skins. Andrea suggests that of all the reds, it’s the one that just “cruises” – happy year on year, producing the most structured of the Single Terroir range and successfully expressing the density of the Kasteelberg’s terroir.
Andrea describes the Iron Syrah as having a “haemoglobin” edge – immediately admitting that as her euphemism for “a nice bloody steak.” The iron soils are the most decomposed of the lot, and over the millennia to come, will not devolve into a different soil type. Sourced from a single parcel of iron-rich “koffieklip” soils west of Malmesbury, the wine is brooding, dense and alluring.
A NEW CONVERT
I’m not about to change my name to Paul from Saul – but the controlled terroir experiment has been a success, and I am left astounded by how markedly different these wines are from one another. I have to agree with James Pietersen of Wine Cellar, however, who comments that it’s difficult to choose a favourite when they’re all so good. That said, I may be leaning ever so slightly towards the Quartz Chenin Blanc and Iron Syrah…
Whenever I write a piece on a producer, I naturally visit their website to fact check and see if I can unearth any other nuggets. When doing this for Mullineux, I’m struck by how perfectly a line on their website sums up their project:
“As human beings, we are given such a short time on this planet to work with the land. It is humbling and exciting to keep this ancient history in mind, and as our vineyards grow in soils derived from all this tectonic activity, it is fascinating to think of the links between how the earth evolved and how wines grown in different sites taste. These humbling thoughts are the fundamental reason for our natural winegrowing and winemaking approach as we strive to bottle wines that reflect the Swartland.”
Wines that provide a glimpse of the bigger picture: now that’s something I can believe in.
Words and images: Kristen Duff