Tulbagh’s history is practically as old as the South African wine industry itself, although it has never been a region associated with quality wine. But, as we’ve seen in the past twenty years, the industry has expanded in a series of concentric circles away from the traditional areas of Stellenbosch and Paarl, and it was only a matter of time until Tulbagh would start to attract a small band of pioneers, keen to exploit the region’s unrealised potential. None more so than Charles Banks who headed an American consortium to acquire (what was then known as) Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards in October 2010. Banks, as you may be aware, was a previous investor in Screaming Eagle.
But, before we go any further, there’s some more recent history to contend with.
Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, started life as a brand new venture in January 2000 when fellow Brits, the Scott and the Austin families, purchased this 180 hectare farm on the edge of Tulbagh’s wheat belt. Laudably, their objective was to find virgin land on the slopes of the Witzenberg Mountain range and develop their vineyard along organic or biodynamic principles. No fancy Cape Dutch homestead here, in fact the house they inherited on the farm they ended up buying was quickly re-christened ‘Villa Veriugly’.
The higher parts of the farm adjoins a nature reserve and, at an elevation of between 400m and 500m, was identified as being ideal for the growing of grapes. This site is significantly cooler than the valley floor, and the steep mountain slopes offer shade to the vineyards into the late morning, with the constant breeze ensuring a healthy canopy. The soils are made up of shale and saprolite, providing excellent drainage and endearing the resulting wines with great sense of minerality. The predominantly west facing slopes enjoy the benefit of the gentle late afternoon sun.
The objective from the start was to plant only red varieties and, after extensive research, they settled on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon as being the most suited to the site. Two hectares each of Syrah and Cabernet were planted in the winter of 2000, with a further 12 hectares, including two of Mourvèdre the following year. Construction of the cellar started in February 2002 and at the same time the search was on to find a winemaker who could share the vision of working the farm organically.
Chris Mullineux joined the venture in May 2002 straight out of Stellenbosch University and was quickly joined by his American assistant (cum fiancé), Andrea. Although still a novice, Chris has a passion for the vineyards, seeing himself as a winegrower rather than winemaker – a concept rather alien at the time in the Cape. That philosophy was perpetuated after the departure of the Mullineux’s, through the brief tenure of Callie Louw (who is now installed at Porcelain Mountain in the Swartland) and onto the current incumbents, Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nicholls – but of them below.
So, between 2005 and 2010, this remote farm, some 100km north of Cape Town quickly became one of the most talked about projects in the Cape wine industry. This had nothing to do with any public relations spin, but purely on the adopted principles of organic farming and the quality of the wines that began to emerge from the cellar. In addition, their own biodiversity programme saw them installed as one of the Cape’s first recognised exponents of the scheme. Even fellow Master of Wine (and natural cynic) Tim Atkin was convinced enough to write ‘I’d go far as to say that this is one of the most exciting new wineries I’ve come across in the past decade’ following a visit to the farm in April 2006.
Having walked the vineyards on several occasions during this period and listened to the various philosophical views myself, I was claiming that Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards was one of the most exciting ventures I had seen emerging from post-apartheid South Africa. But then it all went quiet. Funding appeared to be withdrawn and the rumours circulated that the farm was on the market.
A hitch-hickers guide to the upper hunter…
Rebecca and Paul arrived on the farm in 2010, just as the Scott’s and the Austin’s were planning their exit strategy. I remember one of my first meetings with them was at the cellar, Rebecca heavily pregnant, and together we were about to meet up with the buyer for Waitrose. It didn’t go well…
Initially from Sydney, Rebecca had travelled to the Hunter Valley as a child and got the wine-bug early. Having worked with Vanya Cullen (which is clearly where the interest in biodynamic farming was evoked), Rebecca was one of the last generation of ‘flying winemakers’, being employed to work the harvest in as far-flung places as Cyprus, Chile, France and Spain.
Paul’s origins are somewhat different. He grew up in Johannesburg and there was certainly no culture of wine in his part-Polish upbringing. His introduction to alcohol was brewing his own beer. Although he migrated down to Stellenbosch University, he found it too sterile and scientific and decided to take his future into his own hands. He worked harvests in northern Italy and at a co-operative in Beziers before taking his chances and flying to Australia.
Rebecca picked him up, hitch-hiking in the Upper Hunter, whilst she was working the harvest at McWilliams. They worked a harvest in the Barossa, before heading to the Cape. After a brief stint with Tyrell Myburgh at Joostenberg, they landed the Tulbagh gig after the departure of Callie Louw.
Whilst they didn’t inherit Callie’s famous ‘worm farm’, they have continued and built on the good work that preceded both him and the Mullineux’s. Fable Mountain Vineyards is in good hands.
New era, new label, new wines…
It would be fair to say that there has been something of a four year hiatus with a couple of name and brand changes in between, but one thing has remained constant during this period; the dedication and attention to the vineyards and the quality of the wines themselves. What is about to be released and what is still to come are best described as amazing.
It was the intention from the very beginning to buy in white grapes from the Swartland rather than to plant them on the farm. Why plant Chenin when there is a massive resource of old vines within a relatively short distance? Tulbagh Mountain vineyards, along with a select band of like-minded producers, helped to create what is now increasingly being identified as South Africa’s signature wine – the ‘Cape White Blend’. Inevitably built on Chenin Blanc at its core, the style has evolved to incorporate a host of other varieties associated with the Mediterranean. This includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier and, more recently, Marsanne.
The Fable Mountain Vineyards Jackal Bird – after the local Jackal Buzzards which perch on the strategically-placed raptor posts and help to dissuade the populations of Starlings and White Eyes from pecking at the ripening fruit – comes from grapes purchased widely around the Cape: Chenin from the Swartland, Chardonnay from Elgin and Stellenbosch, Viognier from the Voor Paardeberg and Grenache Blanc from as far away as the Karoo. Raised in both barrel and concrete eggs, the wine goes partly through malo-lactic fermentation.
The 2012 vintage, with which we launch in the UK, was awarded a ‘Five Star’ rating in the Platter Guide.
The Night Sky 2011 is based on 60% Syrah, blended with 25% Mourvèdre and 15% (of bought in) Grenache, a precursor to when the farms own plantings of the variety come into fruition with the 2015 vintage. Whilst not an estate (or certified organic) wine, it speaks clearly from where it comes, with a real sense of the shale and graphite notes that one has come to expect from wines grown on the farm. There is a real freshness and focus here.
The most impressive wine, however, is the estate grown Syrah 2011 with which we launch. It’s another Platter ‘Five Star’ wine, and demonstrates the same freshness and focus as the Night Sky, but with an even greater sense of minerality to the finish. It tastes expensive and yes, it is expensive. And the 2012 (tasted as a barrel sample) is even better…
Website : www.fablewines.com
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