WINE: Whiff of peril as the benchmark

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BY MICHAEL FRIDJHON

ANDREA and Chris Mullineux have enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of Cape wine.Wine+glass+XXX

Twelve years ago, while still completing his undergraduate studies, Chris began working at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, planting the vines and establishing the winery. He was joined there by Andrea and together they made the property’s first vintages. When the property was sold in 2008, the Mullineuxs set up their own small cellar in Riebeek-Kasteel’s Kloof Street. Six years later, it was the Platter Guide’s Winery of the Year, with four five-star wines in the 2014 edition to go with the seven five-star awards gained from their previous submissions.

The top end of the wine market is always a precarious place. No matter how good you are, everyone is out to get you. For a start, you set the benchmark for others to outperform. Twenty years ago, Gyles Webb and Thelema dominated the awards. Without any decline in the standard of what was on offer (and, in fact, with constant — though not always hugely visible — improvement), Thelema has faded from the front-of-mind space it enjoyed in the late 1990s. The punters wanted another hero.

Some of this is about fashion, about the perceived value of novelty over consistent performance. It does not matter that the 2010 Cabernet (the current release) is delicious and accessible, or that the Rabelais blend gets better and better. Both the 2009 and 2010 added a Platter five star to the cellar’s accolades.

So here we have the Mullineuxs in the same high-risk space — every wine good in its own right, and some cuvées extraordinary by any standard.

Their business model has some built-in safety features: a relatively new partner (Analjit Singh, who brought his Franschhoek properties into the equation) to provide financial stability, low enough volumes to ensure the cellar is not enslaved to the commerce of wine. This balance is crucial — especially with overwhelming demand and limited vineyard ownership (much of the top fruit is contracted, though the winery team often manages the viticulture). Without this independence, it’s often impossible for producers to resist the temptation to release the high priced cuvées even when the fruit isn’t good enough to make the cut.

The Mullineuxs are conscious of these dangers. Their Kloof Street range is designed to provide value wines for those of the cellar’s followers who also want good everyday drinking. At R80 for the white and R90 for the red, they are arguably underpriced. They prefer it this way — they don’t want them to become the statement of their aesthetic vision, or a distraction from their primary objective, which is a focus on site-specificity. In a way, this forces them to make all the components of the more premium Mullineux range work for the wines and for the business.

Essentially, here the cellar offers a generic Swartland syrah (R240) and a blended white (R190). There’s far less of these Mullineux-branded wines than the Kloof Street offering, but significantly more than the single site wines (syrah and chenin). Purists may want to chase down the Schist or Granite Syrah — of which typically 100 cases of each are produced each year, and which sell for about R675 per bottle.

For my money, however, the blends — which optimise the best features from these often wildly diverse locations — make for a better drink. I can’t think of many Northern Rhone syrahs to match the 2012 Mullineux that’s just been released. Certainly not at less than three times the price.

 

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