Tim James: Ten years of Mullineux Syrah

By , 6 November 2019

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10

Andrea and Chris Mullineux.

Andrea and Chris Mullineux have been greatly significant in the reputation of the Swartland for producing first-class syrah. Chris had been making a Swartland Syrah for Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (now Fable) since 2004, and it remained that winery’s best wine until he (by then with Andrea as assistant winemaker, not to mention wife) left in 2007 to establish an own label – understandably based in the Swartland. It was inevitable that syrah would be integral to Mullineux Family Wines from the start, along with a white blend and a straw wine. (It was to be joined, of course, in 2010 by the first two of their single-soil syrahs – alongside Porseleinberg establishing an important new point: that an essentially unblended Swartland syrah was not only viable but could soar high in terms of quality.)

They moved to a modest house in Riebeek-Kasteel and earned a living in those early years primarily by travelling to Stellenbosch to make wine for Reyneke – which is where their own two first vintages were made. After that, they established their own winery in Riebeek town, itself an important move in the history of the modern Swartland, as the new-wave focus till then had been almost solely on the Paardeberg.

Mullineux Syrah 2008 – 2017.

I remember that maiden Mullineux Syrah 2008 (I still have a bottle of it) being released much earlier than would have been ideal – because Chris and Andrea needed the money to pay for the bottling of the next vintage. Things are somewhat more financially easy these days: last week they held a vertical tasting of the first ten vintages of Mullineux Syrah (including the release of the 2017, after a leisurely 30-odd months maturation) in the newish cellar of the beautiful Roundstone farm on the slopes of the Riebeekberg, owned by their Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines partnership.

The Syrah has always been a blend of grapes off different soils: granite, schist and iron, the proportions varying in response to vintage conditions – the easier 2010 and 2015 vintages the only ones where their contribution was equal. Modest oaking (the barrels getting larger over the years); always at least some whole-bunch fermentation (100% for the first time in the 2013 – more perfumed and fresh than its predecessors at this vertical tasting); always basically naturally made. Improvements in farming, thanks to the work of Rosa Kruger since 2012, and Chris now being able – Andrea ruling the cellar – to spend more time in the vineyards of the farmers they work with in sourcing most of their grapes (from up to seven vineyards, with the four core ones they’ve always used).

The style of Mullineux has been fairly consistent, aiming at a degree of ripe, rich luxuriance as well as intensity, but with those firm but fine, melting Swartland tannins a vital presence, alongside the fresh brightness given above all by the granite component of their wines. Yet I did sense some significant variation in the balance of these components over the years – it’s perhaps still too early to ascribe a fixed aesthetic that’s independent of vintage. Generally, for example, I notice a smoothening, a greater plushness and refined softness of texture coming in with 2014 (a charming, ingratiating wine, but perhaps my least favourite of the line-up). And yet 2016, the first of the stressful “drought years” is one of the freshest and most elegant of them all, though still very youthful, with more of the fine-grained tannin that characterises all these wines to some degree. Along with 2013, another of my favourite vintages, it has an alcohol level close to 13%, the lowest of the ten wines.

The maiden 2008 is still drinking very well, with lingering fruit but all the components already harmonised by development in bottle. There’s a touch of sweetness especially on these early wines (the first three vintages), partly thanks to the alcohol, I suppose (the 2008 declares 14.5%, the next two 14%, after which 13.5% is commonest); but I also notice that the residual sugar level throughout remains resolutely above two grams per litre. The first three vintages I’d say are certainly ready for drinking (but there’s certainly no hurry to do so); it was only from 2011 onwards that I felt confident that the wines would gain by further maturation.

Along with the especially elegant 2013 and 2016, another favourite vintage of mine was the 2012: pervasive, chalky tannins, a particularly fine intensity, and in effect a drier finish. The wine from the famous 2015 vintage, incidentally, was very pleasing, almost too easy-going in its approachable charm – but perhaps there are hidden depths that will become more obvious in time.

And the newly released 2017? I had tasted it first in August, alongside the three single-terroir 2017s, and noted then that it showed aspects of all three: “lightly aromatic, with some ripe meaty notes; more approachable than the others, succulent and sweet-fruited, though with a refined, beautifully integrated structure and a firmly dry finish. I admired it even more than other recent vintages, I think.” I felt the admiration again this time but was reminded that I enjoyed the comparatively and anomalously light 2016 more. Interestingly, the undoubtedly ripe, hot-vintage 2017 is the first since 2008 to declare 14.5% alcohol, but that didn’t disturb me, so deft is the balance. Mullineux Syrah is not the most characterful of modern Cape syrahs, but it is certainly in the top league and, at about R350 (I suppose) not excessively priced, as things go these days.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

Comments

10 comment(s)

  • Kevin R10 November 2019

    Had the Mullineux Syrah 2015 last night. Was impressive.

  • Andrew6 November 2019

    The shiraz that intrigues me is Porseleinberg and how that will develop. After a vertical tasting last year, my feeling is that it has a 10+ year maturation potential and they will integrate and soften.

    • Matt A7 November 2019

      Hi Andrew, this is one of my favourite SA wines, full stop. I had a bottle of 2013 last year and it was on my top 5 list for the year. I opened another bottle last month although it was still youthful in terms of tannin and grip etc it had no fruit or any of its trademark florals. I had it open for a day or two and nothing really developed. It could just be a closure / VA issue. I hope so. I will open another in the next six month or so to check. I do also keep track of where I purchased the wine – easy when the vendor is printed ion the back label in the case of this wine 😉 I will make the next bottle is from somewhere else.

  • Hennie Taljaard6 November 2019

    71 Bertrams, 86 Zonnebloem, 94 Stellenzicht, 95 Rust en Vrede some of the best wines I ever tasted. all shiraz/syrah.

    • Matt A7 November 2019

      Hi Hennie,

      I think you are probably one of the best placed to comment on older SA wines given your exposure. Do you know what those older shirazes would have been like in their youth – more aligned with modern Stellenbosch or low alcohol Swartland? Just interested to know. I have certainly had one or two decent older SA shirazes from the 70’s and 80’s but my exposure is pretty limited. They were decent but I would be hard placed to tell them apart form an older cab or anything else from that period. Although I must admit I have had one or two older blends that I certainly think benefitted from having a portion of shiraz rather than just a single variety.

      I am a big fan of SA shiraz/syrah but I have to admit I do wonder at the ageing potential sometimes. It may just be down to personal taste though : as I open more and more +7 year bottles I get the feeling I preferred them younger, and often it is hard to tell if it has just evolved into something you are not really keen on anymore or if the wine has actually passed its peak. Often find myself wanting to be able to sense check with a second opinion.

    • Kevin R7 November 2019

      @Hennie, not saying all can’t go the distance – but less than I’d like.

  • Ashley Westaway6 November 2019

    Thanks Tim. Your review confirms a tentative conclusion that I’ve reached over recent years, that is that SA Shiraz/ Syrah seldom benefits from cellaring beyond a decade. (You suggest that the first 3 vintages of Mullineux are ready for drinking.) As somone who buys to cellar, this limitation raises serious qestion-marks over buying Shiraz for this purpose. In fact, after having bought Boekenoutskloof for 16 vintages, I’ve now decided to stop. The 2001s, 2002s, etc in my cellar have disappointed over the past 24 months. So I’m rather doubling up on more affordable Shirazes such as the under-rated Thelema, knowing that I’ll enjoy them immensely after 10 years’ maturation.

    • Kevin R6 November 2019

      @Ashley, completely agree with you on RSA shiraz cellaring.

      Earlier this year did a blind tasting for some mates between Eagles’ Nest Shiraz, Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah, Newton Johnson Family Pinot and Chamonix Troika – the two shirazes had gone backwards while the Pinot and Bordeaux were streaks ahead and with more years in them.
      Nothing against our shiraz – just don’t see much value in cellaring long term.

    • MattA6 November 2019

      Interesting, this is something I have also started to realise. While most decent SA Syrahs will improve for 5-7 years, beyond that (perhaps unless you wait another 5 year which I am not really willing to risk) they do seem to start going backwards. They seem to peak between 2 to 5 years. I have a stash of older syrah’s I keep opening in the hope that the last bottle was the just the odd one out but it seems to be a trend. On the other hand, even modest SA Cabernets are starting to impress at 7 to 10 years.

      PS. I did really enjoy a 2011 Mullineux last month, seems to have come back into the zone. And the 2013 Schist was singing.

  • Kevin R6 November 2019

    My hope for this wine is that it leans away from being hedonistic/accessible/easy-going ; some of those early vintages were really impressive.

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