Tim James: A visit to Tulbagh – part one

By , 12 June 2023

The Witzenberg Mountains as seen from Tulbagh property Lemberg.

I hadn’t intended to cross Bain’s Kloof Pass when I left Cape Town for Tulbagh, but I did drive via Wellington and somehow my car nosed its way through the rain to the pass. It was raining (still!) and misty so there was little of the view to be seen, and the leopards mentioned on warning road signs were presumably in their caves or whatever, and the baboons too. The pass is in excellent condition after what was apparently a lengthy revamp – fortunately with deep culverts, as the mountainside was virtually a continuous waterfall. When the mist cleared after I started the descent, the Breede River below was turbulent and breaking its banks, and it was all rather magnificent.

But a touch scary for a lone traveller, and I was pleased as well as exhilarated to reach Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, between the towns of Wolseley and Tulbagh. Winemaker there, Francois Haasbroek, had made up a splendid fire in the guesthouse there and put out an array of glasses and bottles.

My visit was partly prompted by my having written recently about some aspects of Tulbagh and realised that I need to get a bit more up-to-date in the area’s wines. Francois, who hasn’t been at TMV long, felt a rather similar need to get to know more about the wines, and managed to round up a few examples for us (and arranged a remarkable visit to Krone/Twee Jonge Gezellen the following day – to be reported on later, as with the story of what’s happening at TMV itself).

First up were the wines from Oude Compagnies Post – made for the past half decade by Dirk Swanepoel, who took over the family project from his father, and repackaged under the Swanepoel name. This is a useful marker of change, as the wine are much improved. I didn’t much care for the two whites, both made from black grapes. There’s a gold-coloured Cap Classique 2020 from grenache (a challenging, oxidation-prone variety for this style), with pleasant fruit character, nicely dry, but a little too developed. At R400 ex-farm, not exactly a good buy. The White Pinotage 2020 (R295), its colour fully stripped out,  offered a little fragrance but very little depth of flavour, thanks to the lack of skin contact. The SMG (shiraz, mourvèdre, grenache) Rosé 2021 (R145) was aromatic and more flavourful, properly dry, but also a touch oxidative.

The Swanepoel red wines are much more attractive, made in the fairly robust style that Tulbagh valley conditions encourage, with plenty of structure but the power very well controlled. I really enjoyed them all. They had in common an interesting and appealing but understated note of freshly tilled earth – a touch rustic in the best sense – along with more varietal aromatics. The Grenache 2020 is weightier than most local versions of the grape, balanced and succulent, with room for useful development. I do wonder if perhaps the density of these reds resulted from juice being bled off to make the less satisfactory whites. SMG 2021 is perhaps for easier, earlier drinking, though well structured; vibrant and with forward fruit. The Pinotage 2021 repeats the story of a firmly forceful but well balanced and carefully considered wine. There’s no sweet jamminess here, no obvious oak (like the Grenache it was in barrel 18 months; the other reds had 24). The biggest and ripely fruitiest of these reds, and with a definite sweet note which helps reveal that the others are properly dry, is the Shiraz 2019 – closer to the Rijk’s model of winemaking, perhaps. All of them sell for R225–R250. That’s not cheap, but these days not really expensive. And they come warmly recommended.

Waverley Hills, that rare thing in the Cape – a certified organic farm, seems to be in a difficult phase, though I’m unsure exactly what is happening. They gave us four of their current releases, which are not very youthful. Nor particularly exciting, I fear. The Chardonnay 2019 is pleasant enough, but with little fruit depth and not worth R219. Grenache 2018 was obviously made in a fruity, early-drinking style but is now rather tired. A little pricier at about R215, the Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2016 is fresher, and drinking nicely enough now. Of some theoretical interest is the Marselan 2020, out of stock it seems, having sold for close on R500. This grape is a 1960s crossing of cabernet sauvignon and grenache, developed for the Langedoc. I wonder why, on the basis of this wine, the first of the variety to be planted and made in the Cape. The aromas are fruitily attractive, but there’s a sour-sweet, green-tinged character to the rather undefined palate. To be fair, it had a few good scores at release, so perhaps I’m missing something, or the few years have been unkind.

The star of this little WO Tulbagh tasting was probably Lemberg, especially the whites in the selection we tasted. Lemberg was the first in the Cape to plant hárslevelű, and it is still very rare here. The naturally fermented varietal bottling has a bit of skin contact and some carbonic maceration, leading to a delicious, finely balanced, dry and fascinating 2020, with a welcome austere element to its restraint. It sells for about R250 per bottle. Less pricey is Lady 2021, which adds voignier and touches of sauvignon and chenin to the hárslevelű, making it that bit richer, rounder, softer and generally easier, though still interesting. These are beautifully polished wines, elegant and fine.

We also sampled the Pinot Noir 2021 (about R200), like the whites with only older oak. It’s a serious, weighty wine, still rather young. Plenty of fruit depth tucked away, and a tannic edge, but not a lot of charm. Spencer 2018 is from pinotage, with just a little syrah. At 13.5% alcohol, it’s apparently lighter and less oaky than previous vintages, and a very effective example of a “mid-way” approach to the grape – without the extraction, oak and sweet ripe power of the traditional approach or the ultra-light prettiness and near-triviality of some of the new-wave examples. A suave and elegant wine.

My foray into Tulbagh was, happily, exceeding expectations.

  • 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.


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