Tim James: A visit to Tulbagh – part two
By Christian Eedes, 19 June 2023
It’s a fine and interesting thing to witness the birth of a new wine, even when any surprise is tempered by some knowledge of the DNA of both parents – winemaker and terroir. The former in the present case is Francois Haasbroek, whose Blackwater range is one of the most consistent and affordable delights of Cape wine, an always totally drinkable yet serious pleasure. The terroir, which Francois would agree must be the senior determining contributor to the character of the offspring, is Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards.
TMV was founded around the turn of the century, since when it has had two names (from 2010 it was named Fable, as easier for Americans to pronounce), four owners, and five winemakers (including two who have since achieved significant fame elsewhere: Chris Mullineux and Callie Louw). That’s not a recipe for success and we must hope that things will now settle down; vineyard manager Werner Wessels knows the property well, which is useful. The farm is a large (180 ha) and beautiful one, mostly pretty wild, with vines on the lowest slopes of the Witzenberg, between the towns of Tulbagh and Wolsely. The present owners also got a very useful discount on the value of the 28-odd hectares of expensively established vineyards – the previous owners, who had taken over the property from the disgraced Charles Banks, were really only keen on the Mulderbosch part of their purchase.
Those new owners are locals (the first had been British, the next two American), a consortium of businesspeople from the north of the country, who had been looking for a Western Cape farm, not necessarily a wine estate. Francois Haasbroek has rented the whole of the well-resourced TMV cellar for his own winemaking, and has come to an agreement with the owners to establish a new wine for them there, perhaps two, under the older name. They seem to be not excessively rushed about it, but would no doubt like the estate to stop losing money as soon as possible.
And so to the interesting birth of the new wine, which is of course a longish process rather than an event, so I’ll drop the metaphor. There are just three grapes on the estate to work with: syrah, grenache and mourvèdre, which inevitably suggests the essence of the estate blend which Francois is concentrating on – if there is to be a pure syrah, that will emerge in time. Both styles have been made in the past off the estate, of course: a Syrah, with Night Sky and second-label Raptor Post Red as the blends. I tasted the 2018s of the first two with Francois, and they were pretty good wines, especially the perfumed Syrah; I found the Night Sky a touch too chunky and lacking real harmony.
So Francois does have plenty to relate to in land and precedent (he points out, for example, that it has proved virtually impossible to make bold and powerful wines off TMV), but his wines are emphatically going to be new, based on his aestethic and his experience and understanding of what the farm offers. He is, he says, still assessing the vineyards. We tasted some samples of 2023 syrah, all around 13% alcohol, from single vineyards among the schist and shale soils, with varying aspects and vine-training methods. All offered different expressions of syrah, with vibrancy, structure, and depth of fruit among the variables.
And while such terroir expressiveness is vital, and “minimal” winemaking is to be taken for granted (both these lessons drummed into us with regard to every new-wave wine), even low-intervention winemaking inevitably takes different paths. Thus, we also tasted two 2023 syrahs from the same block and racked from the same fermentation tank. One went into an older 300-litre oak barrel: it offered length of flavour, purity of floral-fragrant fruit. The other went into concrete and, though those other characters were there, it stressed something different, rather brooding, even mysterious. That’s after a few months. Will the differences deepen or even themselves out?
And that’s just the syrah. So, the number of permutations, with two other varieties, varying sites and varying basic winemaking choices, is great, and even to make significant progress in working out what is wanted (what is best, let’s say) will take time, and experimentation in the cellar. It was gratifying to see Francois’s eagerness to move ahead, and his ambition. And it may be fanciful, but I did wonder if some of his particular elegance and lightness of touch wasn’t already showing through…
The 2023 blend is likely to be 80–90% syrah, says Francois. But there is already a 2022 Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards estate blend, coming onto the shelves in a few months, from 72% syrah plus 14% each of grenache and mourvèdre. Some stems were included – about 15% overall; the wine was matured in foudre and 500-litre barrels, for about 13 months. It’s been bottled, and is awaiting a label. I didn’t see what they’re working on, but Francois says it will feature the large pine tree which stands on a high slope above the vines and serves as a kind of focus of the farm’s energy (shown on a rainy day in the photograph above). The cost should be somewhere in the mid-R200s.
For a “first attempt”, the wine is impressive, pure-fruited and drinking well already, though firmly structured. There’s undoubted elegance, but I suspect, from the 2023 samples that I tasted, that the 2023 will have both more concentration and more vibrancy. But very satisfactory as the first step in what Francois calls “an adventure that is going to take time to work out”.
Read A visit to Tulbagh – part one here.
- 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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