Tim James: The moderate success of Tulbagh
By Tim James, 22 May 2023
I confess I don’t think all that often about WO Tulbagh. But the idea of Dewald Heyns leaving Saronsberg, so soon after Pierre Wahl left Rijks – well it’s a bit like another Tulbagh earthquake. Both men seemed to be fixtures, and were certainly crucial in what seemed to be a growing reputation of this small wine district. Or had once seemed to be a growing reputation. What, I’ve been wondering, happened to stall the Tulbagh revolution, which, a few decades back seemed quite similar to theSwartland one in some ways.
Like the Swartland, an established but largely lacklustre region showing signs of entering a period of quality revival as the millennium got under way, Tulbagh looked as if it might shift its reputation as a producer of mostly dull, cheap white wines. The old Krone family estate of Twee Jonge Gezellen was the only producer of a distinctive wine – with Krone Borealis sparkling amongst its ordinary whites. The other well-known Tulbagh wine, I suppose, was the notorious Theuniskraal (so-called) Riesling. Tiny Lemberg, incidentally, was at a very low ebb back then. And of course, there was the famous (well, sort of) Paddagang, a tourist destination, its wines named and packaged with charm and cheerful vulgarity: Paddarotti, Paddajolyt, Paddadundee … and Paddaspring, which had the rare distintinction of not attaining even a half-star in Platter. Sadly, the family of frogs, much diminished, now shelter in the pond of grower-owned Tulbagh Winery.
But “foreign” capital had started something more exciting in Tulbagh as the post-1994 Cape wine revolution gained some momentum. Businessman Neville Dorrington bought virgin land for a hotel and a wine estate and started planting a wide range of varieties, including black grapes. From the maiden vintage of 2000, Rijks Private Cellar wines started winning awards and bringing a degree of fame to Tulbagh. Then winemaker Charl du Plessis was (presumably) poached by the Swartland’s important new winery, Spice Route (which had just lost Eben Sadie, off to do his own thing), and Pierre Wahl arrived.
As did another businessman, Nick van Huyssteen from Pretoria, who founded the Saronsberg estate. Dewaldt Heyns’s first wine there was a 2004 sauvignon blanc, but he went on to join Rijks (as it came to be called, simply, after a few naming and marketing zig-zags), in becoming particularly well known for big, showy, muscular reds. While I didn’t much want to drink them, I always admired the beautifully balanced Saronsberg Shiraz, which somehow managed to tuck some gracefulness into all that ripe power, partly because Dewaldt was a master of oaking. Rijks came to specialise in pinotage and chenin, abandoning the wide range of earlier years, and did it very well. Wahl and Heyns were excellent winemakers – but both cellars are firmly established and there’s no reason to expect anything but continuity now that they’ve gone.
Tulbagh, despite these two exemplary wineries, never developed much further, or became widely exciting, as the Swartland was to. Of course, there wasn’t quite the Swartland’s treasure-store of old-vine chenin as a basis, but I think there’s more to the failure (if that’s what it is, despite the real success of those wineries themselves) than that. Firstly, the Tulbagh wines made were essentially conservative, not the internationally significant groundbreakers that started emerging from the Swartland, with Eben Sadie at its Paardeberg core – accompanied by some good marketing based on charisma and winemaking brilliance. Secondly, the Tulbagh wineries were established by cautious businessmen, not by lean and hungry young winemakers eager to set the world on fire by taking and developing the Cape wine revolution. That must make for a difference.
A third new winery established around the same time could have done something more, perhaps, but things didn’t long go well for Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards. Promisingly planted on virgin soil on the cooler slopes of the Witzenberg, TMV was also owned by big money (coming this time from the UK). But its winemaker, youthful Chris Mullineux (not long after joined by wife-to-be Andrea), was aligned to Sadie and the Swartland developments, and the owners, ambitious and wine-sophisticated, gave him rein – including in the vineyards, which had always been intended to be fully organic. I remember visiting TMV in the early years, and it was, for example, the first time I’d seen straw spread around vines as an expensive but effective mulch.
At first, a lot of the success came from bought-in grapes for the TMV range, notably ex-Swartland, no doubt helping to pull Chris and Andrea in that direction, and to take their solera-made chenin straw wine idea with them when they succumbed. New winemakers were followed by a new owner, which was a good thing as there’d latterly been a lack of investment. The American Charles Banks (former part-owner of the California cult winery Screaming Eagle) and his Terroir Capital spent grandly on the vineyards and winery. TMV’s name was changed to Fable, and some horrible Afro-kitsch names and labels were dreamt up by some PR company. Fortunately, they didn’t last long – but nor did Banks as owner, as he went to jail in America for fraud in 2017. After which it was pretty much a holding operation for new American owners. But recently a new turn came, with the property bought by a local consortium. The name, happily, has reverted to Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards. I have a bottle of the syrah made under that name and will tell of it and this new chapter soon.
As for Tulbagh, it’s doing just fine, though still not looking likely to kindle a great blaze in South African wine. Lemberg has long since pulled itself together as a notably good winery (though it’s a good few years since I visited, or even tasted the wines). There’s a small handful of other respectable producers, about which I confess I know even less – no doubt my fault. Perhaps the area’s biggest player is now wine company Vinimark, since it bought the Twee Jonge Gezellen estate and its brands in a forced sale some years ago. Very substantial vineyard and winery investment followed. The Krone range of cap classiques is now both large and ambitious, and the Twee Jongegezellen brand has returned with a range of still wines. Another story worth telling in detail sometime.
And, just to remind you that we’re still subject to some bizarre dispositions by the Wine and Spirit Board, note that Tulbagh, about as inland an area as Western Cape winegrowing gets, remains in the Coastal Region.
- 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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