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Two Cape Crusaders: Alheit & Mullineux
BY NEAL MARTIN | JUNE 11, 2019
The reinvention of South Africa’s wine industry has been one of the most remarkable and perhaps unexpected phenomena of the last 20 years. Spearheading that change has been a cluster of visionaries who rewrote, and continue to rewrite, the Capelands’ rulebook. One cannot overstate the impact of the Swartland region, a hotbed of talent where winemakers aspired to produce higher-quality and more soulful, low-intervention/terroir-specific wines with a South African identity. The corollary has been a different mind-set among the new generation of winemakers. Stephen Tanzer has already profiled the most famous and influential, Eben Sadie, with a vertical of Columella (at some point in the future, I intend to follow this up with a look at Sadie’s Old Vine Series.) This article spotlights two more acclaimed, cutting-edge winemakers whose journeys I have followed from their earliest days: Chris Alheit of Alheit Family Wines, and Chris Mullineux, who, together with his wife Andrea, runs Mullineux & Leeu.
Chris Alheit of Alheit Family Wines in London
Alheit Family Wines: Cartology 2011-2016
Last summer, Chris Alheit flew to London to tutor the first complete vertical of Cartology for the Masters of Wine students plus one stowaway - me. I first met Alheit before he had even released his maiden 2011 Cartology, when he was sharing a facility with partners-in-crime John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters and Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum and now Gabriëlskloof. I vaguely remember tasting the 2011 from barrel and recognizing both a promising debut and a contemplative, principled winemaker who could go far. It was over lunch during the biannual Cape Show that I was blown away by the finished wine, which put Alheit on the map. I raved accordingly. Almost overnight, Alheit became a star and, like Eben Sadie, came to be seen as part of the new generation of winemakers pushing the boundaries of what South African wine could be.
In front of a packed room, Alheit was in reflective but garrulous mood as he recounted his journey into wine, one that meandered but nevertheless led to one destination. He highlighted the challenges for a young person starting off in the industry, the sweat and the tears that I once witnessed myself when Alheit arrived late for a tasting of new releases. Red-faced and covered in sweat, he collapsed into a chair, apologizing for his tardiness and explaining that to pick his vines in Skurfberg in the morning, he had to jump in his 4x4 at 1:30am every day. He had just completed an 18-hour shift, and it would be the same throughout harvest.
So how did it all come about?
“I was studying medicine. I was a poor student and I soon realized that it was unlikely I would graduate. I made friends with others studying winemaking and changed my course. That’s when I met my wife Suzanne, who was also studying winemaking, and we travelled around Western Australia and California together. We lived on a farm just outside Stellenbosch, but within two vintages we became concerned that maybe that was all there was to life. Then I tasted some of Eben Sadie’s wines and that opened our eyes. We felt a longing to go to Europe, and so [leaving Stellenbosch] I did a vintage in Bordeaux, where I tasted some old vintages. That was really my first immersion in French wine. Then I worked in Clare Valley, and then came back to Europe. Summer 2010 was when our ideas “clarified,” when we went to Santorini and stayed on the coast, rented a scooter and drove around the country drinking wine. We were amazed how fresh and vibrant the wines could be in such a hot climate. Then we also went to Calce and spent a day tasting at Domaine Gauby and Domaine Matassa, and finally finished in the Mosel. The common feature with these wines is authenticity. That idea turned us on.”
“We knew we wanted to start our own business with a South African identity. We have cultivated grapes since the 1600s, so we have heritage in the Cape. We knew the wine needed to be well received, which is where the idea for Cartology came from. We didn’t have much of a budget. Friends had bought a barn and we were given a chance to make wine in Hemelrand. Poverty is quite humbling, but it can be a healthy thing. We experienced that for quite a while. We ate a lot of lentils and oats. Everything we had went into the winemaking. The stakes were quite high.”
“We started hunting down old-vine Chenin Blanc around Stellenbosch. We also got to know [famed old-vine viticulturist/guru] Rosa Kruger in the early days of her work. We were in the right place at the right time. We got a phone call from Rosa in mid-December and she told me about the Skurfberg vineyard, which I knew all about. She told me that Eben [Sadie] and the Ruperts [of Anthonij Ruperts Wines] had more grapes than they needed and, well, that’s how it started. Doors started to open. It was just the two of us at the time, with a dodgy sorting table and a small press. We were freezing plastic Coke bottles to try and cool the wines. We made 22 barrels of the 2011.”
One has the impression that from his rapturously received maiden vintage, Chris Alheit has never looked back, but the road has been rocky at times. He continued by explaining the varieties that he works with and the modus operandi.
“The core vineyard has remained stable since the beginning. We include Sémillon because we are not trying to create a Chenin Blanc but a heritage wine. Wines in the past would include all varieties of grapes. Sémillon changes how the wine feels. It has much more depth than Chenin. When I worked at [famous Constantia restaurant] La Colombe in 2010, I used to blend glasses out the back when it was quiet. I’m not obsessed about picking early. Picking too early or too late is the same crime. The two varieties are vinified separately.”
“You can’t talk about terroir if you are manipulating your grapes. We have always made natural wine, but we never communicate that. You cannot have natural wine that is undrinkable. The grapes are farmed organically using no SO2 at the crusher and minimal SO2 before bottling. We whole-cluster-press with no enzymes, rack and return the solids, leave the heavy stuff at the bottom and then fill the barrels. I like solids in the fermentation. And then we step back. In seven vintages we have only had two batches that went south. We control the temperature of fermentation but keep it not too cool, just enough to imitate cool nights, as we’re dependent on the natural microflora. Sulfuring tends to place a selection pressure on the microflora and take away the ability of the juice to absorb oxygen and develop into must. For Cartology the alcohol levels are around 14° and residual less than 3gm/l.”
I will leave it to the tasting notes to express my high opinion of Cartology from the 2011 vintage. The vertical evinces both consistency and aging ability; the only vintage that perhaps does not quite meet expectations is the 2013, a year where Alheit admitted that he could have done better. He also commented with respect to the 2014: “The vintage was huge. Eighty-two barrels of high-quality wine. That was enough to sell some barrels to a friend. But it put a lot of pressure on the winery.” He also described the 2015 Cartology as a ”robust” wine and continued: “Two thousand and fifteen was heralded as an amazing vintage, although I think 2017 is better. It took everyone by surprise since it was the earliest that the harvest had begun. I remember being on the beach on holiday when the grapes suddenly galloped toward full maturity. Nobody expected the vintage to arrive so early and we picked as quickly as we could. It was the first vintage where I had a couple of interns to help me.”
Alheit has gradually expanded his range to include other cuvées, all with the same philosophy toward viticulture and vinification. “We started with Radio Lazarus in 2012. It was our first single-vineyard project. It’s an inaccessible vineyard planted in 1978 that we rented from the owner so that we could farm it ourselves. In 2015 we included the Stadius vineyard, which was planted in 1971. It’s not fermented in old barrels [like Cartology] but 650-liter clay pots fired at 1,200°C. Unfortunately, the vineyard didn’t make it through the drought in 2018. That year produced just one demijohn. We work with two viticulturists and they reckon if we pruned it, we might get a ton of fruit.” Basically, with so little return on all the intense hard work of tending this vineyard, it looks as if the radio will be switched off. Fortunately, there are others, including Nautical Dawn, Fire By Night and Huilkrans and La Colline. Each of their 2017s was reviewed in last year’s South Africa report.
“If a vineyard has a distinct personality, then it doesn’t help to mellow it out,” Alheit averred. “It should be amplified. Nautical Dawn is perhaps more a crowd-pleaser. Fire by Night, Huilkrans and Magnetic North Mountain Makstok all come from duplex soils, that is to say, a sand horizon that changes into clay with good water retention.” Alheit confessed that he is drawn to ungrafted vines, such as those that form his Magnetic North. He also discussed his attraction to cement eggs for part of the maturation. Initially he was skeptical, but he changed his mind after a tasting at Glen Carlou, and now he has five cement eggs installed at his winery. He uses Stockinger foudres for his brand Flotsam & Jetsam.
It will be fascinating to see where Chris Alheit goes from here. In some ways, he is an old head on young shoulders, seemingly with a lifetime’s winemaking behind rather than in front of him. He is blessed and burdened with a restlessness that keeps him moving forward and seeking the next challenge. In what turned out to be an almost 90-minute soliloquy, he explained how he sees this moment as one where he needs to turn a new page. “I feel like we’re changing from chapter one to chapter two. Now is a useful point to look back at where we came from. In the first couple of years you always feel trepidation and nervousness, but that has since faded away. Now I understand the vineyards and what we’re trying to do. Chapter two will be defined by planting. In 2015 we planted Riesling near the town of Ceres up in the mountains on a south-facing schist soil, around 7,000 vines in total.”
The next chapter should be an exciting one for Alheit. Expect me to follow him all the way. You should too.
Chris and Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu
Mullineux Old Vine White: 2008-2016
Chris and Andrea Mullineux are Mr. and Mrs. South Africa 2.0, the dynamic and seemingly indefatigable couple who fell in love and helped spearhead the Swartland revolution that rippled out across the rest of the Capelands, sweeping up young winemakers like Chris Alheit in their wake. Alongside their friends Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Callie Lowe et al., they played and continue to play a key role in changing prejudices and misconceptions about South African wine, mine included. I have been following their journey since they both worked at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards before establishing Mullineux Family Wines in 2007. (The winery was renamed Mullineux & Leeu with the investment of Indian entrepreneur Analjit Singh and concomitant expansion into Franschhoek.) Since 2012, they have worked with Rosa Kruger, who has matched their talent with precious old vines.
I have told their story and covered their wines many times. This report focuses on one of their most important cuvées, the Mullineux Old Vine White Blend. Chris Mullineux came to the UK to tutor a vertical back to the first vintage. Having tasted them all just after bottling over the years, I was intrigued to find out how they have aged. Mullineux offered plenty of insight into his philosophy toward how they approach wines.
“The vineyard is 70 years old now. Even the Clairette Blanche is in its 50s,” he began. “For me, winemaking is trying to be as transparent as possible. López de Heredia was one of our inspirations. We pick as early as we can but when the grapes are ripe. The Old Vine White Blend is whole-bunch-pressed, as if making a base wine for Champagne, just adding a little sulfur. Then there’s a brief settling overnight, and then it’s racked into barrel. The early vintages were raised in 225-liter barrels with 10% new oak, but now we use 500- and 2,000-liter barrels. We encourage the malolactic to go through, as we don’t have a lot of malic acid in Swartland and it makes the wine more stable. There is usually around 1gm/L so it doesn’t really change the style of the wine. The only vintage that didn’t go through complete malolactic was the 2012. The White Blend spends 11 months in oak. We weren’t sure how they were going to age at the beginning, but it’s rewarding to see that the 2008 still has a way to go.”
The consistency from the debut 2008 vintage was impressive. There simply is not a weak vintage in the pack, in no small part due to the winemaking talent of both Chris and Andrea, who would not release a bottle with their name if it did not pass muster. The Old Vine White Blend epitomizes the kind of “new wave” South African wines that are as much about texture and nuance as conspicuous fruit. It many ways, clichéd as it sounds, it is a challenging and intellectual wine that does not trigger the senses upon first sniff or sip. There are leitmotifs that become apparent, often a resinous/beeswax element on the nose, similarities to Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc but with less gras and much more nuanced. Readers will find the blends for each vintage in the tasting notes. It is interesting to note how Chenin Blanc dominated the blend in the maiden vintage, but has moved aside as new vineyard contracts came online and introduced Clairette Blanc, Sémillon Gris and Sauvignon Gris. They have not made a huge stylistic difference to the wine, perhaps just added more shade and color.
These two vertical tastings were welcome reminders of the quality that South Africa’s signature white grape variety can achieve. Alheit and Chris and Andrea Mullineux are all winemakers who nurtured their own philosophies and tenets towards their craft, through trial and error, in order to produce distinctive wines that often pose as many questions as answers. They can be challenging, intellectual wines that do not aim for mass appeal, but unstintingly seek to express their respective terroirs from season to season. Not wishing to sound like a broken record, even though these wines are amongst the best in South Africa, market prices remain very reasonable and the challenge is more to obtain them, given their limited production. Both tastings offered a tantalizing glimpse of how they mature in bottle and there is the intriguing prospect of revisiting these same vintages with another decade on the clock. Then I believe, we could be tasting some really profound Chenins. And where will our crusaders be then? Will Chris and Andrea Mullineux continue expanding their vineyards beyond Swartland and Franschhoek? Will Chris Alheit fulfil his dream of planting vines on virgin soils, pushing back the frontier of the Cape’s wine production? All one can answer is that given their achievements thus far, anything is possible.
See the Alheit Family Wines from Youngest to Oldest
See the Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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