WineThe Collection

Châteauneuf-du-Cape: star South African Rhône blends

Of all the areas where Rhône varieties have been imported, South Africa is increasingly reputed. Malu Lambert digs deep into its terroirs

Words by Malu Lambert

swartland vineyards south africa
The Collection
Swartland’s rugged, striking landscape can produce equally raw renderings of Rhône varieties

The story of modern-day South African Syrah is one of producers drawn to site, soil and light-filled southern skies. Yet it was on a train to the often grey, northern and distinctly Syrah-free Champagne that two integral players met for the first time. They were heading towards those famous chalk slopes and also, unbeknown to them, taking the first steps in carving out their fate – and, in part, that of the South African wine scene.

The actors here were a young Andrea and Chris Mullineux. Over those streaming tracks, with the landscape rushing past the square of the window, the pair struck up a conversation. The American and South African (respectively) were both harvest interns at the time – Andrea at Château Mont-Redon in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chris at Château de Pibarnon in Bandol – and discovering this, an alliance was formed. So much so that, after their visit to Champagne they met up regularly back in the Rhône, tasting extensively through the region together. The bond become closer. A couple of decades later, the pair are married with two children.

mullineux family
'We fell in love over Syrah, as well as with Syrah. We knew that this was the journey we wanted to go on together' - Andrea Mullineux (pictured with her husband Chris and two children)

Andrea Mullineux shares the secret of their romance, which played out over long conversations in bistros, the pair rhapsodising about the future. ‘We fell in love over Syrah, as well as with Syrah,’ she recalls. ‘We knew that this was the journey we wanted to go on together.’

Andrea was already familiar with the terroir of Chris’s homeland, having previously worked a harvest with Kevin Arnold in Stellenbosch. The couple decided to come back to South Africa to set their plans in motion. ‘We didn’t come from winemaking families, so we had this blank slate to work with,’ says Andrea. And the remote Western Cape – South Africa’s winemaking haven buffeted by the great Atlantic – offered them the opportunity to work in the way they wanted.

Back home in the Cape, while working at Fable Mountain Vineyards in Tulbagh, they made a few Syrah vintages from the Swartland, with the aim of crafting soil-specific Syrah. ‘They were absolutely intoxicating,’ Mullineux says. ‘The tannin structure, the natural extraction you get, the fragrance of lilies and violets…’ The couple chose to settle in the Swartland, believing that ‘the granite and schist soils, as well as old vines there, had the potential to produce truly great wines.’

Karibib Vineyards in Stellenbosch's Polkadraai Hills is the source of several notable South African Syrahs

They established their own label in 2007 and released their first two single-soil Syrahs in 2010, from bought-in Swartland grapes. (The Schist parcel was sourced from Roundstone farm, which they ended up buying in 2014, mainly on account of the vineyard.) From the get-go, they caused a stir. Fifteen years on, the winemaking has largely remained the same: gentle whole-bunch pressing, keeping the cap wet (Mullineux says she does this with her own hands so she can feel the different cool and hot spots), then maturation in primarily large and older oak. ‘By whole-cluster fermenting, we hold up a magnifying glass to the soil types,’ she explains.

Today, the pair’s three Syrahs reflect their origins in the labelling: Iron, Schist and Granite. The Iron hails from bushvines grown on gravelly koffieklip (ferricrete deposits that resemble instant coffee granules). There’s a red rusticity to the wine that reflects the landscape; open and inviting, with tomato leaf and red berries. The grapes for the Schist, meanwhile, are grown on their own Roundstone Estate, under the auspices of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, a partnership with property mogul Analjit Singh. This is the most structured Syrah of the triumvirate, a schistous skeleton encasing deep, dark black fruit and a wild perfume of incense and violets.

The Granite, by comparison, is all about freshness. Hailing from the Paardeberg, the dryland bushvines were planted in the late 1980s in deep, decomposed granite; the light soils give the wine perfume and lift.

“We fell in love over Syrah, as well as with Syrah. We knew that this was the journey we wanted to go on together” – Andrea Mullineux

Also in 2010 came the maiden vintage of Porseleinberg, a brand under the umbrella of Franschhoek-based winery Boekenhoutskloof, released to immediate acclaim. The grapes are grown on another extreme site in the Swartland, a rugged outcrop populated with blue-veined schist – the name means ‘porcelain mountain’ – just south of Riebeek-Kasteel. Callie Louw is the custodian here, of both the vineyard and the winemaking (the brand yields just the one wine). The unforgiving nature of the vineyards coupled with vinification inspired by Louw’s time spent at Domaine Jamet in Côte-Rôtie creates an intense, driven Syrah. In something of a coup for the winery – and the region – South African specialist Tim Atkin MW gave the 2018 vintage 100 points.

And before Porseleinberg, before even the Mullineuxs, there was Eben Sadie. The celebrated winemaker (named Winemaker of the Year in 2017 by the Institute of Masters of Wine) is widely credited as a driving force behind the country’s fine wine revolution. Since the 2000 vintage, he has made the muchheralded Syrah-led blend Columella, built from different soil types. The 2019 vintage was also given the coveted 100-point score by Atkin, in his 2021 South Africa Report, in which the five top-scoring wines were all Syrah.

eben sadie viewing his south african wine estate
Eben Sadie is a pioneer of Syrah in South Africa, and he continues to set the standard

‘Syrah is the most important red grape variety in South Africa,’ says Mullineux. ‘It is an absolute chameleon of terroir and expresses its personality so well in a variety of sites – cool, warm, altitudinous – as well as through different soil textures. It can produce great wines through a total hands-off approach, as well as with more traditional winemaking. You’d think all these variables might be confusing, but when you are drinking Syrah, its site shines through and becomes part of its story.’

Syrah now accounts for about 10% of the national vineyard and is the second most planted red variety after Cabernet Sauvignon. And while premium Cabernet production is largely concentrated in Stellenbosch, Syrah is planted in a diverse number of regions – from the rugged, striking landscape of the Swartland, to the southernmost point of viticulture in the Agulhas region, where vines battered by sea winds produce intense wines of white pepper and cool, limpid fruit.

A puzzle of microclimates, the Cape straddles a unique line in the wine world: it’s both New and Old World. While wine and brandy production can be traced back to the 17th century, the global isolation brought on by the imposition of sanctions in the Apartheid era meant it took a long time for South Africa’s winemakers to think deeper about the soils they farmed. Once democracy was installed, winemakers could travel and work abroad, bringing with them new ideas, techniques and, most importantly, that inherent Old World dictum of the right grapes planted in the right place. It’s only really in the past 30 years that the idea of terroir has become established. Before that, a less scientific approach was employed.

rhone variety grapes in south africa's leeuwenkuil
Grapes at Leeuwenkuil, a specialist in Rhône varieties

Back in the 1960s, the most planted grape variety was Cinsault. This red workhorse was essentially charged with saving the wine industry post-phylloxera, planted for its high yields after so many vines had to be replaced. With Cabernet Sauvignon in short supply in the ’60s and ’70s, Cinsault was used to make up the deficit in varietal bottlings (though it also had its practical uses, literally being used to lubricate the press). This led to a style of wine simply called ‘Dry Red’ or ‘Cape Red’.

Today, Cinsault is making a comeback at the quality end of the spectrum. ‘When planted in the right place, Cinsault can be so complex and layered,’ says Andrea Mullineux, who makes one under the Leeu Passant label. And while some dub the variety the Pinot Noir of the Swartland, Mullineux counsels not to let the lighter colour fool you: ‘The tannins can pack a punch.’

Another historic Rhône cultivar that has also been enjoying Cape views is Grenache – so much so that it was historically called Cape Chianti when blended with Cinsault. It does best on the dry, interior slopes as gnarled bushvines in the Piekenierskloof (where some swear it has been grown since the 1700s), as well as on the stony soils of the Voor-Paardeberg and the Swartland. The latter is home to Raaigras – a play on Château Rayas – standing on Adi Badenhorst’s Kalmoesfontein farm. Established in 1952, this is the country’s oldest Grenache vineyard.

The Cape straddles a unique line in the wine world: it’s both New and Old World

The Swartland may have shot Cape Syrah to fame, but there’s another Rhône revolution taking place in Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai. Located 8km outside of the main region, it is approximately 4°C cooler. On a somnolent summer morning, I make my way there to taste the wines of Boschkloof, a small, family-owned winery increasingly garnering cult status. ‘All the hills are decomposed granite,’ says second-generation winemaker Reenen Borman, gesturing at the scene through the glass doors of the tasting room, creamy mist clinging to the lush canopies. ‘The soils give the wine a magnificent natural structure – you don’t have to work that hard in the cellar.’

Borman leads me into the cellar, his large boerboel, Kaptein, loping at his side. The winery has been optimally set up for his approach: the Syrahs see part cement, part whole bunch and part oak, both old and new. He vinifies multiple components separately, using a variety of different picks as building blocks. We head back to the tasting room where he opens the Kottabos 2021, an experimental label of his, separate from the family wines. The Rhône-style blend of Grenache and Syrah is red-fruited, fresh and nervy.

south african winery damascene
The Damascene winery in Elgin

Borman also makes wine under the highly regarded Patatsfontein label, notably what he calls a ‘raw’ Syrah, the acclaimed Sons of Sugarland. ‘There’s nothing in this wine that isn’t about terroir: 100% whole bunch, stems and all,’ he says. He employs ‘completely hands-off winemaking to show that garrigue perfume and chalky texture’.

For both experimental wines he sources grapes from Karibib Vineyards in the Polkadraai Hills. A number of other new-wave producers do likewise: both the Graft Syrah by Lukas van Loggerenberg and the Damascene Stellenbosch Syrah by Jean Smit are also sprung from here.

Borman makes two tiers of Syrah from his family’s farm: the smoother, plusher estate wine, as well as the critically acclaimed Epilogue, a visceral, textured wine that’s alive with its own crackle, a kind of dark electricity. ‘You lose that graphite “prickliness” if you don’t bottle it on its own,’ he says.

jean smit and dog at damascene vineyard
Jean Smit of Damascene, whose Stellenbosch Syrah hails from Karibib Vineyards in the Polkadraai Hills

Back on the granite fringe of the Swartland, the Voor Paardeberg is characterised by granite boulders and rocky, fynbos-covered mountain slopes. This ward is South Africa’s secret weapon when it comes to Rhône varieties, a treasure chest of the spectrum grown at significant volumes. Here, celebrated winemaker Chris Williams has embraced the full gamut of Rhône varieties on offer. Just two years ago, he left renowned Stellenbosch estate Meerlust after a 16-year tenure to focus on his own brand The Foundry, which he started in 2000.

Standing on the stoop of the farmhouse together, Williams and I take in the sweep of the land. He points out the preponderance of granite-based soils and draws a comparison with the granite hill of Hermitage. Off in the distance, gleaming darkly on a sea of wheat and vineyards, is the new Leeuwenkuil cellar, the largest privately owned cellar in the Cape, which has been built for the production of high-volume, quality wines. Leeuwenkuil made South Africa’s first commercial Marsanne, back in 2010, and has a track record of producing highly regarded Syrah.

pieter carstens tasting south african rhone blends at leeuwenkuil
Pieter Carstens, chief winemaker at Leeuwenkuil, a specialist in Rhône varieties that recently opened the country’s largest privately owned cellar

Walking to his blue-doored cellar, Williams recounts how the lightbulb moment for him and his peers came when, as students, they went on a study trip to the Rhône. In his class were both Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof) and Eben Sadie, winemakers who would become responsible for the Cape’s top two Syrahs. ‘We were all blown away by that trip,’ he says. ‘We were tasting proper Syrah for the first time. Fresh and perfumed, with bright pure fruit and powdery, talc-like tannins. Shiraz in South Africa at the time was high alcohol, low acid, baked fruit, and often oxidative and Bretty. The contrast was astounding. We knew we had our work cut out to emulate this style. We had the granite and the Mediterranean climate, but our viticulture and winemaking was outdated. But at least we now knew what great Syrah tasted like.’

Inside the cellar, Williams has set up a tasting on a barrel, a long row of terracotta eggs flanking it. ‘I focused on Rhône varieties organically – they just happened to be the fruit I wanted to work with.’ There are currently five wines in the portfolio: a Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir and a Syrah. Today, he’s particularly enamoured with the way the Roussanne 2020 is showing. ‘It has this endless length,’ he says. He believes firmly that the white Rhône grape has a positive future in the Cape. ‘There’s fruit – but also this incredible texture.’

As a whole, Williams’s range is transcendent: clean, textured wines of luminous intensity. If ever there was a case for Rhône varieties in South Africa, The Foundry wines are emphatically it. And with climate change likely to mean these hardy grapes only growing in importance for the Cape, I have a feeling this story is only just beginning.