Sometimes, following years of commitment, one is drawn to catalogues of past output. As I recently surveyed the many years of work I have put into this blog I realized that this is my 20th “spotlight” – a special series devoted to a unique region or grape variety designed to facilitate shared and focused learning on a special topic. The evolution has been profound. From an attempt to look broadly at an entire country (Spain) or a fundamentally important variety (Nebbiolo), the spotlights have become increasingly granular. As knowledge has accumulated, the spotlights have also tended towards more current developments and trends in the wine world. Hence my recent focus on the ‘New California’, for example.
This, the 20th spotlight since this blog’s inception 8 years ago, will focus on one of the most exciting regions in the new world today, and certainly a group of producers putting South Africa back on the trend map: the producers grouped together as the groundbreaking “Swartland Independent Producers”, more famously referred to by their annual event, the “Swartland Revolution”. This year was the last for the groundbreaking weekend and so good time to bring this Spotlight to the blog. The UK press has been all over these guys for a couple years now, but they remain much less appreciated in the United States and Canada.
While the majority of Swartland Revolution producers are not available in North America, the leading wineries can be found with sufficient effort. This spotlight will focus on three of the leaders: Mullineaux, A.A. Badenhorst and Sadie Family Wines. I have also looked at the wines of Porseleinberg before, and they can be found at some of the BCLDB signature stores.
The Swartland Independent Producers
The Swartland Revolution began as a project of young, upstart producers Mullineaux, A.A. Badenhorst, Porseleinberg and long time superstar Eben Sadie. The goal was to focus on the old bush-vines and unpopular varieties that the young visionaries believed had the potential to be true terroir wines. Just at the beginning of this month the group hosted its sixth and final annual event, in Swartland, with both local and international media in attendance. Reports are that it was the best event yet and beautifully demonstrated how far Swartland’s young producers have come in a mere six years. Though I am sad to see the event go before I had a chance to attend, change is a sign of a group that understands learning and inspiration require it. Part of this change has been the expansion of exciting, groundbreaking wine outside of the Swartland. Stellenbosch, for instance, is reinventing itself. That said, we are so behind the times with respect to South African wine here on the west coast of North America that I felt the demise of the event was the perfect time to focus on the wines. I hope we begin to see more of them in our markets soon. One day I hope to make it to the successor to the Swartland Revolution event and report on all of the exciting changes in South Africa, a wine experience at the very top of my list.
The end of the Swartland Revolution event has no impact on the future life of the important informal certification association, Swartland Independent. Currently a group of 26 small producers, Swartland Independent has created a set of values, a logo and a seal that indicates the wine inside adheres to the association’s principles.
The principles are subject to change as new information and discussion arises about the best approach to the region’s wines, but it represents a set of common goals and beliefs. These principles have certainly been an extremely successful marketing tool as these wines have vaulted from unknown backwater to international darlings. They are:
1. An Independent wine must be grown entirely in the Swartland and carry “Wine of Origin Swartland” on its label.
2. It must also be vinified, matured and bottled in the Swartland.
3. An Independent producer will bottle at least 80% of his wine production under his own labels.
4. One of our core values is that the wines carrying our logo must be naturally produced. By this we understand a minimum of manipulation in both vineyard and cellar; so that a natural wine:
• has no inoculated yeast, or added yeast supplement
• will not be acidified
• has no added tannin
• will not be chemically fined
• will not undergo any tehnological process (reverse osmosis) which will alter the constitution of the wine
5. Certain varieties have shown themselves to be particularly suited to expressing Swartland conditions. A Swartland Independent wine must consist of a minimum of 90% of the following varieties (that is, up to 10% of the wine may consist of varieties not named here):
• Red wine: Syrah/shiraz, Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Carignan, Cinsaut, Tinta Barocca, Pinotage
• White wine: Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette Blanche, Palomino (Fransdruif/Vaalblaar), Semillon (Groendruif)
This list of grapes will be reviewed every few years, especially as a result of new varieties being planted in the region and an assessment of their ability to express Swartland terroir
6. Because heavy oaking can “mask” the essence of the grape, no Swartland Independent wine may be aged with more than 25% kept in new wood as a component. All wood needs to be of European origin.
7. All wines of the Independent must be bottled in a “Burgundy shape” bottles.
Not all may agree with each of the items on the list, but they share the aim of attempting to let specific varieties most attuned to transparency in the region express typicity and transparency while also giving producers enough breathing room to experiment and express their house style. Call it a slightly more cohesive version of California’s “In Pursuit of Balance”, focused on a specific region. I think this is a wonderful representation of community and shared values in pursuit of a noble goal and I’d like to see this approach act as inspiration for groups around the world.
Swartland – a Brief Overview
I will get more into the specifics of Swartland’s unique terroir in future posts, but it is essential to get the basics in at the beginning. The region is arid with quite high temperatures up to 40 degrees celsius in summer daytimes. The soils are varied, but in general can be classified into schists, granite, or clay. Swartland also has some of the oldest vines in South Africa, mostly because its sandy soils have prevented the leaf roll virus – which devastated most other old-vine plantings in South Africa – from spreading to its vines.
The region was ripe for a group of inspired young winemakers to take hold as its fruit was increasingly unable to compete commercially, with most fruit being grown poorly and sold to local co-ops making wines up to 15% with extract levels hard to appreciate. This drove land prices down and allowed a group of 20 and 30-somethings to lease specific rows in old-vine vineyards and follow their not-yet-jaded excitement to make wines inspired by the best French producers – that is, terroir wines of finesse. Of course, the secret for these producers is early picking – an approach that allows power and freshness.
Chris Mullineux is one of the pioneers of Swartland and a founding member of the Swartland Independent producers. He was also a key figure in making the Swartland Revolution tastings so successful. Chris previously spent time working in both Cote-Rotie and California with Manfred Krankl of Sine-Qua-Non fame. I detect the California influence in the wine, though Mullineaux’s epic Syrahs are wilder and spicier than anything from the sunshine state.
Chris and Andrea Mullineaux lease vines from 21 vineyard sources across the region, with a variety of soil types. This has helped them create extremely distinctive wines that both reflect the importance of site but also their own house style. For instance, for this, their entry level Syrah, they mix fruit from several parcels across three soils types. The Syrah grown on decomposed granite provides freshness, the Syrah from schist soils provide richness, and the Syrah on clay adds mid-palate complexity and weight. The result is astonishing for a winery founded in 2008.
The Syrah is merely their ‘entry-level’ wine, and Mullineux also makes three single-vineyard bottlings called “Granite”, “Schist”, and “Iron”. These are regularly scored by leading UK press at the highest levels of Syrah.
Swartland Syrah is Great
For a mere $35, Mullineux offers Syrah that drinks with the heft and completeness of Hermitage, the concentration of Alban, the freshness of Cote-Rotie and a distinctly Swartland wildness and spice. I suspect a larger amount of the small-berried Schist-planted Syrah made its way into the 2011 as I’ve rarely tasted such bright concentration outside of the most recent vintages of Alban.
Approximately half the grapes are whole-bunch fermented and all fermentation is with indigenous yeasts. The wine is aged for 11 months in French oak, 15% new. The wine is bottled unfiltered and unfined. Minimal sulphur is used, as with all their bottlings, and they do not add yeast, tannin, enzymes, nutrient, acids, fining or filtering agents.
Mullineux is an authentic, down-home operation and one of the New World’s very best producers of Syrah. All Rhone lovers need apply.
Excellent to Excellent+