There is something slightly artificial about a structured wine tasting, in which selected samples are lined up to reveal some vinous truth.
Wines are made to be enjoyed, usually with food. They were never intended to be treated like lab samples. Most formal tastings are comparative exercises and the information that emerges is often formulated in comparative terms.
"This wine has better fruit than the previous sample," is a typical remark. The great advantage of this approach (and the reason, presumably, that it has survived despite the scant respect it shows to individual bottles) is that it is the only way to reveal and magnify nuances in an otherwise homogenous array.
Mullineux Family Wines in the Swartland received a host of awards in the 2013 edition of the Platter’s Wine Guide, including Red Wine of the Year for the Mullineux Family Syrah 2010 and another five-star accolade for Mullineux Family Schist 2010. A third cuvée — the Mullineux Family Granite 2010 — finished with four-and-a-half stars. Each of these has in common the fact that it has been made with Shiraz/Syrah by Chris and Andrea Mullineux. The Schist and the Granite are "terroir" specific — in other words, they come from vines planted in either schistous or granite soils. The "regular" Syrah makes no claim in terms of the soil type but is instead a combination from various vineyard blocks.
I have tasted all three alongside each other a few times, a rare privilege, partly because there weren’t many bottles produced in the first place, partly because the resounding success of the Mullineux enterprise makes it virtually impossible to buy any of their wines, and partly because — assuming you can source the stock — you need deep pockets to engage in this kind of comparative tasting.
A line-up of all three will set you back at least R2,000. You would need a geeky approach to wine and a good run at the lotto to even attempt the exercise.
There is no doubt that each of the wines is substantially different: the "standard" Family Syrah is the least showy, the Schist the most peppery while the Granite is more floral and also more textured on the palate.
For those who continue to doubt that soil plays a discernible role in the aromatic profile and mouth-feel of wine, a tasting of this kind will be a mind-changing (if not a life-changing) experience.
I have also compared these — and other benchmark Cape Syrahs — with classics made from the same variety elsewhere in the world.
Here what divides the vineyards is substantial: soils, geography, climate, vintage conditions — not to mention the role of the wine maker, so it should come as no surprise when huge stylistic variation emerges. That said, I found more common elements uniting Mullineux’s wines and the Syrahs from New Zealand’s Craggy Range vineyards in Hawkes Bay than several from Stellenbosch.
At this level of wine making, when the best grapes of a vintage are handled by producers at the very top of their profession, quality is a given and what drives the market (other than snobbery) is aesthetic preference. Do you like your Shiraz plush or peppery, textured like fine silk, or more like brocade?
To make that kind of decision, the choice must be available and there must be an opportunity to compare. Ten years ago, this was the almost exclusive preserve of the French, where the likes of Marcel Guigal released tiny cuvées of Cote Rôtie from sites so nuanced that only Robert Parker was bold enough to split hairs between scoring one at 99 points and another at 100.
The new generation of South African producers has been able to emulate this focus on place — on the way discovering (as Guigal did) how lucrative this can be. And why not? Surely they are entitled to be rewarded for making wine that so precisely reflects the hand of the wine maker and the place the grapes were grown.
First published in Business Day on 1 February 2013