There’s no easy way to determine value when it comes to wine. If you like what’s in your glass, and you’re happy with what you paid for it, the value’s as good as it gets. Arguably if someone gave you the glass of wine without saying what it cost and then asked you how much you would pay for it, you would be able to correlate your tolerance of price with the pleasure on your palate. This is what blind tasting is all about. By the same token, if someone revealed that the wine came from a R30k bottle (yes, there are quite a few of these about, more since the Rand was Zuma-ed) you would have a different expectation. Probably you would be disappointed – it’s quite hard for any beverage (or any meal, for that matter) to live up to that kind of ticket. Wine pricing is a moving target precisely because there’s no real agreement around what taste elements justify the additional expenditure.
There was a time when you knew what to do if you wanted to make a wine taste expensive: dollops of new oak were a key component, density and richness of texture on the palate were just as important, ditto intense fruit aromas. Such wines also had to have been made from prestige cultivars: there was something of an “A” list (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir, for example). There were also better addresses: Stellenbosch was further up the hierarchy than Paarl, which was above Wellington and so on.The viticultural frontiers were exactly that: places for those who could not afford to farm in the best sites to ply their trade.
A lot has changed in the past ten years. Eben Sadie, who has just been voted the International “Winemakers Winemaker of the Year” by members of the Institute of Masters of Wine – a singular honour and a first for a South African – played a key role in bringing the Swartland and its generally old-fashioned, old vineyard varieties onto centre stage. At more or less the same time Chris and Andrea Mullineux were making wine at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, before setting out on their own venture in the Swartland. In very few years they too have acquired a substantial reputation, with Andrea winning the US-based Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2016 Winemaker of the Year award.
Now the Mullineuxs have launched three wines (under the Leeu Passant label) which have not been made from Swartland fruit – and which offer a new take on the more historic traditions of Cape winemaking. Two are Chardonnays – one from Stellenbosch and the other from Kaaimansgat (long a source of Bouchard Finlayson’s best fruit – Andrea admits to having been inspired by Peter Finlayson’s 1997 vintage). Both are more restrained (less oaking, less evident fruit sweetness) than the typical high-end Chardonnays coming out of the Cape.
The red – a blend of more or less one third each cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and old vine cinsaut – offers the same tasting experience as the laid-back whites. The fruit is pure and linear, with the cassis from the cabernet sauvignon melding harmoniously into the spicier cab franc. The cinsaut (from the two oldest vineyards in the Cape – one now 117 years old) adds a delicate savoury edge to the skein.
What, you may ask, has any of this to do with the question of value? The Mullineux brand does not come cheap (though their Swartland Kloof Street red is a great buy at R110) and this small volume release has been pitched accordingly: R675 for the whites and R975 for the red. None of the Leeu Passant wines is big or showy. They are nuanced, fine and infinitely subtle. While they still have to prove themselves, their pedigree buys them a lot of cred. A few weeks ago I tasted a fabulous 60 year Cape cinsaut blend. I believe the Leeu Passant red has the same kind of future ahead of it.