Apart from wine, work and grapes, vineyards provide us with much beauty. The aesthetic pleasure we find in vineyards, I think, stems from the collision between lands that produce good wine grapes – hills, steep slopes, river banks, mountainous valleys – and the human intervention of grape farming.
The steep steps of the Douro, the magical, almost mystical Ribeira Sacra and the slate cliffs of the Rhine immediately spring to mind. Wild, untamed, brutish and violent nature set upon by farmers who order, constrain, and align it to rows of pruned vines. This contrast is where the beauty lies. The starker, the more defined the line between that which is feral and that which is cultivated, the more I think it excites the viewer, the stronger the shove is in the direction of the sublime.
No doubt there is also the more mundane beauty that wine estates have. A similar sort of attraction that manicured golf courses have for some is mirrored in the trimmed and delicately trellised vines of a venerable Stellenbosch estate. Both are unnatural to a degree, and both create a human order out of chaotic nature. But they suppress and dominate nature, rather than live alongside it, in it, amongst it.
Earlier this month I took up the invitation to spend a few days on Fable Mountain Vineyards in Tulbagh. It is definitely not like a golf course. It’s has that rubbing-shoulders-with-the-sublime sort of beauty. Tucked up against the undulating, elephant-like face of the Witzenberg Mountains, looking down over the Tulbagh valley, it is a wine farm that is very much in its element. Nature still rules here despite the rows of vines – some trellised, some goblet – on the rolling hills that make their way up to the mountain’s foot.
Just to keep you in the loop, but without going into the whole back story too much. Fable Mountain Vineyards is the same place as Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (TMV) that was once run by Chris and Andrea Mullineux and briefly Callie Louw. Recently bought by Charles Banks’ investment group Terroir Capital (owners of Mulderbosch), it has always been farmed organically, with a solid move to biodynamics now. The wines have been consistently been received well by critics.
Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nichols farm here. They farm biodynamically. They don’t like labels. And they absolutely love where they work. It’s infectious.
I had assumed that Rebecca was the winemaker and Paul the viticulturalist. When I questioned them about this division over a long, languid, and wine filled dinner Paul sighed, “I fucking hate those labels”. They told me they play the winemaker/viticulturist role for those who need to assign roles. But they’d prefer to both just be called winegrowers, and they farm by living in and with nature, rather than simply imposing their will upon it with all manner of pesticides, chemicals and the rest.
Or in Paul’s words, “as a couple we influence each other in everything we do all the time. Where do I stop and Rebecca starts? I don’t know? We are also heavily influenced by this place and our relationship to it and the experiences we have here.”
This is similar to the relationship Fables has to nature. How I identified beauty in the contrast between human intervention and wild nature, Paul sees this blurry line as a vital part of creating wines that reflect their place.
We are at this transition zone between the wild mountainous terrain and vineyards. It is the meeting of two opposing states. Neither of which is desirable. I don’t want nature to overrun our vineyards, nor do I want to overrun nature with vineyards. But it is not about fighting nature . . . It is about observing her and what she is doing . . . We have to be as nimble and awake as a high wire artist, sensitive to the slightest shift of wind, circumstance or emotion. Living on the edge keeps you on your toes as you are more disciplined and focussed. But it is awesome because possibility, newness, creativity and imagination all live on the edge.This is then mirrored in the winemaking. We are always on the edge here too during picking, extended long macerations, natural ferments, no additions, low sulphurs, minisicule parcels of fruit. You need that discipline and focus to guide the wine along this edge . . . We learn to know this edge, to keep our balance and hopefully even dance a bit at incalculable heights.
This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when you are talking about fine wines. The best are always on edge. They are balanced, not just in how they taste but in what they are. Paul says they are “not one of these ‘oh the wine makes itself’ crowd” as the those farming and making the vine are just as important as the geographical parts of terroir. So the finest wines, in my opinion reflect both the place where the grapes are from, and the intentions of those creating them.
At Fables their low summer rainfall, a relatively cool climate for Tulbagh, and vertical schist sub-soils, mean that the vines have low vigor, and maintain a good acidity. This, coupled with a hellbent approach to producing high-end fine wines, it’s a place to watch out for if you do not already know about them.
Some people speak about the energy of a vineyard or place. I experienced it when I visited Ribeira Sacra. I don’t know what it was, but it hummed with something. Walking amongst the vines at Fables I had the same feeling. It felt, I don’t know, right.
I was there less as a writer, and more as someone on a retreat. We rode horses, bushwacked our way up to a waterfall in the mountains, drank bottles and bottles of wine by the fire, stared at the stars, were stared at by baboons, walked through the vineyards, and were just totally, and utterly at peace.
Some wines taste better after having visited their home, this is such a place. The wines are fine, and the Syrah 2011 and Jackal Bird 2012 garnered 5 stars in the 2014 Platter guide, but my reckoning is they are going to get better. Call it a hunch.
The Jackal Bird 2012
This wine is a blend of Chenin, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc. When first opened it bursts with fruit. Grape fruit, melon, pear, and a whisper of peach. It’s lithe, but with some richness, and spice from gentle oaking. As the wine opens up in either glass or decanter, this initial burst of fruit fades and for me it becomes more about the texture. There is a pithiness to the wine, that finishes with a touch of pleasing pithy-bitterness. All of the Fables wines have a richness that covers the palate like painter on his fifth coat, but it’s the elegence, freshness and cleanness of this wine that elevates it to excellence. Tasting it a day after opening, there’s a pleasing oilines, or slickness, that adds to its interest. It is no wonder it was awarded 5 stars in the 2014 Platter guide. It is my favourite wine from Fables.
The Creation of the Jackal Bird also says alot about the vision Rebecca and Paul have for making wine. The grapes are sourced from “wherever we find sites with the characters we are after” and each variety is made differently using a mix of 500L French oak (20% new), stainless steel and concrete egg tanks. All the varieties are naturally fermented, and go through varying degrees of malolactic fermentation and time on the lees. At the end of this Paul and Rebecca have around 35 components to blend with. And then:
We approach this wine with a vision how we want it to be, it’s not something that’s easy to verbalize. We have it as an image in our heads but nothing too tactile, it’s very abstract.Then we try and create from the components, be it a pithiness, oily texture, weighty mid pallets and fragrances. We are always going for top notes, normally floral, mid notes and base notes (leesy, solids oxidative characters).Sometimes we get there (I think we have in 2013) sometimes we almost get there (2012 aromatically is there, would like to see more weight on the mid palate).
During an evening in front of the fire, with many open bottles, the topic of alcohol came up. I had found the Fable 2010 Syrah to be a little warm on the finish, and said that I thought it left it a little off balance. Rebecca made the point that there is a trend to be almost afraid of alcohol among some South African winemakers.
It made me think. I must admit that I – while no winemaker – have been swayed by these lower alcohol sentiments. I have to continue to remind myself that it is about balance, balance, balance, not a mere number on the back of a bottle. Despite this mantra, have I become a little sensitive to alcohol? Does my palate retreat at the faintest warmth? Possibly.
The Night Sky 2011
I think this blend of Shirz (60%), Mouvedre and Grenache is delicious. There is a welcoming warmth, full of rich ripe dark fruit and spice, with fine, but chewy tannins. I think it is wonderfully balanced, carrying its heft with grace and composure. Dark cherry, pepper, and licorice, and a pleasing freshness and lift on the finish. Look, I know I like it, we finished two bottles on our first night without even thinking about it.
That’s the funny thing with awards and stars. I have tasted these wines quite a bit over the last few days, and think that the Night Sky is better than the Syrah of the same vintage. I think Grenache and Mouvedre – especially the Mouvedre – fills out the Syrah wonderfully. It gives it that slightly wild blackberry meaty edge. I think it a more ‘complete’ wine, but it scored 4 stars, while the Syrah scored 5.
I had to taste and retaste this wine over two days, especially next to its older sister the 2010. At first I thought that here too the alcohol may have been showing it’s little snout too much. But far more soberly the next day I came back to it, and tasted it again. This is where you have to admit that alcohol is merely a number. It weighs in at 14.7%, but I found that all this amounts to is a warm richness. The wine is full of life, dark red fruits, peppery spice, a leathery like quality, and dry tannins. It’s elegant despite its weight. I’m probably being too romantic, but tasting it back at home I recall the mountains, the dusty road through the vineyards and the donkey I saw wandering there; the heat, dryness, and scrub.
Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Theta 2003
This was interesting. It was the first vintage of a single vineyard, flagship Syrah made at TMV. It was a little late in the evening when I got to this, but I thought it had aged wonderfully. It was also warm and rich, with tobacco, a faint fynbos/herbal scent. The palate was still vibrant, composed and long. I think it it is nearing the end of it’s ideal drinking window, but if you have any in your cellar, you will be properly rewarded for having been so patient.
If this is the track record we are working off, the wines of Fable Mountain Vineyards should age beautifully.
Paul has plans other than wine – he has many – to have mobile artist retreats set up on the farm. I can think of no better place for someone who needs to get away to finish a poem, novel, painting, PhD, whatever. It’s not just the beauty of the place itself, but the way that it has been occupied: sensitively, keenly, and with real sense of joy. I think the wines, in their own way capture this.