Friday, August 15, 2014

A South African winemaker reinterprets a French classic

 Mulderbosch Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc-$33
 Dwight Casimere with Mulderbosch winemaker Adam Mason
 The Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Series
 The winetasting seminar at New York's Cork Buzz in the Village

Mulderbosch winemaker Adam Mason

"People generally don't know that there's a lot of Chenin Blanc in South Africa," said Mulderbosch winemaker Adam Mason, while preparing to introduce the latest vintage of his Single Vineyard Series of Chenin Blanc in the U.S. "Most people associate it with the Loire Valley in France, but there are bush vines in South Africa that have a history behind them. With regards to Chenin Blanc, South Africa has a real story to tell."

Mulderbosch Vineyards first captured the palates of ardent wine loves with its award-winning Suavignon Blanc and Rose' wines.  Their racy lean structure and fruit-forward taste quickly established Mulderbosch and South Africa in general as a source for world-class wines. The new Chenin Blancs are no less distinguished.

With regards to Mason's comments on the French origins of the varietal, he speaks with some authority. Mason first came into winemaking after a harvesting experience in France. He then graduated from Stellenbosch University with a degree in Oenology and Viticulture.  He returned to France to the Languedoc to become the "Flying Winemaker" alongside the legendary wine entrepreneur and negotiant,  Tony Laithwaite. He subsequently returned to France for four more vintages as a contract winemaker for Laithwaite's wines across the South of France and the Bordeaux region. 

After cutting his winemaking teeth in France, he returned to South Africa and the Cape where he spent two years as general manager and winemaker for another negotiant and winemaking business,  International Wine Services South Africa. His big break came when he was appointed winemaker at Klein Constantia, where he produced the highly rated dessert wine Vin de Constance. While at Klein Constantia, he also worked with Andy Erickson at Screaming Eagle, one of the landmark labels in winemaking, before the seed was planted for his eventual move to Mulderbosch Vineyards. He created his first vintage as the official winemaker at Mulderbosch in 2012 and the rest, as they say, is winemaking history. 

The wines he created in his first vintage year there have won him accolades from both members of the wine press  and the wine drinking public and the single vineyard wines of the 2013 release are no less well received. The 2013 vineyard Block A,  S2 and Block W  have each received a 94 point rating from Master of Wine Tim Atkin.  As Mason has been bicycling them through guided tastings with wine critics, the wines have been receiving similar distinction.

"These are wines with an unctuous succulence," Mason explained. "They have powerful structure. What they really are is a showcase for each single vineyard from which they are derived and exemplify  our commitment to represent them as authentically as possible. Our goal is to make high quality, desirable wines with a distinctive character."

"The combination of sandy soil, slate and clay has a profound impact on the grapes. That combined with the closeness to False Bay, has a major impact on regulating vineyard temperatures. The result is a wine rich in aromatics and flavor."

The wind-swept environment and moderate temperatures have also contributed to the overall health of the vines themselves. "We have vineyards with hundred year old vines. They've been able to thrive so long because of the combination of  high winds and the moderating inflluence of the maritime climate. This  means that there's no disease. It's a double-edged sword, however, because the maritime breezes keep temperatures down, which ultimately affects the ability of the grapes to ripen. Fortunately, we have in the Cape an abundance of sun."

The three wines Mason is presenting are all 2013 vintage and cost $33 a bottle;  Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc-Block A from the Eikenhof farm in the Bottelary Hills above False Bay is the first. The wine radiates with flavors of tropical fruit-mango, pineapple and Meyer lemon. "The grapes are grown in light, sandy soil. This makes for a delicate fresh and citrusy wine. The soil is a composite of clay and granite that gives the wine an acidic backbone and structure that produces a really clean sensation in the mouth. Many people who taste this wine blindly are surprised to learn that it's not French," Mason said with pride. 

Vineyard Block S2 Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc is characterized by soils derived from the ancient Malmesbury Shale. "Shale soil really gives the grapes a different flavor concentration. The grape gets a lot of mineral contact because the minerals move more freely through the soil structure. The wine is laced with an exotic perfume and hint of subtle spice."

 Block S2 is redolent with flavors of dried apricots, fresh vanilla and hints of cinnamon baking spice. "All of that spice and aroma is imparted from the ancient decomposed Malmesbury shale soil on the Sonop farm in the Botterlary Hills.  You'd be amazed at how granite crumbles when its decomposing to reveal its base components for this amazingly rich soil."

Mulderbosch Vineyard Block W is the ripest of the three wines and the real star of the show in my opinion. Made from grapes grown in the wind swept vineyards overlooking False Bay, it is the epitome of what a well-balanced Chenin Blanc is all about. There's enough acid there to give it real muscle and structure and a bold texture, yet the wine is further enhanced by flavors of a freshly baked Italian holiday cake called panacotta, or the rich custard base of that ubiquitous Italian dessert,  tiramisu. There are hints of wildflowers on the nose that make you imagine that you are actually standing in one of Stellanbach's windblown vineyards. 

Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Series Chenin Blanc is a once-in-a-lifetime flavor experience. The fact that there is so little available makes that statement more fact than hyperbole. "There are only a hundred cases of each of the wines that were produced-making for 300 cases in all. They're only available in a three-pack, consisting of each of the single-vineyard wines, Mason stressed. 

"These wines are not only unique because of their flavor character. They are aged in French oak barrels on the lees, then racked and lightly filtered. The wines have firm body and structure and are capable of maturing in the cellar for 10 years from the date of vintage." Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc is a truly special wine. It's a pity that I'm not the recipient of a sudden inheritance that would allow me to buy the whole lot of it!
 The beautiful estate of Mulderbosch Vineyards in Stellenbosch

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