The wines of South Africa are somewhat of an enigma. If you were to look at the country as a whole, you most likely would find the wine culture teetering on the top of a great divide. On one side, you have traditionalists who have lived their entire lives in the wine business and most likely are running a winery that was handed down from parents and grandparents. From my experience, here is what I have observed about the traditional SA wines and red wines in particular: a very ripe, almost vegetal quality (think red bell peppers), with a vein of earthiness from start to finish. I think that for some of the lower-tier brands, the wines can have a touch (or a lot – depending on the winery) of Brettanomyces. ‘Brett’, as referred to in the wine business, is a yeast bacteria that gives off a range of smells from attractive (spice/cloves/smoky) to rancid (bandaids/barnyard). In the latter, the lack of cleanliness in the winery is to blame. This goes for any winery worldwide. But, on the other side where pristine wine making and quality controls are in place, the wines can be quite stunning (and you’ll pay a bit more as well). Look for dark blackberry fruit, menthol, sweet vanilla oak, and spice. Until recently (over the last ten years or so), SA has seen a huge swing in quality across the board as old and new wineries alike are seeing the potential economic impact of fine wine exports. As wine consumers, people outside of SA (particularly the US, Australia, and the UK) are seeing the quality improvements and the consumption increasing. New viticulturists and winemakers are also seeing the treasure and opportunity in the land, whether that be the soil, climate, or topography, and are setting the highest standards in their care and tending of the vineyards, the hand-picking of grapes, and the cleanliness and attention to detail in the wineries.
So, what do you get when you put two insanely passionate ‘flying winemakers’ that have made wine around the globe together in a wild, remote, and magical place in South Africa? Fable Mountain Vineyards. Fable is run by Rebecca Tanner, originally from Australia, and Paul Nicholls, who grew up in Johannesburg, SA, and holds a degree in Plant Pathology. Both have their degrees in Oenology (the science and study of all aspects of winemaking), and have made wine in Australia, Chile, Spain, France, and Italy collectively. The thing that makes this team so special is their love for truly organic farming. They started the winery together in a remote area between Tulbagh and Wolseley surrounded by majestic mountain ranges. Here is a portion of the interview I did with Paul!
“Before the winery was built in 2002, it used to be a dairy farm, and even though the vineyards were planted in 1999, we made our first wine in 2003. The whole production from land-to-bottle always showed tons of potential but needed that extra something. When Charles [Charles Banks of Terroir Selections] came on board in 2010, the winery underwent extensive renovations. We made it a lot safer (catwalks, etc.), upgraded cooling, increased capacity, put in an underground barrel cellar and proper gravity flow. Basically the winery is awesome now and works amazingly well! The best part being we can process tiny batches and really focus on quality. The 2011 vintage was the first in the new winery. We also planted an additional twenty hectares of vines into virgin soil in some pretty interesting sites. We coined the term ‘Deep Agroecology’, which in essence is sustainable/organic farming with an emphasis on the connection between the farmer and his land. We use biodynamics as a tool to facilitate this connection. [More on biodynamics in the
October newsletter]. This all helps the intuition so we can know or feel (for example) if the vines are stressing or what they need. It is about cultivating an intimate awareness with ourselves and our surroundings. Animals are also a critical component to everything as they complete the farm system. Why the name ‘Fable’? We feel it is a magical place. You have this sense when you are there that it is something out of a fairy tale. It is also about the stories that we create here, as well.” (Continued on back…)
I recently was spoiled with the chance to try their three different wines. The ‘Jackal Bird’ is named after the large raptors that have made their home at Fable. They are seen most afternoons as they catch the thermal winds soaring high above the mountains that surround the property. The wine is a combination of old vine Chenin blanc, Grenache blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Chardonnay. Next was the ‘Syrah’. This wine represents a pure expression of Syrah from the Fable Estate. Only the best parcels were selected to go into this top cuveé. And, as if a cherry on top, came the ‘Night Sky’. Nights on the estate are spectacular; as they are so isolated, there is no light pollution, so the stars put on a grand show. When the moon rises up behind the mountains it is truly mesmerizing. The ‘Night Sky’ wine is a blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. For a taste of South Africa off the beaten path, and one that is truly magical, Fable Mountain Vineyards is the new standard. // fablewines.com