Chris and Andrea Mullineux from Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines are a force to be reckoned with. After all, when a winery takes home the Platter’s Winery of the Year award three times in six years, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Known for their hand-crafted wines from the granite- and schist-based soils of the Swartland, the passionate pair attribute their success to focussing on the expression of terroir and honing their craft from one harvest to the next. We recently caught up with them on their beautiful farm on the slopes of Kasteelberg to discuss green belts, coral-hued mountains, chance meetings and how the Swartland came to crawl so deeply under their skin.
Chance meetings & the love story that sparked a revolution
The story of how Chris and Andrea came to the Swartland and became involved with the original Swartland Revolution Festival, which leads the establishment of the Swartland Independent Producers is filled with all sorts of fascinating twists and turns and chance meetings.
“I am from South Africa, I studied winemaking at Stellenbosch. Andrea is from California, she studied winemaking at UC Davis,” says Chris. “One of the first wineries I contacted to do my practical harvest season was Spice Route. Eben Sadie from The Sadie Family Wines was winemaker there at the time. I had heard amazing things about their operation and met up with him for an informal interview to secure a place there for the next harvest.”
“Eben actually ended up leaving to start his own venture before I could start my internship, but I got to help him with winter pruning. I would drive up after class throughout that winter, and that’s when I really fell in love with the Swartland. Because I wanted to do my practical at a big cellar so I could learn the ropes, and Eben was leaving to go smaller, I ended up working at Rustenburg that year, where Adi Badenhorst (AA Badenhorst Family Wines) was my boss. And the other intern was Callie Louw (Porseleinberg)! That year Callie ended up going to California and worked at the same cellar as Andrea in Napa. So he met her four years before I did.”
“This is how we all become interlinked with one or two degrees of separation in the course of about three months back in 2002,” says Andrea. “I had studied at UC Davis and worked in the Napa Valley a few years. When I started my overseas travels, I came to South Africa and worked for Waterford. I’d met Callie in California and South Africa sounded super cool. I worked at Waterford in 2004 for the first six months, and then I spent the rest of the year in France. Up until this point, Chris and I had a lot of mutual friends, but we didn’t really cross paths until we came to France.”
By this time, Chris had been employed at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (which has since been renamed Fable Wines). They were still in the process of establishing the vineyards and his contract with the owners provided him with three months’ sabbatical per year to travel and work overseas, so he headed to France for a few months each year.
“It was my second time there that I met Andrea. She was at Châteauneuf-du-Pape and I was at Bandol, both regions in the south of France that are very similar to the Swartland. Even then, both of us were drawn to the climate and types of grapes we work with now. We met at a wine festival in Champagne one weekend. We started chatting and realised that we were working pretty close to one another, and we had a mutual friend living in Avignon, which was about halfway. So we spent three months falling in love and when I was headed back to South Africa I said to Andrea she should come with me rather than going to New Zealand, which was her plan at the time. She ended up going home for about four months and then came out to South Africa.”
South Africa had actually been on Andrea’s radar for a long while since she first read a feature on SA Wines in a well-thumbed copy of the Wine Spectator in her first year of university. “There was this one picture of a winery with the mountain in the backdrop in that coral pink colour they turn at sunset, and I was like, this is it, I want to go there. Even then I was already drawn to South Africa. But it was 1997 and I was only 18 at the time, so I wasn’t quite ready to connect. My first trip here brought me to Waterford, so by the time Chris and I met in France, I was already in love with the country.”
Andrea took an internship in Hermanus with Kevin Grant who used to be the winemaker for Hamilton Russel, but it was tough going getting out to Tulbagh to see Chris. Fortunately for them, things had gotten to the point where Chris was quite overwhelmed with the momentous task of managing the vineyards, cellar, staff and finances of the winery. When he told the owners that he needed some help to steady the boat, they tasked him with finding someone who was willing to move to the farm in the middle of nowhere and employ them. Fortunately, he knew just the girl.
“So then we made estate wines in Tulbagh,” says Chris, “but we were also continuously buying grapes in from the Swartland for the winery’s second label. This is how we got to know the Swartland really well – we knew where the special vineyards were and which farmers we could work with. When we quit our jobs to get married and strike out on our own in 2007, we knew exactly what we wanted to do – which vineyards we wanted to work with, which wines we wanted to make. This gave our business a running start. We wanted to focus on one place, one region and express it to the best of our ability.”
The move to Riebeek Kasteel & the festival that caused the boom
When Chris and Andrea moved to Riebeek Kasteel to start their own venture, their intention was not to buy land or set up a cellar. They initially rented a space in Short Street across the way from the Royal Hotel, which they converted from a hardware store into a small cellar.
“I studied accounting before I studied winemaking,” says Chris. “So while we had a very clear idea about which wines we wanted to make, we also had a very clear business plan. To start off with it didn’t involve buying land and building a cellar or spending a lot of money, because we didn’t have a lot of money to spend. We simply wanted to work with the best vineyards possible.”
“In those days, in 2007, there weren’t a lot of people coming here and making wine from outside the Swartland. The region didn’t really have the reputation it does now. So we had our pick of the vineyards – we could go to any farmer and say can we please have those ten rows of that block because that’s the best site on the farm and pay them well and they would be happy to do so. At that time our only overheads were grapes, bottles, corks, and labels.”
“The challenge at that time was to get people to come and taste the wines,” explains Andrea. “The region was starting to get some recognition from major publications due to the good work of Eben, Adi and Callie, who’s wineries were also established at the time, but getting people out here to the Swartland to buy the wines locally was still a huge challenge. We needed to get people out here to see how special the place is, so they could resonate with our wines.”
“The Swartland Revolution Festival was our attempt to do just that. The festival was initially spearheaded by Marc Kent from Boekenhoutskloof, and it turned out to be a lot more successful in drawing people to the region that we could ever have expected.”
The festival drew consumers, but it also drew young winemakers who ended up coming to the region to start their own brands. When it started to become so popular and lots of people moved into the area, securing good quality grapes became harder due to the healthy competition they had inadvertently generated.
“This is why we eventually bought land in Riebeeksrivier,” explains Chris. “When you’re small it’s simple to find a new block here or there. At our size, it became more of a challenge. We realised we needed the stability of our own vineyards. Today half the grapes we use are our own, and the other 50% we source from about 30 different vineyards throughout the region. This allows us to farm our grapes to the absolute best level we can and then seek elsewhere for blending components that give the wines more complexity.”
Loving the land & playing steward to the miracle of nature
“Our approach to farming is to understand our terroir and figure out how we can best express that. This ranges from how we plant the vineyards, to making all of our own compost. We’re really just trying to farm as naturally and sustainably as we can,” explains Chris. “The idea is not necessarily to be accredited as a natural or organic winery, but to be able to make wines that taste like the vineyards from which it came. This is ultimately what gives it a sense of place. In comes down to farming sensibly and giving yourself the scope to create beautiful wines that actually taste like it comes from here.”
This includes establishing green belts of indigenous fynbos throughout their vineyards. “The green belts are beautiful, and it also balances the insect life. It attracts predatory insects like wasps and ladybirds into the vineyards to eat the ‘bad insects’ that can harm our harvest. It also enhances flavours in our wines,” says Andrea.
“In Australia, for instance, they have indigenous Eucalyptus trees, and it gives their wines a very distinctive flavour. Certain fynbos species like wild rosemary and buchu are very aromatic and release these same compounds, called volatile phenols, that drift on the air, settling on the grapes and imparting its flavour. There was a lot of these species growing along the mountain already, but then we decided to plant a 20-hectare block, bringing some of it into the vineyards. In this way, our green belts add an extra level of character and complexity to our wines.”
Innovation over imitation
“Our aim is not to grow hugely in size,” says Chris. “We are at a very nice size right now, and we’d rather focus on improving our craft and enjoy what we have built. We want to improve in the vineyards and as winemakers. We’re finding which blocks make the best quality wine every year, and which vineyards we like when we’re standing between the vines, working with the fruit. We’re always working at improving the quality of our wines and refining our style. This means improving in the vineyards, working with our growers, working with our teams.”
“Last year marked our tenth vintage since 2008, and we’ve been giving quite a few vertical tastings of our wines of late. It’s exciting and rewarding for us because you can see the consistency in the wines. We haven’t been jumping around between vineyards and styles. We’ve tweaked it a little bit here and there, but overall it’s the same approach. For us, the art lies in perfecting our skills.”
“It’s very exciting to try new things all the time, but we prefer to work towards bettering quality in any way we can,” Andrea agrees. “Every year we zone in on one aspect of the process that we want to perfect. Our wines will never be 100% perfect, and that’s not something we strive for, because things can quickly become stagnant that way. Picasso said that the only thing worse than copying someone else is copying yourself. For us that is super important. So even though we are refining what we’re doing, we take care not to copy and paste just because something worked the previous year. We’re always pushing ourselves to learn more, understand better and express our terroir above all else.”
Visiting Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines
The Roundstone winery in Riebeeksrivier is open for tastings on Fridays, by appointment only. Call ahead to secure a tasting a week in advance if you want to play it safe. Chris, Andrea and their team are actively involved in the vineyards and cellar on a day-to-day basis, so it helps to give them a head’s up before you make your way to the farm. Groups of up to 8 people can book to enjoy a tasting at the cellar and a short, 30-minute walk through the vineyards.
If you want to visit the region at day other than a Friday, you can pick up some Mullineux wines from The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel.
QUICK LINKS >> Website: www.mlfwines.com| Email: [email protected]| Telephone Number: (021) 492 2455