“Vrolik klink die liedjie Wat die klingelinge van haar enkelringe vergesel…”/ “Cheerful sounds the song that accompanies the clink-ling of her ankle rings…” - Mabalel, Eugene Marais
Crystallum’s Mabalel Pinot Noir is grown at 700m above sea-level, which if you know high altitude vineyards in South Africa, THAT'S quite high. To put it into perspective, Lion’s Head is only 669m high, which if you try and imagine a vineyard ranking up its slopes, gives you an idea of the treachery involved. Grown in the isolated Elandskloof Valley just outside Villiersdorp, which is coated annually by a layer of snow, this is only the third vintage of Mabalel made, and the first Pinot Noir to come from the area. Named for Afrikaans poet/ political rebel/ journalist/ lawyer/ biologist and drug addict, Eugene Marais’s poem, Mabalel. The poem chronicles the story of a local chieftain’s daughter, Mabalel, who went to fetch water from the Limpopo river and was ambushed by Lalele, an enormous crocodile. He pulls her into the river, never to surface again.
Mabalel the girl, and Mabalel the Pinot Noir seem to share a purity of spirit that inevitably imbues the treacherous terrain they finally inhabit with the virtues of their nature. Mabalel the girl with her cautionary tale and Mabalel the Pinot Noir, well you’ll just have to try it yourself to ascertain THOSE particular virtues. With only 3 375 bottles produced in the 2017 vintage, and even less in the latest 2018 release, we’d advise haste. Although, there is another lady legend in this decidedly iconic vintage of Burgundian inspired Cape wines by Crystallum to consider. The Agnes Chardonnay, named for Peter-Allan and Andrew Finlayson's great grandmother, Agnes Floyd. Peter-Allan didn’t say why, but we’d bet she’d also warrant a poem. Though as it stands, she warranted a pretty stellar Chardonnay, which, as a grandmother, I’d almost prefer. The sons of Pinot Pioneer, Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, were always fated to buy into the Burgundian varietals so well-suited to the maritime climate of their native Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Though as many farmers and winemakers could most probably attest, the children don’t always WANT to follow in the footsteps of the father, making their focus and subsequent success a notable achievement.
Of the two brothers, it is Peter-Allan who tends to the day-to-day running of the brand and making of the wine, Andrew is an architect by day and winemaker by night (or as necessary). Together they ascribe to the idea that wine is made in the vineyard and that the quality of the wine can only be as good as the terroir, which is fortunate for them…given the vineyards they’ve sourced to produce their 2018 vintage. In fact the wines are named for these vineyards, which given the whole legend angle, seems telling. There is the Cinema Vineyard which offers structure and complexity, the Bona Fide Vineyard ensuring fruit and perfume, Mabalel elegance and floral notes, and Chautara, in the Overberg adds concentrated, darker fruit flavours. The vintage is therefore defined by four single vineyard wines that showcase the legends of the soil, while the two flagship blends (The Agnes Chardonnay and the Peter Max Pinot Noir) speak more to the optimum expression of the chosen varietal. (Peter Max named for the growers from whom they first bought the fruit for this particular blend.)
Which brings us to the varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes of Burgundy, which have found such incredible expression in the soils of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Though one would think that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were varietals inherited from their father, it would seem that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay CHOSE Crystallum. In fact, their first vintage in 2007 was Sauvignon Blanc with an eye toward exploring other varieties, it soon became apparent however that they had to make the wine best suited to the area. Which after his first trip to Burgundy that same, first vintage year, Peter-Allan felt all doubt had been dispelled and the kind of wine he wanted to make had solidified in his mind - the product, Crystallum. (The name of which is derived from the Latin word for Crystal, which was inspired by a property they previously owned named Crystal Kloof, for the quartz crystals embedded in the rock behind a waterfall on the property.) Peter-Allan still gets the opportunity to experiment however, as winemaker at Gabriëlskloof in the Bot River area, his latest Landscape Series a study in varying terroir and varietals - the true mark of an enthusiast.
One thing about this particular brand of winemaking that has always niggled at me is that I feel there is a growing trend for young winemakers to handpick the best vineyards rather than actually OWNING the land. And when asked whether he thought that in the future this may become the norm, and that big estates might eventually be relegated to hiring out various parcels of land to aspiring young or established niche winemakers, Peter-Allan responded: “I think that we are going through a phase at the moment where it is advantageous for new producers to work this way as the start-up capital required is obviously much less and one can have a range of wines from excellent vineyards on different sites. The issue here is that there are far fewer vineyards available now than was the case ten years ago, which means it will become increasingly difficult to operate this way.” Making wines such as Crystallum (though they do own some of their vineyards) and other smaller, niche brands, that much more significant in my estimation at least, and thus: WINES TO CELLAR.
When asked about the effects of the drought on this particular vintage (2017) - Peter-Allan responds: “I think it is an excellent vintage on the whole in South Africa, but especially so in the Hemel-en-Aarde as the drought had not had much of an influence up until the 2017 vintage. So we had the advantage of a dry, moderate Summer without the stress many other vineyards had to endure.” We invite you to sample the 2018 vintage and draw your own conclusions. With such limited stock available we're keen to hoard this precious stock… But alas, we aim to educate and so I guess we have to SHARE.