In a recent blog post, I took a look at the quiet track record of Thelema, one of South Africa’s best Cabernet producers. Mulderbosch could arguably be Thelema’s alter ego— it’s known for white wine more than its reds (in contrast to Thelema), and it too has quietly put together an impressive track record.
Co-owned by head winemaker Mike Dobrovic, Mulderbosch has been in the U.S. market since the early 1990s. Before Dobrovic could set about planting vines on the property in Stellenbosch (started in 1990), he had to clean up large piles of broken glass left over by the previous tenant who would toss his used bottles out the window of the house.
Sauvignon Blanc, of course, has a well-cemented reputation for producing crisp, lively, light-bodied wines with citrus, chive and chalk notes. For the most part, they’re meant for immediate consumption, though there are some exceptions. Among the examples are the wines of the late Didier Dagueneau and the Château Haut-Brion white. (Apparently my colleague James Laube has just put California’s Merry Edwards on this short list of Sauvignon Blanc greats.)
As Thelema’s Cabernet represents the steady qualitative progress of the Cape’s reds, so does Mulderbosch represent improvement with the Cape’s whites. There’s been an explosion of Sauvignon Blanc bottlings from South Africa in recent years, and time will tell how many wines from this new generation can match or perhaps exceed Mulderbosch’s track record.
In the meantime, Mulderbosch isn’t sitting on its laurels. Dobrovic has continued to experiment and tinker. According to the winemaker, “We are getting more trellised Sauvignon Blanc now and from three main production areas - Stellenbosch, Durbanville and Elgin. The ripening times differ quite a bit, with the Elgin fruit coming in last.”
This combination of different fruit from varying micro-climates adds to the complexity of the final blend. In addition, Dobrovic has also made drastic changes in the yeast strains used on the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc.
“I used to split a day's juice into as many as four different tanks and then ferment each with a separate yeast,” he says. “Now however we co-inoculate using up to six yeast strains [in each tank]. Each year is an experiment as some yeasts perform better in certain vintages. Suffice to say that it is enormously exciting, and the complexity from the co-inoculations compared to fermentation with a single strain is wonderful to see. Simply put, each strain brings its own set of enzymes into play, which alters the final composition of the wine.”
“The other major change is I let the wines lie with full lees for a longer period after dryness. Besides increasing mouthfeel, this allows the enzymes to work their magic for a longer period. The major advantage is the increase of glutathione (an amino acid with strong antioxidative properties) so the wines should age even better than before.”
Mulderbosch currently farms 56 acres of vines, plus brings in some purchased fruit. The winery now produces 90,000 cases a year, about 22,000 of which are Sauvignon Blanc.
Following are notes on three older vintages of Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc that show noticeable improvement over the short range of vintages; the most recent of these, the 2003, is the best of the three, showing excellent cut and definition. (The current 2007 vintage retails for about $20 a bottle. It’s one of the best values around if you like a nervy, bright, rapier-sharp Sauvignon Blanc that can withstand a little bottle age.)
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2003
Very expressive, with lemon verbena and lemon pound cake notes rippling through a racy core of gooseberry and grapefruit rind. The lengthy finish has lost its severity, but still retains a refreshing tangy note. From a cool vintage with excellent acid balance, according to Dobrovic. I originally reviewed this at 92 points, with a drink recommendation of best from 2004 through 2006.
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2001
Mature, with verbena and thyme notes backed by a still lively chive note. White asparagus and floral notes fill out the finish. Still has some zip, though a nutty hint is peeking in on the finish now. A year with good rainfall and above average acidity, according to Dobrovic. I originally reviewed this at 90 points, with a recommendation to drink through 2003.
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 1999
Fully mature, with asparagus, straw and chamomile notes backed by a hint of candle wax. This is a touch past prime for me, and the weakest of the three vintages here. A difficult year, according to Dobrovic. Originally reviewed at 88 points (by another editor), with a recommendation to drink upon release.