An Indian Coup in the Winelands of the Cape

0

Michael Fridjhon explains how Analjit Singh of Max India struck gold by buying into Mullineux Family Wines, one of South Africa’s top wine producers. Pictured above: Analjit Singh and Chris Mullineux embrace after signing the agreement between them while Andrea smiles approvingly. Article appeared in issue 6, 2014, currently in circulation.

Most media releases are either extravagant or anodyne in nature. The former preface their announcements with hyperbole – “best, greatest, unprecedented” – while the latter, in an attempt to stick to the key business components of the communication, make a virtue of being bland. The initial reports about Analjit Singh’s investments in the Cape winelands were not designed to feed the rumour mills and in this they proved to be remarkably successful. It should be added that by the time he started buying up properties in Franschhoek, foreign ownership of vineyards in the Cape had ceased to be a matter of any real importance to the general media.

Wine publications had also come to give these announcements scant attention, unless the buyer was a widely recognised international player or one who owned a high profile international business. For example, May de Lencquesaing, who was still the proprietor of Château Pichon Lalande at the time she purchased Glenelly in Stellenbosch, found herself the focus of media attention because of her long established position in the Bordeaux trade. Likewise, Laurence Graff’s acquisition of Delaire made the news – but that was because he’s probably the individual with the highest profile in the already high profile, luxury, jewellery trade. In contrast, Analjit Singh’s early shopping spree could pretty much have been conducted incognito for all the publicity that it garnered.

Things might have stayed this way had he not – in the course of seeking to employ a winemaker for his properties – discovered that by buying into Mullineux wines he would both acquire production competence and a share in the Cape’s front-ranked cellar. The circumstances were fortuitous. Chris and Andrea Mullineux had launched their business about five years earlier and it had instantly become a resounding success. One of their original backers – whose interest had been both speculative and entrepreneurial – had decided that this would be a good time to exit and move on to another project. He was happy to give the Mullineuxs a little time to find a new shareholder – one they could be comfortable with over the much longer journey that lay ahead. Their consulting viticulturist was already working on Singh’s vineyards and suggested that their getting together might prove fruitful.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider exactly what opportunity this presented to a newcomer to the sometimes staid world of Cape wine. Singh owned property in a well-known – even fashionable – location but its status as a wine producer was entirely untested. He needed a winemaker, and while there’s no shortage of trained and technically skilled candidates, no one (except the most mercenary) would readily leave an established position for the uncertainties of this kind of start-up. Ordinarily, significant equity in small, enormously successful, owner-operated wine businesses like Mullineux’s is not for sale. Buying into a going concern with clear upward potential and paying on multiple rather than on unknown prospects, while simultaneously solving the problem of attracting top winemaking skills, is an unlikely double whammy. Imbuing the new project with an instant profile just added to the value of the coup.

Andrea and Chris Mullineux had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of Cape wine. While still completing his undergraduate studies at Stellenbosch, Chris went straight to what became Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, while it was still in its development phase. This was a mere 12 years ago. He oversaw some of the plantings as well as the establishment of the cellar and made its first very successful vintages. When the property was sold in 2008, the Mullineuxs set up their own small cellar in Riebeek-Kasteel. A little more than six years later their operation was judged the Winery of the Year by Platter’s South African wine guide – an accolade reserved for the best producer in the country. With four 5-star wines in the 2014 edition to go with the seven 5-star awards they had collected since they had launched their wine business, they instantly joined the elite ranks of the most successful producers in the 35-year history of the Guide.

The top end of the wine market is always a precarious place to inhabit. No matter how good you are, no matter how meticulous your selection, no matter how modestly you accept the accolades, everyone is waiting to see you fail. The mere fact that you have become the benchmark that others are determined to outperform makes you rather like the marathon runner who sets the pace but is at risk of running out of steam. Then there is the question of fashion: to be á la mode today means that at some stage in the not-too-distant-future the caravan will have moved on. No matter how good you are, no matter how consistent your performance, there is a perceived value to novelty. The trade likes change. No wonder even the most competent and adept find life at the pinnacle lonely and life-threatening.

So here we have the Mullineuxs in the same high-risk space – every wine is good in its own right, and some cuvées, extraordinary by any standard. Their business model has some built-in safety features – a relatively new partner to provide the enterprise with the financial backing it may need, and low enough volumes to ensure the cellar is not enslaved to the commerce of wine. This balance is crucial – especially with overwhelming demand and limited vineyard ownership (much of the top fruit is contracted, though the winery team often manages the viticulture). Without this independence it’s often impossible for producers to resist the temptation to release the high-priced cuvées even when the fruit isn’t good enough to make the cut.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux are very conscious of these dangers. Their Kloof Street range is designed to provide value wines for those of the cellar’s followers who also want good everyday drinking. At R80 for the white and R90 for the red, they are arguably under-priced. The producers prefer it this way – they don’t want these wines to become the statement of their aesthetic vision or a distraction from their primary objective, which is a focus on site-specificity. In a way, this forces them to make all the components of the more premium Mullineux range work, both for the wines and for the business.

Essentially here the cellar offers a blended red (R240) and a blended white (R190). There are fewer of these than in the Kloof Street range, but significantly more than the single-site wines (Syrah and Chenin – defined in terms of the soils/geology of the vineyards). No doubt the purists will want to chase down the Schist or Granite Syrah – of which typically 100 cases of each are produced each year, and which sell for around R675 per bottle. For my money, however, the blends – which optimise the best features from these often wildly diverse locations – make for a better drink. I can’t think of many Northern Rhône Syrahs to match the 2012 Mullineux that’s just been released, and certainly not at less than three times the price.

This, of course, is merely the starting point of the new partnership. The wines presently coming to market were either conceived or made before the Mullineuxs teamed up with Analjit Singh. The real fruits of their new partnership will only see the light of day when the properties currently being developed in Franschhoek yield their first harvest, and are transformed into wine. What is clear is that these will not be sold under the existing Mullineux label. There is talk that the Leeu part of the joint venture (“Leeu” is Afrikaans for “lion” – a play on words incorporating Singh’s name and also the South African provenance) will appear as the brand name on the Franschhoek origin range. It also seems clear that “Bas” – as the Mullineux’s refer to their partner, from the initials of his full name, Bhai Analjit Singh – will leave them to focus on its style: there’s been no indication that he is trying to stamp his aesthetic vision on the wines.

Whatever the case, it will be several years before the Franschhoek cellar has a strong and separate presence in the market. Mullineux and Leeu may then express two totally different styles of Cape wine. The former will continue to reflect the stony, slightly bleak, gently undulating landscape of the Swartland, with its occasional rocky outcrop and its weathered ancient geology. The latter, coming from the verdant valley first settled by the French Huguenots over three centuries ago, will necessarily be less austere. Still, it’s a safe bet that whatever wines emerge from a cellar under the control of Andrea and Chris Mullineux will never be overdone or plush. Restraint remains their hallmark, and while this does not mean that their wines will be spartan, it may take time and discernment to discover their generosity.

10

WHAT THE PARTNERS HAVE TO SAY

Chris Mullineux
SI: Is it correct to say that Leeu will only appear on the wine labels produced in Franschoek and Mullineux in the wines from Swartland?
Chris: Mullineux & Leeu is the name of our winery, and represents our exciting partnership. Mullineux and Leeu will appear on all the back labels, but because terroir and regionality are so important to us in terms of wine quality and identity, our Mullineux label will only appear on Swartland Wines of origin and the Leeu label (which we are yet to release) will appear on wines coming out of Franschoek.

SI: Why is Anlajit Singh referred to as “Bas”?
Chris: Bas represent Mr Analjit Singh’s initials and is a short form for how we affectionately address him.

SI: If and when the wines are available in India, which ones are they likely to be?
Chris: At this stage we are exporting a small amount of wine to Bas directly in India, but this is for his own use. It is probably the best looked after of any of the wines we export – air freighted and stored in specialised wine fridges at Bas’s home.

SI: Which are your major export markets?
Chris: We export to 23 countries, and the largest markets for us are the UK, USA, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Holland and Mauritius.

SI: What is the turnover of your company?
Chris: As we are a privately held company we prefer not to disclose this information.

Bhai Analjit Singh
SI: What prompted you to invest in a vineyard?
Analjit: Firstly, it was love at first sight with South Africa. Secondly, the world of wine
brings with it many other associations which are close to my heart, such as
agriculture, nature, food, good living, friends and the finer things in life.

SI: What do you expect to get from this, a venture which is so different from your other businesses?
Analjit: I expect pleasure, personal satisfaction and reasonable returns.

SI: Is your interest in this venture purely as an investor or also a consumer and wine lover?
Analjit: It’s a bit of both. We have to do a fair amount of entertaining and it give me immense pleasure to serve my guests excellent wine from a vineyard in which I have a share.

Share.

About Author

Leave A Reply