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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


alheit Sharing their fairly basic winery (a barn rented from lavender and olive farmer Hans Evenhuis) with Peter-Allan Finlayson, Chris and Suzaan Alheit are stars of another overnight success story in the shape of Alheit, whose 'Cartology' first release became and instant 'cult' wine, so much so that winemaker Chris says he is now very nervous about how he is going to follow up with his second vintage.

Chris had worked in the Napa Valley, then with Houghton in Western Australia and then came home to work in Durbanville. But he said he "Got bored with wine," so went to Europe to try to rekindle the fire. There he got work in St Emilion with Angelus, and his travels took him on to the Mosel where he developed a love of Riesling, letting that love carry him on to work for Knappstein in the Clare Valley before he returned to the Cape for a second time. "I did always plan to come back," he tells me, "and it was the interesting things that were happening in places like Swartland that convinced me it was time."

For Chris Alheit it really is 'all about the fruit'. Their slogan is "99 vineyard' 1% winery," and as Chris said "It takes a long time to find the right old vineyards." One of the keys, he tell me, is altitude - "A couple of hundred metres makes a hell of a difference." To that end his inspiration was super viticultural advisor Rose Kruger, who drove around the Cape to find, map and help preserve old vineyards that were in danger of being abandoned. These are now providing fruit for Chris's bottlings, as well as for many other estates in Swartland and beyond.

Alheit is totally focused on white wines. "Remember," says Chris, "the Cape was famous for its whites for 80 years before anyone rated our reds." He is still mad about Riesling and is "Trying to make great white blends from cool, higher altitude farms." Although based in Hemel-en-Aarde, grapes come from elevated vineyards in other regions, many from high on the west coast in Skurfberg, and the Radio Lazarus vineyard of old and ailing Chenin Blanc in Stellenbosch which Chris is lovingly restoring to health.

The Alheit wines are made using minimal sulphur, with wild yeasts skin contact and no additives. Some teeter on the edge of being 'orange wines', but do not ask Chris if he is part of the 'natural wine' movement: "I hate the term," he says. "There's no point looking after a vineyard the way we do and then run the risk of letting it fall to pieces in the bottle."

The Wines

UK importer of Alheit is ABS Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Alheit, Cartology 2011, South Africa
A blend of 92% Chenin, 8% old vine Semillon including fruit from the Stellenbosch 'Radio Lazarus' vineyard and from slate soils in Riebeek - "From old bush vine Chenin from across the Cape," according to Chris. Stunning nose, beautiful custardy touches to the clear, limpid, lightly buttery apple fruit, touches of golden raisin and deliciously inviting creamy clarity. The palate has that beautiful layer of sweetness and ripeness too, such beautiful natural concentration, with a steely core of citrus and dry apple, but has a seductive hint of plushness. Great length and, in the end, delicious. 92/100.

Alheit, Cartology 2012, South Africa
A little more Semillon in this, but the same range of components. pH of 3.37. Freshness comes from hydrogen ions - that's pH - not really from total acid. Very different on the nose at first, with a slightly more musky note and slightly more buttery, but starts to soften into a much more complete picture. Deliciously tangy and fresh, with hints of that austerity that Chris says is exactly how the 11 looked early on, but he suspects this will be a little less plush than the 2012. The fresh, energetic probing acidity of the crisp, fresh finish is really decisive, really vibrant. 91-92/100.

Alheit, Radio Lazarus 2012, South Africa
From the old 400 metres vineyard planted in 1978 in Stellenbosch that I tasted from barrel. Delicious nose, layered with a little vanilla and almond paste, but tiny floral notes, then the palate has huge presence too lots of raciness and nutty concentration, but a complete, rounded wine with no gaps. 93/100.

return to South Africa 2013