You may have noticed that I sometimes start – dangerously – questioning the use of writing about wine and asking myself if there is any point in yelling about it from digital rooftops. This train of thought is hazardous. Before you even realise it, you start slipping and sliding toward the slough of introspection. Thinkers falling into this ditch can struggle to get out. They start asking about the very nature of things, and, as any human being looking for a comfortable passage through life knows, you should leave the nature of things alone. It’s terrible for digestion.
Unfortunately, I hardly ever listen to my own advice and I found myself cartwheeling down the hill emitting high-pitched whoops. I began to ask risky questions; wondering whether dark lights lit up dark spaces, if Mina Moo had a meaningful sub-text, is there such a thing as the South African Dream, and would it include boerewors, tenders, and moer-koffie. I found precious few answers, and even less solace.
What’s the point? It’s just a drink, a pretty amazing drink, but for goodness sake why all the words, the endless stream of words and descriptors? Minerality, chalkiness, burnt oak, berries, citrus, cigar boxes, on and on and on it goes; you wonder when anyone has the time to drink. They all, I had to agree (with myself), were being spoken and written to support the interest in a subject most people don’t have time to care about. If there were no more wine words, would we drink less wine? Possibly, but I wonder if those who carry on drinking enjoy it more?
Such were the thoughts I was living with last week. Thinking that these articles, blog posts and columns were pretty much useless, I fended off other terrifying introspective journeys with Tassenberg and Libertas. I vowed to give up this meaningless babble, to drink more and write less, to pick a pursuit more worthy of my words. That was until I visited Radio Lazarus.
Radio Lazarus is an old Chenin Blanc vineyard on the Bottlery Hills that winemakers Chris and Suzaan Alheit are restoring. I visited it and my spirits were lifted.
The vineyard gets its name from a radio tower situated on top of the hill where the vineyard grows, and because the vineyard has been raised from the dead (if you don’t get that, go read your bible). Chris is also a man with a message, and wants his wines to do the broadcasting, so the ‘radio’ here has a double meaning. His message is one of authentic South African wines, wines whose origins are worn on their sleeves.
The Alheits are hell bent on producing authentic wines. What are authentic wines? Well I am not sure if there is a definition yet. I would say they are wines that unique to their origin. Chris likes to argue that historical records show the earliest vines planted in the Cape – Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, and Palomino – arrived back in 1655/6, when Hendrick Boom tended the Compagnie’s Tuin. This means that these white varieties were growing in the Cape some time before there was any Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Medoc.
Varieties that have been in one place for so long become part of the land. It’s not just Chenin, but South African Chenin. The pair state on their website that their aim is : “to vinify extraordinary Cape vineyards. In doing so, we hope to find the voice of the land itself. Whether that voice be a choir of amazing blocks blended into one bottle, or the purity and beauty of a single vineyard soloist.”
Is this mere marketing twaddle? More words adding to the already crowded stream? Some will definitely say so. I have to disagree. I’ve tasted the Alheit’s first wine, Cartology 2011, a Cape White blend made of Chenin Blanc and a dash of Semillon, all from old vineyards. It is a very good wine, with complexity, purity and depth. I had a bottle of it the other day and I savoured each sip from the bottle as it developed, twisting and turning showing white fruit, tropical fruit, and a sliver of minerality. They are out to make the best South African wines possible, which for Chris is the best possible wine full-stop. I believe they will do this.
Back to Radio Lazarus. The view is astounding. You look over the vineyards as the hill falls away toward Darling, turning left you see the unmistakable outline of Table Mountain, keep turning and you glimpse Cape Point, False Bay, then the Hottentots-Holland range and the Helderberg. It was winter so the gnarled bush vines, clean of leaves, were like the hands of a Tim Burton monster reaching up through the earth.
Chris and Suzaan found the vineyard almost by accident. Chris says “the search for this block took months of driving around, speaking to farmers and fellow winemakers. It turns out there are not many vineyards much older than 30 years in Stellenbosch. The poverty factor that kept many of the Cape’s really old vines in the ground did not prevail here.”
They weren’t scheduled to see this vineyard, but a farm manager in the area told them he had “some old Steen, up on top of the hill”. They took a drive up to the top and when they arrived Chris said he knew the search for single vineyard of old-vine Chenin in Stellenbosch was over. The vineyard sits at 403 m above sea level, 17 kilometers from False Bay, and 26 kilometers from the Atlantic. This means it is quite a cool vineyards and allows the grapes to hang on the vine longer, which means better ripeness.
The place was in a bad state when they arrived, and the first harvest (2011) didn’t produce enough grapes to release a wine, but the few barrles they made showed a lot of promise. Their hard work, and tender loving care – which means the grapes cost nine times more to produce than a standard vineyard – saw the 2011 harvest yield 750kg/ha of grapes, and 1200 kg/ha in 2012; the aim for 2013 is 2500 kg/ha. It has taken a lot of very hard work to get the vineyard going again, Chris says “we persevere with it because we believe that it’s an extraordinary site that will by it’s very nature yield an extraordinary wine.”
When I visited Radio Lazarus with Chris he was there to check up on the cover crop he had planted after harvest. Cover crops are planted amongst the vines to manage soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in the vineyards. Chris worried that they may have not grown well, but we arrived to see a green lush carpet under the vines. A green sea filled with little gnarled masted boats moored in lines. The results of the cover crop could already be seen with earthworms coming back into the soil.
You can see Chris loves this little patch of land. He walked through the vineyard continually stooping to touch the vines, examining them, looking admirably at the cover crop, visibly excited at the sight of each earthworm. Their website says: “We strongly believe that fine wine is grown, rather than made. In our cellar, a vineyard is allowed to become a wine without interference.” I am always cynical when I hear these statements as they are being said by far more people than there are wines to back it up. I believe the statement from the Alheits, however. I very much doubt Chris looks upon his barrels and tanks with as much tenderness as he does his vines.
What is the wine like? I tasted a barrel sample, which was quite raw, and not ready, but there was a spark of interest in it. Old vine chenin, I find, has a depth that wines from younger vines lack. It is hard to describe. Maybe similar to the pressure you feel as you dive deeper underwater. It is something to really look forward to. It has interest. It comes from a special vineyard that is looked after like a child, it is why I love wine.
[Cue panpipes] The vineyard has an energy about it. A stark beauty. A contrast between the postcard views, and the old gnarled vines, struggling, fighting to stay alive for a couple more vintages so the Alheits can make what they hope to be a “majestic wine”. Certain vineyards have something special about them. I’ve visited a few that you simply feel something for. One I was called Ladredo, a vineyard in Ribeira Sacra in Spain; it has an energy, perched on the steep slopes of Galicia. I felt something similar at Radio Lazarus
Meeting people who are out to restore and curate South Africa’s vinous heritage; people who go out and struggle to produce wines of interest and authenticity, who spurn new oak and look to the vineyard, who are hell bent on producing great South African wines. It is people like these who make wine words worth writing.
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