A few years ago, we seemed to be continually tripping over articles and observations about South African “cult wines” and “icon wines”. Fortunately we seem to have got bored with the sometimes sterile debate about which wine was and which wasn’t one of those things – and what, indeed, the categories mean. But, without wishing to start another round, I confess that this week I started thinking about it again – the “cult wine” bit, that is, rather than icons.
It was the email about the release of the Alheit Vineyards 2013s that prompted it – making me wonder if, in fact, Alheit is going to be setting a new standard in cultishness for South African wine, and doing so through genuine quality and winemaking integrity, rather than the market-oriented attempt by something like G (remember G? maybe not; a good, Napa-styled wine with some fairly fancy names attached to it, and released at an outlandish price which was clearly its main, contemptible claim to becoming cultish; as far as I can tell, the project has so far largely bombed).
Alheit hit the wine scene two years ago with Cartology 2011, launched at a friendly and modest supper at Knead in Cape Town. Rave reviews soon followed, including 5 Platter stars; international critics were equally enthusiastic. I suspect that no new wine had ever been so well received around the world, so quickly, in the Cape’s vinous history. Of course, as Chris and Suzaan Alheit would eagerly acknowledge, such a reception was only possible because of the pioneering work of others making this kind of wine – firstly Eben Sadie, then the other Swartland revolutionaries, especially Chris and Andrea Mullineux, as well as viticulturist Rosa Kruger – and, of course, the international recognition that excellence was coming out in many spots in the Cape.
The time was right for the Alheits – fortunately. Chris has told me that they probably only had one chance to get things right. Everything was being done on a tiny budget, and the small family loan they had was not going to be extended. This sort of venture, founded upon genuine passion and integrity is very vulnerable in its early years – more so than a capitalist venture funded from Switzerland, for example.
The new releases
So, the email about the third Alheit release. Just two wines on offer: the third vintage of Cartology, and the maiden vintage of a wine splendidly called Magnetic North Mountain Makstok. There’s no new vintage of Radio Lazarus, the marvellous chenin from a rescued (back-from-the dead) vineyard on Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Hills, and my favourite (just) of the 2012s. It’s worth quoting what Chris Alheit wrote about the non-release, a decision which will cost them quite a bit of cash (even though the wine was blended into Cartology). It tells you a lot about the thinking at this winery:
“The barrels from the Radio Lazarus 2013 were impressive and probably would have made a very good wine, but … we rightly decided that the barrels were just too ripe and not quite elegant enough to be a great reflection of that piece of land. It was an extremely tough call to make, especially given the amount of work that goes into the vineyard.
The fault is mine. I picked the vineyard a few days too late. At the time I thought I’d nailed the pick, but nothing is as honest as wine. It was just too ripe – only just…. We won’t ever present the public with an Alheit Vineyards wine that’s not “true”. Now pass me the Kleenex…”
The name for the new wine came after vast indecision (I’m sure the new Alheit man-child baby, due any day now, will not be so difficult to name). I reported in a piece on “difficult” wine names late last year that no-one loves old vineyards, tradition and history more than Chris does – but “when tinkering with names for a new wine, even they are realising, reluctantly, that the historically plausible “Bovogelfontein” might just not go down too well in London and New York”.
The new wine gets its name, Chris tells me, thus: “The vineyard lies a few degrees off true north from our cellar [in the Hemel-en-Aarde], roughly on magnetic North. The name implies distance and exploration. It implies a true course of action or movement. It implies an attractive force causing us to drive bloody miles and miles for these vines. There is plenty of iron in the soil, which is a magnetic element, so that fits nicely too. In physical reality, magnetic North is always moving, it never remains in the same place, so there is the added implication of a mysterious unattainable target. ‘Makstok’ is a local Afrikaans colloquialism for an ungrafted vine.’
I tasted the wine in barrel last year, and immensely look forward to tasting it again, now bottled – and comparing it with two other brilliant chenins from the Skurfberg in the Olifants Rivier region – Sadie’s Ouwingerdreeks Skurfberg and one of the Cape’s more underrated wines, Ginny Povall’s Botanica.
By the way, there’s no pic yet of the new label – as it’s not yet quite finished! Watch this space.
As to the cult bit. I’m sure the Alheit 2013s wine will be available locally, briefly, in a few retail outlets and restaurants, only after commercial release in July, but the Magnetic North, particularly, will be in very short supply (and I’d guess it’ll be well over R400 retail). I have little doubt that all the stock could have been sold via the mailing list if the Alheits had so chosen (but however committed to genuine values they might be, they recognise market realities and know that at this stage it’s still best for the wine to get around a bit).
But not even everyone on the Alheit mailing list was offered Magnetic North, and no more than six bottles, so small are the quantities available – only those who’ve been keen customers right from the start. Already there’s an A list and a B list, you see…. It’s that sort of process, that sort of reality, that prompted my thoughts about Alheit perhaps becoming the Cape’s first cult winery – though there are already wines hinting at cultishness, perhaps including Boekenhoutskloof Syrah (less so now than previously) and Sadie’s wonderful Old Vine Series (though not the flagship Sadie wines). (The interesting thing is what incredibly good value all these wines offer!)
The marks of a cult winery? International acclaim, small-release wines that are very hard to get hold of – increasingly only via a mailing list for which there’s a queue. I suggest you try to get on the list while you still can, if you want the wines – if, indeed, you still can. Next year will perhaps prove if I’m correct with my understanding of what’s happening.
Importantly: if anyone can cope gracefully, retaining integrity, once this sort of cult thing starts happening, no-one will do it better than the modest, wine-driven Alheits, I’d suggest.
– Click here for the Alheit Vineyard’s excellent website – though there’s nothing yet there about the forthcoming new releases.