Yesterday afternoon I was scrambling around on a dull Spring day on two peaks of the Bottelary Hills in Stellenbosch. Tonight I opened a bottle of Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s Radio Lazarus 2014 to go with my fish and chips (sorry – it should have been something grander, but such is life). The bottle is half-finished, and I have a glassful alongside me as I write, and not much confidence of the level in the bottle being maintained – for how can I write of those slopes, and of Chris Alheit’s passion for them, without tasting the translation of the vineyards and the passion into wine?
Seeing vineyards and connecting them to a wine is a wonderful privilege. I fell in love with Mosel riesling even before tasting it, through Hugh Johnson’s haunting description of the wine and the place. The love was immeasurably enriched the first time I stood on the bridge at Bernkastel-Kues and looked at those implacable cliffs of vine; somehow, some meaningful connection was made, and I have never again been able to taste Mosel riesling without a shudder of recognition of that landscape.
So now, tonight more than before, this rich and flavourful but precisely delineated (ridiculously youthful – more apologies!) wine tastes of the stones I stumbled over, of old, damaged and now-loved chenin bushvines struggling to welcome spring with fistfuls of bright green leaves to feed the meagre bunches of grapes that will sparsely appear in months to come.
Many of the gnarled, heavy stems on the vines of the Radio Lazarus vineyard will never flourish with leaves and grapes again. Too many are dead, or implacably dying. Never, to me, have the leaves of spring seemed so precious or hard-won.
This vineyard (planted in 1978) had always been worked hard, much too hard in its latter years, then was briefly abandoned before Chris Alheit discovered it. There, he says on the fascinating Alheit website, having driven up the mountain, “draped over its rocky crest, a scraggly, patchy old vineyard waited for me”. The Alheits started farming the block in 2010, and have so far released two vintages (2012 and 2014) of Radio Lazarus off it – the wine named for the rebirth of the vineyard and for the radio beacon at its highest corner. The 2013 crop went in its entirety into the superb Alheit blend, Cartology.
Chris doubts if they have made any real profit from this vineyard (it remains scraggly and patchy), given the costs of renting it and of working it, and the absurdly low yields it offers. “Labour of love” is a phrase that acquires a lot of significance here. Seeing Chris there among the vines he’d worked so tenderly and laboriously with for half a decade was both a sobering and exhilarating experience. The old vines seem doomed, and he was clearly affected by seeing this anew. But new vines will come in time (and one day will be old), filling in the wider and wider gaps. It’s clearly a marvellous site for chenin blanc.
Bumping heavily down the side of the Ribbokberg and up the even steeper side of Bottelaryberg (I did wonder at one particular point, where there seemed no way forward and I dreaded to think of Chris having to reverse his bakkie, if I’d be getting home that day) we came to another old Bottelary chenin vineyard that the Alheits have taken for themselves – it’s a little higher, a little older, and in markedly better condition. And the top of this hill is even more heavily populated by radio masts, reinforcing the connection with the Radio Lazarus vineyard.
What exactly Chris and Suzaan will do with these grapes is not entirely decided, in terms of their portfolio. It’s clearly another very special place, and the Alheit love and the Alheit magic touch will bring this out. In 2014, this vineyard fed into Cartology, no doubt playing its part in a particularly fine vintage of that excellent wine. As to the future, let’s wait and see. My trust in the Alheits making the right decision is as resolute and firm as their commitment, and their wine!
It could even work as some sort of definition of the Cape wine revolution in its current phase: that this anonymous old vineyard in a comparatively underestimated and neglected part of Stellenbosch, is set for some sort of glory.