The last time I went vineyard-visiting with Chris Alheit, he was rather disconsolate about the decrepitude of many of his original Radio Lazarus vines on which he’d lavished so much love and care – bringing them back, as it were and as the wine-name implies, from the dead. But yesterday was a different story – quite the opposite it fact, pretty literally. We went to Ceres, to the highlying farm Delarey, where, at Chris’s urging – and for Chris’s cellar, the farmer this last August planted a hectare or so of riesling.
It was his first visit to the infant vineyard, and this lover of old vines proved to be just as much a lover of young ones. The vigorous young plants emerged triumphant from a sea of yellow-flowering ramnasgras – we pulled out some of the latter, but the farmworks would soon be coming into do a more thorpugh (and back-breaking) job.
Chris’s interest in growing wine-grapes in cool, high Ceres (well-known, of course, for its fruit-farming) goes back to 2008 when he visited a friend in the area; he came to think that here might be “potentially some of the best winelands in the Cape” – and probably especially suitable, because of its relative coolness, for riesling, a grape which is something of an “obsession” for him.
A few wines have been made from Ceres grapes, and Distell gets grown-for-volume grapes from a farm there, but there’s been little concentrated ambition here as yet. Inland winegrowing, in continental rather than more coastal conditions, has been most usefully explored in Sutherland, in the Klein Karoo, where Daniel de Waal makes a small range (including a riesling) under the Mount Sutherland label. These are the highest vineyards in the country – but Chris’s riesling, at an altitude of 1260 metres, comes in second, ahead of Cederberg, which was for a long time the home of the highest vineyards.
The Ceres vines will certainly get cold winters (though less cold than Sutherland, and the snow is usually quite a bit lighter, I believe), and there will be a danger of spring frosts – a late-budding variety like riesling is therefore particularly suitable. And Chris says that the summer in Ceres should be cooler than in Sutherland. Rainfall is not high, at about 600mm per year, but no irrigation will be needed once the bushvines (no expensive trellising) are established.
Anyway – eventually, after a lot of exploring and negotiating, Chris’s vision of a Ceres riesling has come a great deal closer. And, perhaps inevitably, given his conviction that these cool temperatures, varied aspects and shale soils should produce something marvellous, his vinous imagination is racing ahead to further plantings. He and viticulturist Rosa Kruger have, for example, identified an ideal slope on which to plant mencia, the black Spanish variety. And Chris has an interest in other young vines planted in quite a different part of the high Ceres plateau.
Withe vines and grapes in the control of people like Chris Alheit, Ceres might yet become more famous for its vines than its apples and pears.