My weighty contribution to Cape wine harvest 2017 has already been made (without getting my hands abominably sticky, fortunately). I must have carried twenty lug-boxes of chenin from the coolroom and piled them onto a pallet to be transported by forklift to the crusher. Surely at least fifteen? Well, at least ten great big heavy lug-boxes, I’m sure. The grapes were those of Poenie Lourens (more formally but less universally known as Franco), destined for his Lourens Family Wines range; the winery was that of Chris and Suzaan Alheit at Hemelrand, high on a ridge in the Hemel-en-Aarde, where Poenie also works as a winemaker.
I also that morning had my first taste of harvest 2017: delicious, concentrated freshly crushed juice – more chenin, but this time Chris’s, from one of the vineyards he picks in the Skurfberg area of the Olifants River. From what I’ve heard generally, it looks to be a better year for most dryland vineyards than drought-ravaged, lower-acid 2016 (though Chris is immensely enthusiastic about his Magnetic North 2016, especially).
Winery visitors are never warmly welcomed at harvest time, I know (even if they’re willing to tug a lug-box or two), but the reason why I dared to venture into the Hemelrand cellar was that I was renting, for the length of the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, the adjacent cottage, which, like the cellar, a few vineyards and rather more extensive olive groves, is owned by Hans Evenhuis. Anyway, Chris showed me around his domaine – something which took quite a bit longer this year than last, as he’s extended the buildings quite substantially (and was awaiting the imminent delivery of some cement tanks). He mentioned a few times his particular pleasure in the new winery floor – but I’m damned if I can remember what was special about its composition.
Long gone, in conceptual distance if not in years, was the time when the original small cellar here housed not only the infant Alheit operation but also that of Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum, and then even the first few barrels of John Seccombe’s Thorne and Daughters semillon. There was, I recall with pleasure, something innocent and marvellous about the atmosphere of youthful intensity, friendship, collaboration and mutual influence in those earlier days of increasingly renowned producers. Just yesterday I was wearing the T-shirt trumpeting, both humorously and seriously, “The Hemelrand Centre of Wine Excellence … Vintage 2013”, But things move on, implacably.
A pleasure for me this year was walking in the early morning around the maturing vineyards of roussanne, verdelho, chardonnay and chenin just near the cellar, vines which Hans Evenhuis carefully tends. His Hemelrand Wine Garden, made by Chris Alheit just alongside, saw its maiden commercial release with the 2015. Hans kindly left for me bottles of that 2015 and the as-yet-unlabelled 2016 – which will be released, I suppose, with the Alheit wines as it was last year, in some months’ time.
It’s something to look forward to – especially if the price of Wine Garden remains significantly lower than other Alheit wines. The 2015 is developing beautifully, but the 2016 perhaps offers even more by way of fresh elegance, with its fruit appeal focused by a finer, tighter acid balance and a more perceptible element of the ethereal lightness that is the airy mark of Chris Alheit’s magical touch.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.