Alheit Vineyards
A new star, specializing in Chenin-based wines from great sites in South Africa


One of the most talked about new wineries in South Africa is Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s Alheit Vineyards, a new venture based in Hemel en Aarde, but sourcing grapes from all over the place. Chris and Suzaan work just with white grapes, mainly Chenin Blanc but also a bit of Semillon, and their debut wine, Cartology 2011, made a big impact on its release, getting some hefty critic scores. I caught up with them at their base, Hemelrand, where they make their wine.

The rave reviews for Cartology are well deserved, but some of the point scorers who went big run the risk of running out of points when Chris and Suzaan really hit their stride. ‘Cartology is our village wine,’ Chris says. ‘We want to start building up a portfolio of single cru wines, all based on traditional cape varieties, specifically Chenin.’

‘We are trying to make authentically Cape wine, that can’t be imitated in other parts of the world,’ explains Chris. ‘There is evidence that Chenin and Semillon have been here since 1656, so they have been here for about 80 years longer than there is any evidence for Cabernet being planted in the Medoc.’

The model for Alheit Vineyards is to work with old bush vines planted on remarkable sites. ‘We are cherry picking sites from around the Cape – they need to be high altitude and dry farmed, and farmed as sustainably as possible,’ explains Chris.   

Alheit share the small winery at Hemelrand with others, including Peter Allan Finlayson (Crystallum). It’s not a big operation. 2011 was the first vintage, and consisted of just 20 or so barrels of wine. Things have grown since then, but not massively. There are about 40 or so barrels of the 2013 vintage, and we tasted from some of the barrels. ‘Everything is old vine Chenin Blanc, with one exception, which is a 14 year old vineyard, but other than that everything is 30 years or older,’ says Chris. ‘We are not choosing vines on age, but on site. For example, Radio Lazarus is our first single vineyard wine. We had options to choose older vineyards lower down the slope, but we would rather go for something that is in its mid-30s from an amazing site.’

One of the next in the series of single site wines is probably going to be from a vineyard called Skurfberg. We tasted from a few barrels of 2013 from this vineyard. ‘One of the reasons we want to release this as a single site wine is because it is ungrafted vineyards and we don’t have a lot of this left in the Cape. It is from the area that Eben Sadie is calling Skurfberg, but which is Citrusdal Mountain legally. It is a rescue vineyard that was going to be pulled out, and we have exclusivity on this little patch. It is like a monopole.’

This vineyard is 520 m above sea level, out in the wilderness. ‘Skurfberg is way past anywhere anyone thinks you can grow good wine latitude wise,’ says Chris, but the altitude coupled with the soil makes it a good site. ‘It is really high up, on a belt of mountains between the West Coast and Clanwilliam. It is populated with these 90 year old bush vines that look like little bonsais. The soil is sandveld, the top is mostly sand, then it goes into loam and then into clay.’

The Alheit wines are made pretty naturally, with no additions, save for some sulfur dioxide late in the winemaking process. ‘Because we are not adding anything to the wines, picking date is everything,’ says Chris. ‘We have to nail the pick so we still have nice natural acid, because we let everything go through malolactic fermentation that wants to.’

‘The idea is we are trying to take winemaking out of the equation as much as possible,’ he continues. ‘We treat everything exactly the same. We are trying to get to what the vineyards taste of. We don’t manipulate anything. Everything goes into old oak barrels, and the youngest here is five years old, so they don’t contribute anything except porosity.’ Chris doesn’t like new oak: ‘You should write something on the similarity between new oak and retsina. It’s basically the same thing: flavouring wine with a tree.’

‘Everything is whole-bunch pressed, and we don’t press too hard. We press it, taste the juice, when I feel it has had enough we put it into a tank, cool it, then rack it within 24 h, with no enzymes or sulfur. It is pretty murky when it goes in, but there are no heavy solids. Sometimes we put in some slightly heavier stuff, I want some to be a bit grittier. If it moves it moves.’

But this is not hardcore ideological natural winemaking. ‘We like sulfur,’ says Chris. ‘We think it is our friend.’

The resource of old vine Chenin vineyards is a precious one, and it’s probably only because these vineyards haven’t been rated highly in the past that the current crop of young, ambitious winemakers can access them. ‘It is great for us in the Cape that we are still expanding our vocabulary and have a grape that is a vehicle for terroir,’ says Chris, referring to Chenin. ‘Most of these vineyards were making bag in box in the past. It is a stroke of luck. We are at a very fortunate place in the history of the Cape right now where we can get in and do this.’

‘The farmers don’t know what has hit them,’ says Suzaan. ‘Suddenly they are getting triple the price for their grapes, and everyone is talking about them.’ There is a risk though, that some of the bigger companies might try to make a move for vineyards being used by the likes of the Alheits and Eben Sadie, now they’ve seen just what they can do. But Chris and Suzaan think loyalty will prevent this from happening.

‘These guys are small time farmers,’ says Chris. ‘They are very loyal to us. We put our money where our mouth is. We are paying far more than the market rate – we are paying triple that, because the vines aren’t going to survive if we don’t do this.’

The next two barrel samples compared Chenin from two vineyards quite close to each other, but with different soils. The first is a schist vineyard hired from Mullineux, which is red Riebeek schist. The second is a Paardeberg vineyard made of quartzy granite, with some mica in it. ‘The granite is more kind of brilliant, bright and feminine,’ says Chris, ‘while the schist has this sledge-hammer mid palate.’

‘I am very conscious of natural acid and freshness in wines, says Chris. ‘If you add tartaric acid, the wine just feels disjointed, with one arm longer than the other.’

We look at more barrels – one from Franschhoek, which has turned very reductive, and another from the Piekerneeskloof, which is a dramatic site and the Alheit’s highest vineyard.

Then we taste a wine from another extreme site, in a valley in the mountains behind Montague, on Karoo slate soils. ‘The Karoo has the best soils in the Cape,’ says Chris, ‘but it is just too hot. This valley is high, 550-650 m, but it is right on the edge of the Karoo escarpment. We pick this second last, and it comes in at 22 brix. We can’t put it into Cartology because it is not bush vines, and we have bush vines on the label. You can’t start putting stuff in that isn’t bush vines or you’re a dickhead. We don’t know what we are going to do with this, but it is in the cellar.’

‘It is a miracle that we got it at 22,’ says Suzaan, ‘because we didn’t know what the sugar was. Every time we called the farmer to ask him how it was going with the sugar, the first time we called him he said it was 9 balling, and this was in the middle of harvest. So we drove all the way there, and it was quite low, at 19. The next time we called he said it was 13.5, so we just drove through and picked it.’

We finish barrel tasting with the 2013 edition of Radio Lazarus, the first of the cru wines. ‘This is a pet rescue block of ours, which we think could be grand cru quality,’ asserts Chris. ‘It is in the Bottelary Hills, and is an exceptional site. It is 35 years old, but it was stuffed because it had been farmed badly for two decades, and the guy was going to pull it out before we got there. It’s at 400 metres and you can see Table Bay and False Bay from the top. It is on shale hills, with granite extrusions pushing up from underneath. It has two personalities: the granite side and the shale side. We get a ton a hectare. The first year we got 750 kg and put it all into Cartology. We farm this on our own, and rent the block. The cover crops, composting, building up the soil is all in our hands. Because it is high up it ripens quite late.’

The vineyard was named because of a nearby radio mast, and the lazarus bit comes from the fact that the vineyard has pretty much been raised from the dead. 


Alheit Vineyards Cartology 2011
92% Chenin Blanc, 8% Semillon. This was cross-filtered before bottling because it had 3.8 g/litre residual sugar. Lovely fine nose of melon and pear. Delicately fruity. The palate is fruity and expressive with some rich pear, peach and spice notes, a hint of sweetness, some honey and a touch of tangerine. Very fine and expressive with lovely texture and great acidity. 94/100

Alheit Vineyards Cartology 2012
86% Chenin Blanc, 14% Semillon. Taut, fresh, precise and linear. Fine and very pure with acidity driving the wine. Linear and precise with a hint of reduction adding complexity. Ripe pear, white peach and a hint of tangerine, with great acidity. 96/100

Alheit Vineyards Radio Lazarus 2012
The first of Alheit’s single cru wines, from a high-up spot on the top of Stellenbosch’s Bottelary hills. This is rich, ripe, bold and powerful with notes of spice, pear, tangerine and peach. It’s rich and creamy with a beautiful texture and fine spiciness. Expressive with lovely acidity. Superb wine. 96/100

An interview with Chris and Suzaan:



See also:

Visiting Stellenbosch (series)
The Swartland Revolution (series)

Wines tasted 03/13  
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