Their First Wine Developed a Cult Following: What's Next?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they’re putting South African whites on the wine lovers’ map.
By Nick Dall
Wearing pajamas and sheepskin slippers on a May night six years ago, Suzaan and Chris Alheit hand-sealed 5,000 bottles containing their first vintage of their first wine: Cartology 2011. A few feet away, their other firstborn, 2-month-old Elisabet, played on the cellar floor. What they couldn’t know then was that before their daughter was crawling, their wine would earn rave reviews from some of the most influential names in the business (“each mouthful lasts forever,” pronounced Julia Harding). And by the time Elisabet took her first steps? Cartology had been named the year’s best white by Decanter.
Alheit Vineyards — which operates from a rented cellar and doesn’t own any vines — has always been about finding tiny, long-forgotten patches of white grapes and creating wines, according to its website, that are “99 percent vineyard and 1 percent winemaking.” Cartology, now in its seventh bottling, has attained global cult status (which simply doesn’t happen to South African wines); Alheit’s single-origin offerings (mainly chenin blancs but also a bewitching semillon) are “even more exciting,” says Tim Atkin, a U.K.-based wine writer who publishes an annual report on South African wines, which he believes are in the midst of a “golden era.”
I don’t sell their wines, I allocate them.
Richard Kelley, Alheit Vineyards’ U.K. distributor
Suzaan, 35, and Chris, 36, met while studying winemaking at Stellenbosch University, a professional plan B for both. Chris had always wanted to be a doctor but his grades weren’t good enough, and Suzaan had set her sights on marine biology until she was “misinformed” by a cousin that “winemakers make a lot of money.” The two fell fast in love, but their romance with wine has been more of a slow burn: “University taught us a lot,” says Suzaan, “but it didn’t inspire us.”
That came later, after working at wineries in South Africa, Australia and California. Once lit, however, their interest turned all consuming. In 2008, the couple became fascinated with the wines of Eben Sadie, South Africa’s most renowned new-generation winemaker and the undisputed king of old vineyards. The following year the Alheits worked in Bordeaux, France, and in 2010 they found jobs in two of the most famous riesling-producing regions: Australia’s Clare Valley and the Mosel Valley in Germany. From there it was straight to their passion project: Cartology 2011.
“I have never seen any wine go from nothing to something so quickly,” says Richard Kelley, an expert on South African wines and Alheit Vineyards’ U.K. distributor, before explaining that the Alheits’ success didn’t happen in a bubble. South Africa’s wine industry dates to 1656, giving its 2.3 million acres of vineyards a celebrated pedigree.
Still, the Alheits had to make their own luck. Their masterful, unconventional decision to produce only white wines (a rule they finally broke in 2017 when they released a cinsault table wine) has shown South African winemakers that you don’t have to make a big, meaty red to be taken seriously on the global stage. And in a world where the word “authenticity” is routinely abused, they really do walk the talk. In a highly unusual move, they won’t add sulfur until after the fermentation period, to allow for the microbial “disco” (most winemakers add it early to inhibit bacterial growth), and they never tinker with pH or acidity. Vintners like to wax poetic about sense of place, Suzaan says sternly, “but you can’t even begin to discuss terroir or even vintage if you’re manipulating your wines.” In addition, the Alheits only use old barrels that don’t impart any oak flavor to the wine (heavy oaking, they say, is “the most expensive way to ruin a wine”) and often go one step further by aging their wines in neutral concrete “eggs.”
Motherhood (the couple are parents to three kids under 6) has Suzaan pulling back from some of the day-to-day operations (she’s no longer a regular visitor to their 31 vineyards dotted over 217 miles), but she’s involved in every major decision. “She has an amazing palate,” says Chris, who jokes that his wife keeps him honest, even from afar: “Sometimes it’s tempting to play with the acid or the pH, but Suzaan would know.”
Christian Eedes, editor of Winemag.co.za, acknowledges that the South African wine industry is in crisis (production costs have skyrocketed, and only 14 percent of producers are consistently profitable) but says, “It’s hard to see the Alheits making any mistakes.” Perhaps a bigger worry is the drought that’s brought the whole of the Western Cape to its knees and made grapes much harder to come by. “They’ll probably want to buy their own land soon,” says Tim Atkin — a prediction that Chris and Suzaan readily confirm. And there’s still the price resistance that premium South African wines face on the global market. Not that it seems to affect the Alheits (their wines are spoken for before they’re produced). “I don’t sell their wines,” says Kelley, “I allocate them.”
This year the Alheits will be releasing five single-origin chenins (up from just two in previous years) and they’ve persuaded a farmer in the mountains above Ceres — a cherry- and apple-growing region — to plant a vineyard of riesling at 4,200 feet. “I’d be really interested to taste that,” says Atkin.
Both Eedes and Atkin say they expect the Alheits will add a premium red to their offerings at some point, but the winemakers insist they “have no burning desire to make reds.” Having helped put South African whites on the map, they may still have more to achieve in the world of premium whites, but they readily acknowledge: “We have 30 vintages left in us, so we can’t play all our cards at once.” Indeed, that’s a long stretch to keep serving up white wine surprises. Grenache 2025, perhaps?
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall