Authentic wine is about site. For a winemaker, this means access to vineyards (rather than lug-boxes full of grapes). In the past, this connection between land and finished product was pretty much taken for granted. Until wholesalers and cooperatives made their appearance, there was no market for grapes. To be a grape-grower meant also to be a winemaker.
This began to change as early as the 19th century in South Africa, our trajectory determined by the distance separating growers from their major markets. Enter the wholesale merchants, initially to assemble and despatch bulk blends (to the UK, but also to the Diamond and Gold Fields). Ultimately they began take over the fruit processing. In time the growers recognised that they had placed themselves entirely at the mercy of their customers: what do you do if they say they don’t want your bakkie-load of fruit? They formed cooperative cellars to crush the crop, thus bringing an element of equilibrium back into the relationship.
A similar pattern emerged in France – though initially this was limited to the bulk wine areas. Later the wholesale merchants extended their activities, dealing with growers in the better appellations, taking their fruit at harvest and selling even the greatest names under their negociant brand names, Cruse in Bordeaux, Calvet and Lichine pretty much everywhere. If you went to 3 star Michelin restaurant in the 1960s, the bottle of Chablis or Chambertin you ordered would probably bear a negociant’s label. Occasionally – Alexis Lichine was a pioneer here – the name of the grower might also appear. In South Africa The Bergkelder performed a similar role from the 1970s until quite recently.
Burgundy was probably the first of the major European wine areas to reverse this trend: from the 1980s onwards the growers began again to vinify their fruit, taking back control over their crop. A slightly different process began at much the same time in South Africa, one where technically competent winemakers without access to their own vineyards began to seek out the best sites and to negotiate directly with the growers for the fruit.
Fortunately for them, the cooperative system worked in their favour. Growers were generally paid “average” prices – irrespective of fruit quality – so it was easy to woo them away by offering a premium. Neil Ellis pioneered this way of doing things. Almost twenty years later, Eben Sadie made an art form of it: real research into old vines and unusual sites, followed by an allocation-driven marketing strategy. Every subsequent winemaker-driven start-up owes him a debt of gratitude.
It’s not a risk-free strategy: the winemaker adds real value to the land, but doesn’t own it. The better he does his job, the more he makes a goad for his own back when it comes to negotiating fruit prices. Sooner or later he discovers the incontrovertible truth about great wine: it’s about the land, dummy.
I was reminded of this when the Alheit’s annual newsletter arrived with its 2019 vintage offer for subscribers. Last year they bought the Nuwedam farm, which gives them control over some 20 hectares of old vine fruit – not a moment too soon. Their legendary (not a term used lightly) Radio Lazarus vineyard was wiped out by the drought. (Incidentally, this may help to explain why six bottles of the 2016 sold for R30k on a recent auction.)
It’s worth going to their website http://www.alheitvineyards.co.za/ and taking advantage of the pre-release prices. They make some of South Africa’s finest wines, all sourced from specific sites, and only bottled under the vineyard name if the quality meets their own exacting standards (so no La Colline in 2019, for example).
Together with Eben Sadie, David & Nadia and the Mullineuxs, the Alheits are flag-bearers for the concept that authentic wine must be an artefact of place. All the skill in the world is no substitute for the best fruit, though site without skill would be as silly as putting me behind the wheel of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.