Firstly, let me concede that this is not an exact science. Commentators might make a case for the Chocolate Block, Meerlust Rubicon, a Pinotage from Kanonkop, anything from Eben Sadie, perhaps even some obscure Tesco’s house brand that has sold 8 million bottles at £1.99.
Fair enough. But this is the story of another wine. One that has arguably done more than any other in the last 20 years to shape the direction of South Africa’s fine wine industry.
A bold claim, for sure, but let’s interrogate it. The Alheit's Cartology 2011 is in many ways the quintessential Cape wine. A blend of Chenin and Semillon, from dry-farmed bush vines, it appeared as a timely expression of our heritage, a wine of its place, and one that finally began showcasing South Africa. It was the right wine at the right time.
The bottle that launched 1000 Chenin’s.
This is a wine that helped to convince a lot of young, would-be winemakers that they didn’t need their own farm, their own grapes and R10 million to start their own label. It told those same would-be winemakers that they could be bold when pricing their product, as long as it was good enough. It gave the likes of Jocelyn Hogan, Reenen Borman, Lukas van Loggerenberg, Franco Lourens, the Craven’s and many other bright young winemakers something to aim at; a yardstick and a successful precedent (whether they needed it is another story). Cartology 2011 was a pioneer, and it dared a new wave of fearless, experimental winemakers to follow suit.
It obviously also preceded the many Alheit single vineyard wines that invariably sell out upon release. Without Cartology 2011, there’s no Radio Lazarus 2012, no Magnetic North 2015 or Fire by Night 2017. Admittedly these wines are made in small quantities, nothing close to the Rubicon's and Chocolate Block's. But because of their inherently South African-ness, their importance cannot be overstated.
Perhaps most significantly, Cartology 2011 is a wine that is devastatingly, heartbreakingly, breathtakingly beautiful. Now almost seven years in the bottle and drinking better than ever, it’s worth revisiting its early days and discovering that this wine wasn’t always a home run:
November 2011, and the Alheit’s decided to show their unbottled maiden vintage to a top wine critic. The feedback wasn’t exactly glowing, and amounted to: “don’t quit your day jobs”. As fate would have it, this was now their day job, so Butch and Suzaan had little choice but to push on. They had moved to the Hemel and Aarde Valley, had 18 barrels almost ready for bottling, and were starting a family. This was going to be their future.
Fast forward a few months, and Butch’s long time friend and wine smous, Dave 'Smokey' Nel, was visiting the area and staying at Sumaridge. Butch popped across from their home on Hemelrand with the newly bottled Cartology 2011:
Butch: “I don’t remember what he said to be honest”
Dave: ‘I told him, “It’s not bad, I can probably move some and also please can I bathe in it while touching myself inappropriately"’.
Dave probably didn’t say that, but he does recall thinking that this was something pretty special. That said I'd imagine it's quite hard to be objective under the above circumstances. So on to May 2012, Butch and Suzaan invited a small group of mostly friends, media and wine people to Evan Faull’s Knead Bakery on Kloof Street for the launch of their first wine.
Butch: “We organized some crayfish from the Flanagan’s. Evan prepared them and we served our wine alongside a couple of international benchmarks. It was a relatively low key event, the wine was well received and we sent everyone home with a bottle.”
But how long did it take before it blew up?
Butch explains that it wasn’t immediate. People wrote some nice things, but the phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook. At R180 a go back then, it took a little while for the things to warm up.
“I remember going back to the farm and looking at 5000 bottles of our first wine. We’d just had our daughter, and the orders started coming in slowly. In the evenings, I was on waxing duty and Suzaan would label. Those were special times.”
In fairness, things started to happen pretty quickly after that. And all told, probably quicker than could ever have realistically been hoped. Decanter got hold of it, and named it one of their wines of the year. Platters awarded it five stars. Writers began fawning over it and British MW, (and all-round champion for South African wine) Richard Kelley imported almost half of it under his Dreyfus Ashby label.
And the rest is history.
It's worth mentioning that R180 for essentially a Chenin Blanc was practically unheard of in 2012. Today, the market is full of them selling for anything from R300-R700. Many are fantastic. Many sell out immediately. And many would likely not exist today were it not for the likes of the Alheit's and their little experiment.
Of course we’re not suggesting that they are alone in their brilliance. Or their vision. Or their audaciousness. Or their success. They’ve always been surrounded by and plugged into other fine winemakers who all pull for each other and who are also leaving an indelible mark on the industry. They deserve their own story.
We’re just of the opinion that, a few years down the line, when the dust has settled on a fascinating period for South African wine, history is going to point to the few remaining bottles of Cartology 2011, and question whether we should be drinking them or putting them in a museum.
*There is absolutely no link between the title of this story and Napoleon Dynamite appearing on the label of Alheit’s 2017 Vote for Pedro. Allegedly.
Photo Credits: Dom Wills and Sofia Dadourian