The Rise and Rise of “Heritage Blends”

Friday, 8 November, 2013
Christian Eedes
“Warm-climate, Chenin-driven, oxidatively made” might be accurate when it comes to categorising wines like David Aristargos and Rall White but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. So what should the generic term be for this emerging class of wines?
Recently a gathering of some prominent exponents of the style including Chris and Suzaan Alheit of Alheit Vineyards, Craig Hawkins from Lammershoek, Paul Nicholls and Rebecca Tanner of Fable Mountain Vineyards, David and Nadia Sadie of boutique label David, Donovan Rall of Rall Wines and Alex Starey of Keermont Vineyards. By no means a “symposium” or “conference” (some notable personalities absent) but rather an opportunity for tasting each other’s wines in a friendly but focused way and debate the issues.

So why have a label at all? A legitimate concern is that in attempting to having fixed terminology for a class that is just coming into existence is unnecessarily restrictive. For instance, Chris Alheit says of his Cartology 2012 (a blend of 86% Chenin Blanc and 14% Semillon), “I couldn’t care less about how it is perceived other than I want people to drink it and think of South Africa.”

The point is, however, that a label does help producers, commentators and trade to stand behind these wines more easily in terms of getting consumers excited about them. Without a critical mass of adopters for these new-wave wines, they potentially become no more than a passing fad.

One term which has been used occasionally for these wines is “Rhône-style” on the basis that they tend to include varieties like Viognier and Grenache Blanc (and increasingly Roussanne) and that some sort of comparison to France is inevitable (“You can’t have a discussion about Formula 1 without bringing up Michael Schumacher” as Hawkins put it) but ultimately it’s not that useful due to the fundamental role of Chenin Blanc, a variety not associated with the Rhône.

Rhône-style might not be entirely inaccurate but it does seem rather too diffident.  Why not then attempt to build up the reputation of local regions in the minds of consumers, many of the wines in question coming from the Swartland for instance? Unfortunately, this approach presumes a level of involvement in the subject of wine that largely doesn’t exist. South Africa is enjoying a period of being very fashionable with the international media but this won’t necessarily last and it therefore does not make sense to complicate the selling proposition which these wines represent unnecessarily.

So what do these wines have in common? All involved are keen that the category should remain as loose as possible. Chris Alheit says he has no desire to arrive at a set formula for Cartology but sees it rather as “a glove to catch the most fantastic vineyards we can find in the Cape” with Rall saying “These white blends can be anything you want them to be” and Tanner adding “These wines prove that local winemakers are not scared to do something pretty ‘out there’.”

That said, these wines actually have quite a lot in common. Great texture but also great freshness. A eschewal of new oak – the wines typically vinified in big-format, old barrels and that texture therefore derived from the grapes being used.

Here the key role of old vines, in particular old-vine Chenin, is emphasised. “We’re working with varieties which are suited to the Cape,” says Chris Alheit. “But it’s paramount that we don’t let the grapes tire out in the sun – we must go for natural acidity – and then don’t hide the fruit behind stacks of oak.”

Starey from Keermont in Stellenbosch chimes in: “The best wines in the category show tension and focus so compliments to the vineyard managers involved who are obviously looking after our older blocks and not trying to milk them.”

Nicholls, viticulturist at Fable Mountain Vineyards in Tulbagh, adds: “These wines are different and exciting and are precisely what the top-end of the market is looking for. We want to avoid them being bastardised by the ‘big boys’.” - This causes Alheit to sound a note of caution. “Our old vines are an incredible resource but they’re endangered – vineyards are coming out as they are considered uneconomical. Growers have to be less greedy and [corporate] buyers are being unethical in wanting to pay as little as possible – the difference between paying R4 000 a ton and R6 000 a ton translates to about R3 extra a bottle.”  

Isn’t he being unduly high-minded in the sense that grape prices are an outcome of the free market economy in action? “I think it’s precisely the young winemakers coming on board whom will make a difference and pay enough to ensure the vines stay in the ground,” he says. “People are part of terroir and we’ve finally got the right people to interpret that terroir,” adds Hawkins.

So a combination of old vines plus young, proudly South African winemakers who all more or less share the same winemaking philosophy. What then should the resulting wines be called?  “Cape Whites” is one proposal but arguably too prosaic. “Heritage Blends” is another and perhaps it isn’t too fanciful.