Most fine wine collectors and afficionados will need no reminding that South Africa has the proven ability to produce some of the most tantalizing and mesmerising dessert wines in the world. Whether it’s a throw back to the golden sweet wine age of the 1800’s or simply a built in cultural sweet tooth, South African winemakers have always excelled with which ever sweet wine style they have put their minds to. Of course the iconic Vin de Constance needs no introduction, but we should not forget the epic Cape Vintage and Cape Tawny Port styles from the Klein Karoo and the Swartland, the delicious Muscadelles and Hanepoot Jerepigos, the botrytised Sauvignon Blancs, Semillons and Rieslings, and more latterly, the incredible Straw Wines made from rack dried Chenin Blanc grapes. We are simply spoilt for choice in South Africa.
While the wine industry bathes in the recent big scoring successes of straw wines like the 100-point Olerasay No.2 and No.3 from Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines, I was thrilled to see yet another incredible “certified heritage vineyard” used to produce an ambitiously noteworthy wine from the 2019 vintage. The Gevonden farm near Rawsonville, at the spot where the sheer cliffs of the Du Toitskloof open into the Breedekloof, is the site if a three-century old farmhouse just across the Moolenaars River. Right in front of this old farmhouse is a vineyard considered by many to be the oldest commercially productive parcel of vines in South Africa.
In the Cape, official record keeping of vineyard planting dates only started in 1900, so unfortunately nothing can officially pre-date that year although we know from word of mouth that vines were already in the ground and producing grapes on the Gevonden farm as well as from other famous old vineyards like the Basson Old Vine Cinsault in Wellington, farmed by the Mullineuxs, and the Eselshoek (Hanepoot) Muscat d’Alexandrie vineyard in the Swartland that Eben Sadie used to make delicious sweet wines from bush vines aged over 100 years old. According to the De Wet / Boonzaaier family history, the Gevonden Hanepoot vines were planted by one Jacobus Hendrik Stofberg De Wet in 1882 just after the first Anglo-Boer War from 1881-1882.
As has been the case for many of these newly discovered “old vineyards”, Chris Alheit came to know about this special heritage block through the ongoing work of Old Vine Project founder Rosa Kruger, who introduced Chris to farmer Neels Boonzaaier in late 2010. After several frustrated failed attempts to create something special, the sweet wine project was abandoned until a chance meeting with Neels’s son Janus in 2017 led to Chris Alheit giving the sweet wine project another bash. In 2019, the vineyard yielded what Chris considered was a large enough quantity of fully ripe grapes to attempt the rack drying process to concentrate the sugars.
The Resulting raisins were pressed for five days yielding juice with a sugar concentration of around 55 Brix. This juice was then fermented for 12 months, reaching just over 7% alcohol with a residual sugar of around 450 g/l. But the story does not end there. The 2019 vintage was also sadly the last vintage that the De Wet / Boonzaaier family, who owned the Gevonden farm for six generations, farmed this famous Hanepoot block and so Chris does not expect to be able to source fruit again. So perhaps the label should read, Lost & Found & Lost Again?
Alheit Vineyards Lost & Found 2019, WO Breedekloof, 7% Abv.
Looking at this rich, unctuous wine in the glass is akin to gazing through an ancient piece of Jurassic fossilized amber – ripe, captivating and most definitely warmly inviting. But this is no normal sweet wine and one sniff of the rich, ripe, potent aromatics reveals an enchanting bouquet of freshly boiled marmalade jam, green mango preserve, barley sugar, sweet herbs, wet straw and dried apricots. Give the dense, glycerol wine another slow swirl in a big Zalto Bordeaux bowl and it shifts gears again to offer yet more pithy orange peel nuances and seductive notes of quince jelly, pressed grapes and burnt caramel. Like some of South Africa’s other truly great sweet wines, the aromatics are so complex and seductive that you almost forget to sip the wine! Incredibly viscous and fleshy on the palate with a round glycerol opulence, there is no suggestion at any point that this wine is going to be overly sweet and clawing with its 450 g/l RS. In fact the sweetness is kept smartly in check by a searing acidity that scythes through the caramel and barley sugar laden fruit layers with samurai sword precision. The finish is gloriously mouth coating, hedonistic and persistent with just the most subtle sappy, pithy, bitter orange peel vermouth twang. An incredible vinous expression that represents an unbelievable journey of not only all those who have farmed this block over the decades, but also of the vines themself. A fine wine that will undoubtedly endure and out live most us who are tasting it now. Some of the most desirable decadence available in a bottle.
(Wine Safari Score: 98+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)