RADIO LAZARUS

From the beginning to the end, this wine needs more than a few short paragraphs to explain. Suzaan and I had always wanted to make our own wine. That much is certain. When exactly the desire to make single vineyard wines dawned in my mind, I cannot remember. I know that by the time we were working in France in 2009, the desire to do something unique to the Cape had become concrete. I thought to myself: what can be more Cape, or more unique than an old single vineyard bushvine Chenin from Stellenbosch?

The search for this original block took months of driving around, speaking to farmers and fellow winemakers. Our search yielded some great old vineyards, some of which I thought may be the right one. It was quite by accident that I stumbled upon our vineyard. A farm manager in the Bottelary, who I had not scheduled to meet, said as he pointed upward “yes, we’ve got some old Steen, up on top of the hill…”

I drove with him to the very top of the hill. There, draped over its rocky crest, a scraggly, patchy old vineyard waited for me. Immediately we called off the search.

It was planted in 1978, and farmed for bulk wine for decades. Getting this block back on its feet would require an oversupply of TLC, but we felt that surely this site could produce a special wine. It’s perched on top of a hill called Ribbokkop at 403 m above sea level, 17 kilometers from False Bay, and 26 kilometers from the Atlantic. The site is quite cool, ripening 2 to 3 weeks later than most of our other parcels. The soils are typical stony hilltop shale, with some granite.

We started farming the block ourselves in mid-2010. Our first crop (2011) was tiny, not yielding enough wine to make a “single vineyard” wine, but the potential in those few barrels was inspiring. Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to bottle the 2012 and 2014 vintages as single vineyard wines.

Concurrently, in 2013 we were struck by another bit of very good fortune. We were given the opportunity to start working with a second Bottelary hilltop vineyard in addition to our Radio Lazarus block. Our original block was planted in 1978 and grows right on top of Ribbokkop at 400m. The new block was planted in 1971 on top of Bottelaryberg at 450m. It’ bit older and a bit higher. Game on.

These were two of the most extreme vineyards in the Cape. Each block had its own personality and each makes unique wine. Ribbokkop was generally a bit richer, Bottelaryberg was generally more delicate and detailed. However, the commonalities are many: similar altitude and age, stony shale soil with granite intrusions, extremely low yields, and a dusty/chalky aspect to the wines.

We obsessed for a little while about whether or not to keep these blocks separate or to blend them. Eventually, a good old bench trial solved our problem. A combination of the two parcels was the best wine, simple as that. And so it was, that from the vintage 2015 Radio Lazarus was no longer a Single Vineyard wine. It became W.O. Bottelary, Stellenbosch.

We also introduced some special fermentation vessels for these vineyards. There’s a very gifted potter living in Hout Bay. Using clay from the brickfield at the foot of the Bottelary hills, he made some large clay pots (between 550L and 600L each). I’m told that this kind of pottery is called “reduction stoneware”. The pots were fired at over 1200°C, meaning they’re completely vitrified. They’re very different to the terracotta amphorae of Italy/Georgia/Armenia. So, now we had neutral vessels for fermentation and ageing that have a South African identity and origin. We used these pots specifically for our Bottelary plots.

We named these vineyards for the radio masts that they verge on, and because Radio implies the broadcast or dissemination of a message or ideal. Lazarus is of course the biblical character who was raised from the dead. Cue the violins…

Sadly, 2017 is the last release of Radio Lazarus. It took me a while to come to terms with this reality. We poured so much into these vineyards over the years. Seeing them in 2018 was very difficult.

The older of the two blocks, on Bottelaryberg, all but died. We didn’t even try to pick it in 2018. Cause of death: mostly drought, also mauling by wild beast. Because of the long drought there was nothing in the veld for the antelope to eat, so they come out at night and eat the vineyard shoots. This had always been a minor issue on these hills, but in 2018 it looked like a herd of sheep had been through the vines.

The Ribbokkop parcel fared slightly better: we managed to get 8 crates of grapes off the 2Ha. You get the picture. These hilltops are dry in wet years. A hundred-year drought pushed them over the edge.

What does make me crack a smile though, is the fact that both vineyards were on death row, due to be ripped up, and yet they lived on a few more years to make some of the loveliest wines we’ve ever had the chance to work with.

It is said that the inscription on the second grave of Lazarus reads: Four days dead and friend of Christ. Goodbye Radio Lazarus.

RADIO LAZARUS 2017

Composition: 100% highland dryland bushvine Chenin Blanc from two special parcels. One parcel grows on Ribbokkop (1978), one parcel on Bottelaryberg(1970). Origin Bottelary.

Tasting Notes: The nose is showing lovely aromatics of apple, fynbos, fennel and its typical chalky/dusty note. The palate detailed and pretty, quite concentrated but not at all heavy. As always, the is a fine tannic skeleton and a definite dusty/saline quality that underpin the wine. 13% alc

RADIO LAZARUS 2016

Composition: 100% highland dryland bushvine Chenin Blanc from two special parcels. One parcel grows on Ribbokkop (1978), one parcel on Bottelaryberg(1970). Origin Bottelary.

Tasting Notes: 2016 was a hot dry vintage that followed a dry winter. The wine reflects this accurately. The nose shows the typical dusty/chalky character of the hilltop shale soils, as well as the usual fennel notes, but unlike in 2015 there is also some ripe papaw/mango and orange peel present. The palate is very dense and concentrated, unfolding with time in the glass. The usual saline underpinnings are still present, even in such a dry year. Very interesting.

RADIO LAZARUS 2015

Composition: 100% high land dry land bushvine Chenin Blanc. 2015 represents a big first, in that Radio Lazarus is now made from two special parcels, instead of one. One parcel grows on Ribbokkop (1978), one parcel on Bottelaryberg(1970). Origin Bottelary.

Notes: At this early stage of the wine’s life, the nose is showing lovely aromatics of apple, citrus zest, fennel and its typical chalky/dusty note. The palate is full of energy. Sweet fruit elements swim upstream in vain against a rip current of stony salinity. Tannic and textural elements amplify the great natural acidity, creating a very refreshing, palate cleansing drink.

RADIO LAZARUS 2014

Composition: 100% high land dry land Chenin blanc.

The 2014 vintage counts a small personal victory for us. After all the work, it’s gratifying to see this vineyard producing a wine of such distinct personality and high quality. The nose is beginning to show some spice, bright citrus, ripe stone fruit and a distinctive chalky/dusty note. The palate follows suit, offering not only a backbone of tannin and acidity, but real complexity of flavours, both savoury and sweet. Typical of this vineyard, the wine has a savoury/dusty edge.

RADIO LAZARUS 2012

Composition: 100% high land dry land Chenin blanc.

Tasting notes: By our judgment, this wine will reward patience and good cellaring. It’s is still a juvenile. Obviously these notes are subjective, but for me the nose is already showing ripe apple, fennel seed, apricot and something akin to cherry. The broad strokes of the palate give the impression of a wine with a tall and bony skeleton seen in black and white, on which the first hints of colour and flesh are already appearing, and will become more defined and elaborate as the wine grows up. There is a noticeable and very pleasing saline mineral quality to the palate.

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