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Alvi’s Drift End-of-Harvest Q&A: “To me, winemaking is spiritual”

Team Alvi’s Drift knows – every harvest is one of a kind. As the 2023 season draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the year’s triumphs and challenges.

Alvi van der Merwe inspecting the vinyards at Alvi's Drift.

Our head winemaker Alvi van der Merwe, and cellar master Riaan Marais have experienced more than a few Alvi’s Drift harvests. Both agree: our latest crop is something special. We asked them to reflect on everything that made this such an exceptional harvest.

Alvi van der Merwe of Alvi's Drift inspects the vines.

When did Alvi’s Drift’s 2023 harvest start, and was it considered a late, on-time or early season?

Alvi: We began harvesting on the 21st of January by bringing in our Cap Classique and sparkling wine grapes – a bit earlier than usual.

It was a very cool pre-season, especially during the evenings, which is what you want from a Mediterranean microclimate like ours. Ultimately, our vineyards enjoyed some pretty perfect conditions.

How does the 2023 crop yield compare to last year?

Alvi: Although the conditions were spectacular, our crop is about 10% lighter than last year – bearing in mind that 2022 was a record-breaker. I’ve also heard it’s up to 30% lower for some in the industry, so we are truly fortunate.

Does Alvi’s Drift harvest by hand or machine, and why?

Riaan: We follow a dual system where our premium blocks are hand-harvested for better quality control. You cannot refine bunch select with machine harvesters, so we reserve their use for more volume-driven products.

Alvi: Right now, we only harvest about 65% of our grapes by hand. More than that is just not practical as we have such a large crop. As machines de-stem the berries, we also whole-bunch hand-harvest certain varietals as part of their specific vinification process.

Pressing grapes on their stems creates a sieve effect. When gently pressed, you can achieve more and higher quality juice. Plus, you have less oxidation.

We follow the whole-bunch, hand-harvesting method for our premium Chardonnays and top-of-the-range Chenin Blancs.

Grapes being harvested at Alvi's Drift.

How do you decide on the perfect time to harvest each varietal?

Alvi: It always comes down to taste. We don’t make our decisions based on whether the sugar is correct, like so many of the big wineries.

We physically taste every vineyard daily, or even twice daily. It’s quite simple: if you pick a fruit that’s not optimally ripe, you won’t have good wine flavours.

Riaan: We also take phenolic ripeness into account. You want the stems to become a little brown towards the back. The pips must be ripe as well. When you put the berry in your mouth, the skin must give way easily, it must be bursting with flavour. The acidity, the fruitiness – everything has to be in balance.

What have you done differently this year that’s new and exciting?

Alvi: We have started making use of cement fermentation tanks. Similar to wooden barrels, cement tanks allow for micro-oxygenation. Fermenting in cement gently releases trapped air bubbles into the wine in microdoses. This softens tannins and gives the wine a beautifully delicate, pleasing mouthfeel.

Did you harvest any new grape varieties this season?

Riaan: We harvested Cabernet Franc and Marselan this year, both of which are new varieties for our winery.

Talking about new styles, right now, the team is most looking forward to experimenting with Viognier. The results will deviate slightly from our traditional Alvi’s Drift Signature Viognier. We are going for a more heavily wooded, deeper-flavoured type of wine.

How do you ensure the Alvi’s Drift vineyards are in top condition for next season?

Alvi: Because of the Mediterranean climate, our vines rest in winter and go dormant. In August, the roots awaken and they start growing again.

After about a month, shoots and the vines start budding. Normally, the soil has enough reservoirs to support growth until the first flowers appear. Only then do we start with co-feeding and irrigation.

By that time, all vines are pruned. Without pruning, you won’t see growth or grapes. The plant needs to rest while all the dead shoots become compost that feeds the soil.

The Alvi's Drift team trims the vines at the end of the season to ensure optimal growth the following season.

Riaan: Alvi installed underground irrigation systems on some of the blocks, giving the water direct access to the roots. The quality and growth of those blocks are exceptional and we will definitely continue with underground irrigation going forward.

Did any varietals exceed your expectations this season?

“These are certainly the most phenomenal Sauvignon Blancs we have made in my time at Alvi’s Drift.” – Alvi van der Merwe

Alvi: Our Sauvignon Blancs, for sure. The cool breeze blowing this season has had some incredible results.

This year’s Viognier harvest at Alvi’s Drift has been interesting too. It produced more fruity flavours than the typical turpentine-y, perfume-y ones you’d expect from Viognier.

Riaan: Definitely our Sauvignon Blancs – across the various ranges. I’d say these are the best Sauvignon Blancs we have produced in my seven years at Alvi’s Drift.

We have a lot of different fruit flavours coming through, from passionfruit and grapefruit to guava, which is very different when looking back at past Alvi’s Drift Sauvignon Blancs. You need to taste it!

What is it like being part of such an incredibly talented team?

Members of the Alvi's Drift team.
Riaan Marais (cellarmaster), Alvi (winemaker) and Junel van der Merwe

Riaan: Working with the Van der Merwe family is an incredible privilege. Their values and passion for winemaking are contagious, something which I’m sure the entire team can attest to.

Alvi’s dedication to cultivating the best vineyards possible is admirable. He has an intimate knowledge of when each varietal reaches peak ripeness since he spends so much time among the vines. He also plays an invaluable role in the cellar, helping to steer the team in the right direction, and ensuring that everyone stays on the same page.

“It’s simply a privilege to be a part of the entire experience. It’s such an incredible process. To me, winemaking is spiritual.” – Alvi van der Merwe

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