For 100 years, the soils, gnarled vines, and desirable climate at Alto Wine Estate have produced some of the country’s finest red wines and red wine blends. The farm is located on the warmer northern slopes of the Helderberg, within the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Stellenbosch – so called for having the perfect alchemy and the elements for producing outstanding vino – and so it’s little surprise that Alto’s dashing range of red wines is more littered with awards than Serena William’s trophy cabinet.
Having accomplished 100 years of extraordinary work under the stewardship of only five winemakers, two of which were father-and-son combinations (virtually unheard of), Alto Wine Estate decided to throw a celebration. The guest list? The wine, food, and media industry’s who’s who, which, we’re titillated to say, included Southern Vines as represented by yours truly. And so I happily made my way through Stellenbosch’s sweeping vistas of vineyards, mountains, and – uh – the Cape’s ubiquitous road works to this historic estate to partake in the celebrations!
Welcome wine, nibbles, and jazz
The weather was perfect. Warm sunshine filtered down through a blue sky unblemished by clouds, while media people gathered underneath Alto winery’s elevated and covered veranda. I helped myself to a welcome glass of the Alto Cabernet Sauvignon rosé, a delicious Provençal-style wine with a lovely onionskin colour and a fresh acidity underscored by delicate red fruit flavours. A jazz band struck up and waitrons circled with canapés of lightly smoked trout rolls with quince and trout roe, and aubergine rolls with fresh cheese and rocket. Before long, Alto’s winemaker, Bertho van der Westhuizen, took the ‘podium’ and welcomed us all, taking a moment to explain his decision to make a rosé when Alto’s reputation lies in outstanding red wine.
“We wanted to make a wine for everyone and for all seasons, and in the warm summer months, not everyone is going to want a glass of red wine.”
As for the name, ‘alto’ is a Latin reference to altitude, which can be viewed literally (the farm’s superior height above sea level) and figuratively (the estate’s aspirations of excellence). With the introductions over and a glass of the rosé loosening my limbs, we were shepherded in to the cool cellars to take our seats around an Olympic sized harvest table for lunch paired with Alto’s red wines.
Lunch is served
Our sumptuous harvest-style feast began with fresh, homemade bread with wine leaf butter and a bowl of pot au feu de veau consommé, a clear soup made from a classic French stew. For wine, we tasted two vintages of Alto’s long-time ambassador and one that is familiar to most wine-lovers: the Alto Rouge 2016 and 2017. This versatile dark ruby wine is a blend of six cultivars – Cabernet Franc (28%), Shiraz (23%), Merlot (22%), Cabernet Sauvignon (21%), and Petit Verdot (6%) – the precise chemistry of which changes every vintage depending on a suite of variables far beyond my comprehension.
The reason for the Alto Rouge’s popularity and presence on just about every (decent) restaurant’s wine list is for its versatility and accessibility. Quite simply, it is a red wine that satisfies with its soft, elegant tannins, sultry full body, and chocolatey, red fruit flavours. It’s also very affordable, which no one complained about ever.
The main event
The main event was a classic pot au feu de veau, that classic French stew I was talking about earlier; although, instead of arriving in a big steaming bowl as one would expect, it arrived in its separate components, which was rather nice because then each guest could compile his or her own plate as preferred. Onto a table already groaning with wine bottles, glasses, and bread, the servers placed bowls of veal sausage, hunks of braised beef, tenderloin, and marrowbones, and even more with carrots, mushrooms, green beans, and turnips. The supporting acts were dill pickles, herb rémoulade, tomato and mustard cream, and a crisp autumn mesclun (‘mix’ in French) salad with finely chopped garden leaves, truffle, pine nuts, croutons, and Parmesan cheese.
I lump all of these mouth-watering dishes into one paragraph, but really the meal was paced over the course of a full hour or two, giving us time to sip through another two of Alto’s gorgeous red wines: the Alto Cabernet Sauvignon and the Alto Shiraz, my favourite, which is saying a lot because I truly adore every one of Alto’s wines. Moreover, we were treated to two vintages of each wine (2015, 2016 and 2016, 2017 respectively) to experience the evolution of these wines over a year.
The Alto Cabernet Sauvignon is a robust and full-bodied wine with a solid tannic structure, yet velvety mouth feel, and lush with the aromas of berries, dark chocolate, and savoury black olives. The Shiraz delivered full body with elegance and seductive grace, a nose of smoky rich berries, and flavours of delicate spice, prune and plum. The differences between the vintages were perceptible, with the younger being drier with more prominent tannins.
Our extravagant meal was brought to just as extravagant an end with a cheese platter packing enormous wedges of Brie cheese, watermelon konfyt, and almond biscotti, and a dessert of almond macaroon, buttercream terrine, and raspberries. Our final wine was Alto’s MPHS, a red blend of Cabernet Franc (50%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), and a “stylish princely wine with lovely age, bright red berry fruits, a touch of nuttiness, elegant wood tannins, and excellent balance,” according to the wine making notes. By this stage of the meal, my palate was dancing with over-indulgence so I kept my own musings short and sweet: “Wow.”
Alto Wine Estate may be celebrating 100 years of wine making, but the farm, as with so many throughout the Cape, is in fact much older and an indelible part of the Cape’s enchanting story. A sense of connection with the past is really something you feel as you gaze out over the vineyards and the lush, surrounding scenery. And while most living things sag with age after 100 years, Alto Wine Estate, like a hardwood tree in a virgin forest, soars.
Alto Wine Estate is open Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 18:00 | Saturday, Sunday, and public holidays, 10:00 to 17:00. For bookings and enquiries, please call +27 (0) 21 881 3884 or go to www.alto.co.za/contacts/