Icon South African wine estate Alto, situated on the slopes of Stellenbosch’s Helderberg wine appellation, celebrates an extraordinary milestone in 2022 with the production of the 100th consecutive vintage of its renowned Alto Rouge red blend. One of the Cape’s most famous wines, the first vintage of Alto Rouge was produced in 1922 and after maturation to market-ready condition was exported for sale to the United Kingdom in 1924.
The success of Alto Rouge in the British market led to the wine being released in South Africa in 1933 and has been a South African classic ever since.
Alto Estate once formed part of the farm Groenrivier on the Helderberg which was granted for farming in 1693. Vineyard cultivation commenced from the very beginning, but the path to vinous greatness only began in 1919 when Groenrivier owner Hennie Malan sold the lower half of the property to his brother-in-law. He named his remaining land Alto for its elevation and magnificent views over the lower reaches of Stellenbosch and the Cape Flats, as far as Table Mountain, and set about wine-farming in all earnest with his son Manie.
A cellar was built and vineyards focussing on red wine grapes were planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cinsaut, Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir. Alto was, in fact, the first property in South Africa to plant Pinot Noir, the result of the Malans’ friendship with the famous viticulturist Abraham Izak Perold who advised and assisted father-and-son on the vine-planting regime.
Manie, one of the first graduates in Viticulture and Oenology from Stellenbosch University, has over the years become known as having been a particularly astute winemaker and viticulturist and it was his understanding of both the offerings of the Alto terroir and the needs of the wine market that led to the vision of what was to become the red wine blend that is Alto Rouge.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon was in the beginning of the 20th century already proving to be a grape variety particularly suited to the Stellenbosch region, the power and tannins of the cultivar made wines that were back then only accessible for public enjoyment after maturation in wood for four years and more.
Manie Malan understood the plush nature of Shiraz and Cinsaut, the other two main varieties on Alto, and used these in blending with Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine that was accessible and fully drinkable after two years from harvest.
That Malan was onto something with this visionary blend became apparent from the first Alto vintage when the blended wine from the 1922 vintage won the top prize at the 1924 Cape Wine Show in the category for “Red Wines, Burgundy Type”. Alto held this title for six consecutive years.
Although the wine was not yet released in South Africa, Malan sent a sample of the first Alto vintage to Burgoyne’s, a well-known London wine merchant. The red blend from Stellenbosch was well-received and in 1924 Alto began exporting its wine – blended, and in barrel – to London where it was bottled and sold as a Burgundy styled-wine.
In 1933 Alto Rouge was released in South Africa, and today can be described as the oldest premium red wine brand in the country, with a history going back to that very first harvest in 1922.
Over the years and under stewardship of various legendary cellarmasters, the Alto Rouge blend has been adapted from that first vintage as the winemakers sought to constantly improve the wine’s quality in reflecting the terroir of Alto as well to use new developments in viticulture practises and the availability of different clones. The primary components in Alto Rouge today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, with Petit Verdot and Merlot also incorporated to add complexity and depth.
But what will never change is Alto Rouge’s standing as an integral part of the history of Cape winemaking and a popular choice among wine-lovers worldwide that has truly stood the test of time.
Bertho van der Westhuizen, Alto’s current cellarmaster, says that it is an honour for him and his team in the cellar and vineyards to preside over the 100th consecutive harvest of grapes used for making Alto Rouge. “For a New World wine country to reach this milestone is a rarity and underscores the provenance and legacy of the Alto brand, as well as the Stellenbosch’s region for making great wines since the early 1900s,” he says.
“What is even more amazing is that Alto Rouge has managed to remain a popular and commercially viable wine for almost a century. For this, the vision of the Malans and Alto’s other pioneers have to be commended, as well as the Helderberg terroir’s suitability for outstanding red winemaking. And if the forebears of Alto happen to be watching, this year’s 2022 vintage is going to be a great one!”
– Emile Joubert