Stellenbosch farm Alto has had only four winemakers since it was first established, these being Manie Malan from (1920 to 1956), Piet du Toit (1959 to 1982), Hempies du Toit (1983 to 2000) and Schalk van der Westhuizen (2001 until present), and the new ultra-premium wine M.P.H.S. 2007 bears the first-name initials of these individuals. “In launching such a wine, it was important to evoke some tradition and history,” says Naas Erasmus, general manager of Distell’s boutique winery portfolio Cape Legends which includes Alto.
And what better way to evoke “tradition and history” than a tasting of older vintages. The farm is perhaps most famed for its red blend called Rouge, which dates back to the 1920s (originally including Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Cinsaut, the current-release 2007 is 45% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Shiraz) but it’s the property’s Cabernet Sauvignon that has a reputation for being particularly long-lived (the wine originally held back at least six years after vintage before release).
Hempies du Toit presented the maiden 1965, 1970 (as made by his father Piet, who was in attendance but at the age of 89 was excused from having to address the audience) and 1984 and 1999, while Schalk van der Westhuizen presented his 2001 and 2007.
The 1965 was particularly impressive, still showing a little bit of red fruit in addition to earthy evolved character, the tannins amazingly firm, the acidity bright and refreshing. Du Toit reckoned grapes for the wine would have been picked early at around 21˚ Balling, which prompted Alain Deloire, professor in viticulture at the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University to remark that here was a wine that proved it was not necessary “to pick super-ripe” as is the so often the case nowadays. Another aspect that must be considered in contemplating why this wine is still showing so well is that it was made in large-format, used barrels. “I think grape tannins are much more important than those from barrel when it comes to ageing,” says Du Toit.
The highest vineyards on Alto are some 500m above sea level and by all accounts deliver the property’s best fruit, typically very late in ripening allowing for optimal flavour development. Another important influence on fruit quality is the cooling sea breeze off False Bay during the growing season which also helps to protract ripening. “We must stop referring to the Helderberg as warm climate. The breeze is a fantastic terroir effect,” says Deloire.
And so the age-worthiness of Alto’s wines demonstrated, on to the M.P.H.S. Van der Westhuizen was given an open brief when it came to conceptualising the wine, and will you might have presumed the wine would be Cabernet Sauvingon driven, it is in fact two-thirds Cabernet Franc and one-third Cabernet Sauvignon. In the cellar, it spent 24 months in French oak, 100% and total production was 200 cases.
The wine is much more plush than anything that the Du Toits ever made (alcohol is 14.5% and residual sugar 3.4g/l) but is a serious proposition nevertheless. There’s intense dark fruit, some floral fragrance and pencil shavings on the nose, while the palate has weight and texture, an attractive herbal note on the back palate lending interest. It’s luxuriously styled but not overdone.
One sip and I knew I was tasting something expensive. “Over R200 a bottle?” I proferred. At R700 a bottle, M.P.H.S. becomes the most expensive wine in the portfolio of producer-wholesaler Distell. Who’s going to buy it? “Overseas visitors want something with a serious price tag. Stellenzicht Syrah for instance at R210 a bottle doesn’t have enough cachet,” says Erasmus. A new chapter begins for Alto…