Alto Reaches Heights with the M.P.H.S.
ALTO WINE ESTATE
Tuesday 13 August 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4/5
Alto is a grand old wine estate: historic, long-lived and making Stellenbosch red wines with their distinct label with its magenta stripe at the top that has not changed in decades. Rather like that old leather sofa that has lost its shape but remains cosy, or a worn out pair of slippers that no longer quite fit but one can’t bear to part with, or a favourite grandparent with dependable warm hugs and a ruddy smile, it brings trust and confidence, a quiet assurance. There’s a sense even before visiting for tasting that one knows what to expect – and that one won’t be disappointed either.
It was my first visit to Alto and my third tasting of the day, having started at Stellenrust and then moved to Hidden Valley. The estate lies between Peter Falke and Rust-en-Vrede on the Annandale Road little more than 5 kilometres South of the centre of Stellenbosch. The farm is at the heart of the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’, a sub-region that is known for its diverse granite, shale, sandstone and clay soils on warm Northern slopes bordered by the Helderberg Mountains. It is said that 60% of the best Stellenbosch wines come from here, including those from many of my favourite estates: Hidden Valley, Rust-en-Vrede, Haskell, Kleinood, Keermont and De Trafford, among many.
Alto has a history dating back to 1693 when it formed part of the larger Groenrivier Farm granted by Simon van der Stel. It was not until the 1920s that wine became a focus at Alto when Hennie Malan and son Manie bought half of the property to create a wine farm, with the first famous Alto Rouge exported to Europe. In the subsequent century there has been only 5 winemakers, including 2 father and son combinations during this period. Today, 83 hectares of the 191-hectare property is planted with only red varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz. The vineyards range in altitude from 100 metres to 500 metres above sea level: Alto means ‘altitude’. The vines benefit from the late-afternoon summer sunshine that brings concentration and colour to the grapes, whilst cooling False Bay sea breezes extend ripening for soft tannins. The varied terroir means that each block and cultivar are grown at their optimum, aided by extensive replanting in 2014, 2015 and 2018, with the result that Cabernet Sauvignon makes up more than half the vineyard area.
The broad whitewashed gate bearing the name Alto in large bold letters led to the Tasting Building via a straight, brick-paved road facing the Helderberg. Clouds had gathered during the day that were now touching the mountain peaks. I parked close by and watched as the farm Labrador dog, Bella, played with a pot-bellied pig of same size. Beside were gnarled vines, pruned and bereft of their leaves. There was an air of relaxed calm to the late afternoon as if Alto did not need to prove itself. I could have sat outside on the lawn or covered seating near to the Cellar but chose the comfort of indoors instead. The small Tasting Room was tastefully decorated without being flashy or modern. Large photos of the 5 winemakers formed an impressive montage above the fireplace whilst bottles of wine of different sizes, individually and in boxed sets with their associated Alto merchandise neatly sat on shelves around the room.
Jason was my tasting host. Chatty and informative, we connected. I am not sure who was most surprised on hearing that he was a student ichthyologist: me, because it is not a word that comes up in everyday conversation or, him, as I knew what the word meant (a fish scientist). Alto manages to make an impressive 4 tasting options from a range of just 7 wines: Standard Tasting (5 wines for R50); Standard Tasting, including Signature Blend (R65); Standard Tasting, including M.P.H.S. (R75); and Premium Tasting, all 7 wines (R90).
I opted for the M.P.H.S. option, beginning with a Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé. I realise that I mentioned above that Alto makes red wines only. The Rosé is a new wine and the last but one vintage, available for purchase only at Alto. The pale salmon wine showed simple strawberry notes that gave way to a light, fruity palate that was clean in texture and with only modest complexity and length.
The Alto Rouge was far better. Made from the 4 varieties grown on the farm in near equal amount, together with a dash (6%) of Petit Verdot, the wine is aged for 18 months in American and French oak before blending. The familiar Rouge, made since 1922, was deep bodied and a deep ruby in colour. Ripe, fresh, fruity mostly dark cherry, plum, cassis and blackberry filled the nose. These flavours balanced rounded tannins on the palate for a decent, value wine with medium length.
Next were 2 single cultivar wines that I rated equally. The first, the Shiraz from vines grown on granite and clay on the lower slopes of the farm, showed similar ripe fruity character with black cherry and plum flavours matched by pepper spice. Ripe tannins, from 18 months maturation in American/French (60%/40%) 1st, 2nd and 3rd fill oak barrels, were tight but balanced. The Cabernet Sauvignon, from higher slopes and aged for the same period in similar French oak, showed like, dark stone fruity character with aromas of cedar and pencil shavings in place of spicy pepper. The feel on the palate was much the same as for the Shiraz.
My favourite wine of the tasting was also the most expensive (sigh!). Costing a dizzying R985 a bottle, the tasting pricing options immediately became apparent and understandable. The flagship wine is iconic at Alto with the name derived from the 4 previous winemakers. The M.P.H.S. is a blended wine made from the best of the grapes on the estate and so the proportion of each varies from vintage to vintage. Made from the 2 Cabernet varieties – Sauvignon and Franc- grown on northern-facing slopes in equal amount, the wine was aged in a combination of 1st, 2nd and 3rd fill French and American barriques for 18 months. The 2012 wine showed its age with discoloration at the rim in the glass. I liked the rich redcurrant, red berry, plum, blackberry and bramble fruity complexity. The palate was by far the best of the tasting: smooth, complex and with well-balanced fruits, round integrated tannins and 14.5% alcohol, and great length at the finish.
I ended the tasting with the Alto Fine Old Vintage, a deep ruby fortified wine (20.5%) unusually made from Shiraz. Intense, rich alcoholic and fruity dried fruits, prune, dates and raisin aromas filled the nose. In the mouth, the wine was fruity sweet (Residual Sugar of 202 g/l) that was balanced by the acidity for a dessert wine with good length.
Alto made an excellent estate to end my tasting day. The experience was relaxed with minimum of pizzazz or fuss as I had expected. I sensed the weight and the stability of history and family tradition that was broken only by the Rosé that somehow did not fit. The M.P.H.S. was the obvious pinnacle of the tasting and worthy of its icon status and associated premium pricing. The small range of wines were well made and delightful to taste, being generally good without being great. The Golden Triangle lives on in me for its excellent wines.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2018 Alto Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé – R95
2016 Alto Rouge (28% Cabernet Franc, 23% Shiraz, 22% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot) – R95
2016 Alto Shiraz – R220
2015 Alto Cabernet Sauvignon – R235
2012 Alto M.P.H.S. (50% Cabernet Franc, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R985 FAVOURITE WINE
2012 Alto Fine Old Vintage Shiraz (500 ml) – R200