Alto: Decline of a great name

There are many stories of what mega-business Distell has done with its various labels and brands since its formation in 2000 (amalgamating Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers Corporation). Some are good news (Fleur du Cap, Nederburg), some are not. I’ve written before about the sorry and arguably sordid story of Zonnebloem, once an estate making some magnificent cabernets in the 1940s and 1950s, it’s name appropriated, arguably legally but without the knowledge of the farmers who thought they owned it, and transformed into that of a pretty ordinary brand (now trying to claw its way upwards again – see here).

Also amongst the bad news category are just about all of the brands in Lusan Premium Wines, the joint venture between the German financier Hans Schreiber and Distell. Just about all of them have lesser reputations for quality (if not, presumably, for profitability) than they did, to some degree or another.

I was rather bitterly reminded of this again this afternoon, at the tasting of old wines which Michael Fridjhon regularly offers as a prelude to his annual Trophy Wine Show judging at the Grande Roche hotel in Paarl. Was this the fourth of fifth of these? I should be less hazy about it, as I’ve been hugely privileged to attend all of them, and have had a number of most remarkable experiences there of Cape wines dating back to the 1940s.

Well, this afternoon the finest wine for me – and I suspect for at least a few others – was Alto Cabernet 1971. We’ve previously had Alto Cabs there, including a 1969 which was past its best. Today, the 1971 stood out from a pretty impressive selection of reds of the 60s and 70s (including a fine Lanzerac Pinotage 1967); a stunning wine, the Alto was fresh and lively, with charmingly developed and graceful fruit intensity but elegant and refreshingly light-feeling. A delightful wine that would have gleamed brightly in any line-up of 40 to 50-year-old wines anywhere in the world.

The farm name, Alto, dates back nearly a century, to 1919, when the original Stellenbosch farm founded in 1693 was subdivided. It was among the first Cape wineries, perhaps the first, to focus on red wines (and is seldom recognised, incidentally, as the pioneer of planting pinot noir – though that experiment admittedly didn’t last long).

Alto kept something of its reputation up through the 1990s as a Bergkelder wine, with Hempies du Toit, of the family which had owned it since 1959, as the maker of very decent cabernet Sauvognon and that Cape institution Alto Rouge. Bergekelder, then Lusan gained ownership and Hempies left for his own property in 2000. From which point, it seems, Alto was implacably required to increase its yields, focusing on quantity rather than quality. (Look at what happened at the other Lusan properties – le Bonheur, Neethlingshof, etc, and don’t be surprised).

How sad, for one of the Cape’s grand old wine estates to dwindle thus.

Alto-RougeI tasted Alto’s latest releases a few weeks back, with Angela Lloyd. Alto Rouge 2011, the most modestly priced of the three (R75), was possibly the most appealing, and not bad value. A little dilute, perhaps, but with pleasing fruit flavours, ripe but not showily fruity, and firmly structured. Very decent, but ordinary, and just a bit dull. But I still love the label!

lAto Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (R150) was more emphatically savoury in its welcome avoidance of up-front fruit. Pretty classic in its styling, in fact, and pleasingly balanced. But the colour is more advanced than would be expected for a fairly young wine, and it might be drying out somewhat already. Again, straightforward and unexceptional.

As usual, I enjoyed the Alto Shiraz 2011 (R149) rather less, as it’s always been a riper, more overtly fruity wine than the others (which it joined comparatively recently). Boiled sweet aromas, lightish feel with a pronounced acidity striving to give something approximating  freshness. Quite a whack of tannin too. A rather sweet finish too.

I’d rather have a glassful of that 1971 Alto Cab than a case each of the epigonal Altos of 40 years later.

 

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