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Alto is situated high on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain in the Stellenbosch Wine of Origin district. Its trellised vineyards cling to the high granite slopes that rise from 100 to 500 metres above sea level, which are ideal for the cultivation of red grape varietals. Unsurprisingly, Alto is, and always has been, red wine country.

Alto Estate's sound reputation for producing world-class red wines can be ascribed, in part, to its excellent terroir. It is no coincidence that the area is known, locally, as the Golden Triangle. The vineyards face north, north-east and north-west. In summer, when the vines are drenched in sunshine, the late-afternoon sea breezes that rise from False Bay cool the grapes, thus lengthening the ripening period and preserving the complex flavors of the noble varietals grown at Alto.

Dryland conditions ensure that the vines are shy-bearing, resulting in quality grapes and, consequently, quality wine. It is this outstanding Alto quality which has won the Estate more than 70 gold medals in open competition with the best wines in the world. One of South Africa's most celebrated labels, the Alto Rouge, is a Cape institution for over 50 years and has become known as this country's "own red blend". When asked to name a typical "Cape blend"that is not Bordeau in style, Alto Rouge immediately comes to mind. The 1995 and 1996 vintages, master blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, again walked away with a gold medal each at the 1999 Veritas awards. A hundred per cent Cabernet Sauvignon has been added to Alto's output.

Big and powerful, but with infinite elegance and sophistication, the Cabernet drew the spotlight from the start. At Vinexpo 1993 in Bordeaux, the 1984 vintage was the only South African wine to win a "Grand Prix d'Honneur" followed by a gold medal for the 1987 vintage (one of only two South African reds) in 1995.

Other international awards include the Dave Hughes Trophy at the 1994 International Wine and Spirit Competition in London which the 1986 vintage received as the "Best South African Red Wine" The list of world honors continues! In 1998, at a blind tasting in Europe by six of the most respected Belgian sommeliers, the 1982 Alto Cabernet Sauvignon outclassed the likes of a 1983 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild! The Alto wines, aristocrats of the truly big Cape reds, came home to roost.

Alto's history dates back to 1693, when it was part of a larger farm named Groenrivier or "Green River".

In 1919 the then owner of Groenrivier, Hennie Malan, divided the farm vertically in order to sell half of the land to his brother-in-law. The development of Malan's share was a co-operative venture between himself and his son, Manie. In the next few years they set about converting this partial wilderness into a wine farm, to which they gave the Latin name, Alto, a reference both to the altitude of the vineyards and their own aspirations. They built a homestead and a cellar, and planted the lower slopes with vines.

Malan's choice of red varieties was based on a shrewd assessment of the nature of his land. When Piet du Toit bought Alto in 1959, neither he nor the experts he called in for analysis and advice could fault the planting or the wine created by the Malans. When Piet retired in 1983, his son, Hempies, a well-known rugby Springbok, succeeded him. Hempies du Toit continued the fine red wine-making traditions of his predecessors until May 2000 when Neethlingshofs winemaker Schalk van der Westhuizen took over the job.

Alto produces the Alto Rouge every year, and in particularly good years, like 2001, an Alto Cabernet Sauvignon is released. In fact a limited released Alto Shiraz 2001 was also released but is only available from the farm and the Bergkelder. The Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 was recently selected to be served on SA Airways First Class, a fitting environment for such a noble wine.

Schalk van der Westhuizen was born on Neethlingshof , where he lived all his life until July 2000. His father, Gys van der Westhuizen, was farm manager on the estate for 30 years. Armed with his Elsenburg diploma, Schalk in 1923 took over the reins from his father to manage the farm, later becoming the cellar master as well.

When Hans-J Schreiber, international banker and financier, bought Neethlingshof in 1985 , he immediately started a comprehensive replanting programme, replacing 85% of the vineyards. Initially, Schalk was responsible for the replanting and vineyard management, but in 1994 he started making the wine, reaping the fruits of his labour in the vineyards and producing the quality wines for which he has become so well known.

Schalk's decision to accept the post as winemaker at sister farm, Alto, was not an easy one. "I thought about it for a very long time," he says thoughtfully. In the end he rose to the challenge and once again started replanting vineyards.

Schalk became well known for one of Neethlingshof's flagship wines, namely the botrytised Weisser Riesling Noble Late Harvest. For a record eight consecutive years, this wine was awarded the trophy as the South African National Champion at the SA Young Wine Show. Accolades bestowed internationally include the German Wine Institute Trophy in 1998, for the best botrytised wine - worldwide - at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

Alto is red wine country, but Schalk's experience with the Neethlingshof reds has stood him in good stead. His first vintage was in 2001 and both the Alto Estate and the Alto Cabernet Sauvignon of that year have done well, particularly the Cabernet, which has been selected to be served on SAA.

Schalk is an elusive man and shies away from media attention, saying simply that he is not a man of many words. When he is congratulated on his numerous achievements, he always replies that the vines work their own magic: he is simply there to assist in the process of producing a most wonderful product. "For me it's important to make a wine that everyone enjoys," Schalk explains, "that's worth more to me than prizes and medals, though I wouldn't mind a few of those too." Schalk's latest achievement does deserve attention however. The limited release Alto Shiraz 2001 received a gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards as well as winning the trophy for the best South African Rhone Varietals.

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