Do we use too much technology in our winemaking today? I was recently privileged to taste old Cabernets from Alto Estate, dating right back to 1965.
Alto has a unusual record of having had only four winemakers since 1920 — Manie Malan, Piet du Toit, his son, Hempies, and now Schalk van der Westhuizen.
The earlier vintages were matured in huge 13 000 litre oak vats and there was no refrigeration in the cellar. Small oak barrels were only introduced in 1982. Alto wines were always kept for at least six years before being released for sale.
We tasted Cabernet Sauvignons from ’65, ’70, 84, ’99, ’01 and ’07. All the were still very drinkable and in good condition. The 1970 vintage was particularly fresh and lively after 40 years. The ’84 was soft and very accessible, with charming, juicy fruit flavours.
Hempies du Toit said there was not a single case of corkiness or spoiled cork in all the bottles he had opened. Are today’s corks of a poorer quality?
I couldn’t help wondering how many of today’s red wines – with all the benefits of chilled stainless steel tanks, filters, sterile bottling lines, pneumatic presses, centrifuges and all the paraphernalia of the laboratory – will still be drinkable in 45 years’ time.
“I think we put too much emphasis on new wood today,” Hempies said. “We had 48 of those big vats in the cellar when I started making wine. Most were more than three years old when the 1965 vintage was made.
“The tannins in these old wines came from the grapes, not from the oak.”
He added that modern winemakers picked grapes far riper than they did back then. As a result those old wines needed time to grow to greatness; for the acidity to soften.
But once they were released they lasted almost forever.
Maybe we don’t have enough time for all that today. It’s the age of instant gratification. Modern houses don’t have cool cellars in which to store wines for years.
So we settle for fruity and cheerful, rather than great and memorable. Life has become shallower and poorer for that, and so rushed that we don’t have time to appreciate its treasures.
The Alto Tradition lives on…
The latest addition to the Alto range is a tribute to the four winemakers who built up the farm’s enviable reputation. Labelled Alto MPHS (Manie, Pieter, Hempies, Schalk), the 2007 vintage has been eleased in limited quantity. It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon that’s been matured in French oak for two years. Only 2200 bottles were made.
It’s delicious! Full bodied and luscious, it slips down like velvet. Every component – acid, wood, fruit and tannin – is in perfect harmony. This is a wine for a very special occasion. If you are able to lay your hands on a bottle or two, they’ll cost you about R700 each.
And a word for Cinsaut…
The famous Alto Rouge, made since 1920, was originally a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Cinsaut.
“I think we need to start a drive to bring back Cinsaut,” said Hempies. “It’s a truly great grape.” Hear hear! I’ve never been able to understand why our winemakers pulled out all those Cinsaut vines. They made delightful, light and friendly wines and seemed to thrive in every wine region.
Was it just fashion and snobbery that caused them to be uprooted? From being the Cape’s most widely planted red grape variety, it is now almost extinct. Such a pity!
Photo: courtesy of Alto Wine Estate