Alto’s Centenary 5 June 2019

Alto Estate’s 100th birthday bash was a suitably joyous occasion – a party that pretended to be no more than just that, as if any attempt to unpack more detail would tamper with the lights-and-mirrors of illusion. This is what happens when marketing departments prefer a chosen narrative over a much more interesting, but less easy to communicate, storyline.

Alto is much older than 100 years, but also a little younger. The original title deeds date back to 1693 and grapes were grown there from the 18th century onwards. Hennie Malan sub-divided the property (which was known as Groenrivier) in 1919, sold the lower half to his brother-in-law and retained the upper portion (hence the name Alto) for himself.

A year later – so 99 years ago – he planted vineyards on the upper slopes and built a winery. Four years after this – so 95 years ago – he produced his first wine, a blend of shiraz, cinsaut and cabernet. Without capital to afford the costs of maturation, he planned his plantings around the varieties which would ripen more or less simultaneously so they could be vinfied together.

For six consecutive years (from 1924 to 1929) Alto’s blended red (Alto Rouge) won first prize in its category at the Cape show. Malan also sent samples of the 1924 vintage to Burgoyne’s, a well-know London merchant, which immediately contracted to buy a portion of the crop – and continued to do so for almost 40 years. Alto Rouge was only bottled for domestic sale from 1933.

It’s not difficult to see that very little of this narrative relates to 1919, and hosting a party as a celebration of a hundred years of winemaking requires more licence than even poets are allowed to claim. Clearly no one wanted to wait until 1924 to have a bash, having missed (or perhaps not) the tercentary in 1993. At least the timing makes sense from a wine quality perspective. The about-to-be released Alto Rouge 2017 is an impressive step up on the 2016, while the current release Cabernet (the 2015) is beginning to show the kind of evolution which will set it on a course to compare with the legendary examples from the 1960s.

Elsewhere in Stellenbosch, and in the same month, the Momberg family of Middelvlei also celebrated their centenary. The press release states “Middelvlei’s rich history and proud traditions started in 1919 when two brothers, Tinnie and Niels Momberg, bought the farm for £3000.”

This story doesn’t tally to the information on the chapter about Middelvlei in the 2nd edition of Graham Knox’s “Estate Wines of South Africa.” Knox’s version states that “in 1923 the two sons of Jan Hendrik Momberg…bought less than two hectares..on the western slopes of the Papegaaiberg to build houses and a small cellar. At the same time the brothers..leased adjoining land from the local authority for the planting of vineyards.” This edition of Knox’s book was published six years after the first, and is described as “revised and enlarged.” It seems safe to assume that there had been any egregious errors of fact in the 1976 edition they would have been corrected by 1982.

What is it about these Stellenbosch “centenary” celebrations that producers with extraordinary track records of fine wine-making and deep personal resilience choose to make a song-and-dance about fictional centuries? In a wine industry where there is so much focus on what is new, recently discovered and trendy, it seems positively suicidal to be celebrating 100 years of owning a property or making wine on it.

This alone should induce a moment of reflection: we live in an era where the untried and untested hogs in limelight. Perhaps instead we should use these “centenary” celebrations to recognise the sites which have yielded credible wines for a very long time. More importantly we should acknowledge our collective debt to the families which survived the recessions and the wars, and, inspired by long dead ancestors, are still making wines in the Cape’s vinous heartland.

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