Q&A with Alto Winemaker Bertho van der Westhuizen

Words: Crush

Being the son of a well-respected winemaker comes with obvious pressures but Bertho van der Westhuizen has stepped into his old man’s rather large boots at Alto Wine Estate with aplomb. With his extensive winemaking knowledge and experience in the vineyards, those shoes fit snugly. We chat to Bertho about his winemaking journey, as well as some of the challenges and successes of his career.

bertho van der westhuizen

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Cellar Master at Alto Wine Estate

Crush: Being the son of celebrated winemaker, Schalk van der Westhuizen, was winemaking always the path for you?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: I guess it was always part of me growing up on Neethlingshof and spending most of my time in the cellar. However, there was never any pressure on me studying winemaking.

Crush: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a winemaker at Alto?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: I finished my B.Sc Viticulture and oenology in 2002. I did a harvest at Alto in 2003 and then went to Citrusdal Cellars in Citrusdal. This was a great learning experience for me. After Citrusdal I came back to Stellenbosch and joined Kleine Zalze Wines, just outside Stellenbosch where I worked with Johan Joubert and spent 8 vintages with Kleine Zalze.

The opportunities that I got from Johan and Kobus Basson, the owner, were turning points in my short career.  I then joined DGB Boschendal and Brampton, where I was responsible for the Boschendal reds and the Brampton range of whites and reds. Being able to gain experience in a big setup like DGB was very valuable. I was then given the opportunity to follow in my father’s footsteps at Alto. This is a huge honour and an even greater responsibility!

Crush: Are blends more forgiving to make as a winemaker?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Yes and no. Yes, because it allows you to only use the best portion of what you want in the blend. No, because the challenge that a single variety sets to produce a top wine can be very rewarding if you hit it right.

Crush: Tell us about 2015 and what made it such a great year for winemaking in South Africa, and in particular, Alto Rouge 2015?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: The winter of 2014 was perfect, enough cold with good rain. When the summer came, it provided perfect growing conditions for the grapes to ripen optimally.

The January and February heat waves stayed away and we had cool evenings and moderate day temperatures. This allowed grapes and tannins to ripen optimally before harvesting.

Crush: With Alto Rouge, the varietal percentages differ from vintage to vintage – how does this affect the consistency in taste?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: If you do a vertical tasting of Rouge you will see that the DNA of the wine is the same. There is a fine thread running through all the wines; however, every vintage is an image of what that vintage was like at Alto and the Helderberg.

Crush: What are the challenges of making an award-winning blend like Alto Rouge?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Consistency and top quality at a good volume and at a competitive price point.

Crush: What makes Alto such a special location for making red wine?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: The Helderberg, with its north facing slopes, proximity to False Bay, its cool sea breezes and top quality soil all contribute to the quality of the area.

bertho van der westhuizen

Crush: Can you give us some insight into the 2018 harvest? What has been the effect of the drought in the Western Cape?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: We are very fortunate on the Helderberg. Despite the drought, we had a good yield, good concentration and good tannin ripeness. The season changed at the end of February and we had cool evenings and cooler days. This allowed us to reach optimum ripeness on our Cabernet Sauvignon.

Crush: Is it true that most of Alto Rouge production is consumed in South Africa?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Yes, about 90%.

Crush: Are all the grape varietals used in Alto Rouge from the Alto farm?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Yes we have 5 varieties on Alto, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot and Petit Verdot. You will see these varieties in every vintage.

bertho van der westhuizen

Crush: In your opinion what makes Alto Rouge such a special and popular red blend?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: Consistent quality at a good price point. You basically get a R180 wine for under R100!

Crush: What exciting things can we look out for in the future of Alto wines?

Bertho van der Westhuizen: We have started with a Bordeaux blend, the first vintage is 2015. This has not been released yet. When released, it will only be available from the cellar door at Alto.

Quickfire Questions

Alto Rouge and… everything or on its own!
Malolactic fermentation in one sentence? Malic acid turn into lactic acid.
Alto Rouge should never be… wasted on bad company!
Currently reading…Weg, Ry en Sleep (Afrikaans outdoor magazine)
Favourite way to relax… braai (cooking on an open fire) and sport.
Favourite wine… white is great but red is king!

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