Schalk was born in 1953 at Neethlingshof, where his father was the farm manager, and lived there most of his life. After obtaining his viticulture diploma at Elsenburg, he became both winemaker and farm manager, on his father’s retirement. In 2000 he accepted the position of winemaker at Alto, a decision that could not have been easy, and he and his family have been living there ever since. Assisted by renowned viticulturist Prof Eben Archer, he replanted 50 per cent of Alto’s vines, a massive but necessary undertaking as the vines were in need of renewal. He is married to Esmé, and they have three sons and now also three grandchildren.
Schalk loves nature and wildlife and his favourite places to escape to are the Kruger Park, the Kalahari and Namibia, obviously enjoying something completely different to his normal environment.
I remember when I was a youngster, people from upcountry used to make a beeline for the famous Alto Estate in Stellenbosch to buy cases of their superb Alto Rouge at R1 a bottle (I’m talking many years ago). Heavily laden cars with their rear ends almost on the road would groan back through the Karoo. Times may have changed, but the wine has not and is still as famous and sought-after as it was back then.
Piet du Toit, the winemaker, was succeded by his famous rugby player son Hempies, who put this iconic South African brand on the map. Schalk van der Westhuizen is only the fourth winemaker at Alto and intensely aware of the rich heritage of which he is custodian. Today almost 400 000 litres of Alto Rouge are produced annually. It no longer costs R1 a bottle, but what does? In the 90 years that red wine has been produced at Alto there have been only four winemakers, which could be intimidating.
However, the self-effacing, talented Schalk is not fazed by this lineage, which has produced more than 70 international and local gold medals for Alto, many of them for wines he has made. ”I interfere as little as possible with nature, but take its bounty and am always aware that you get one chance a year – maybe 40 in a lifetime – to produce your best work.” He obviously knows what he is talking about.
ALTO ESTATE, STELLENBOSCH 021 881 3884, www.alto.co.za