There is widespread speculation in the Cape about a possible alliance or take over bid by French liquor giant Pernod Ricard of Distell, South Africa's largest wine and spirit company.

Major shareholders, Remgro (Rembrandt) and KWV, however, have said no "for sale" signs have been put up for the company.

The Stellenbosch-based Distell yesterday confirmed that a number of international companies, including Remy Martin and Pernod Ricard, have had varying degrees of formal and informal contact with the company, but that no proposals had been put on the table to be considered by management.

Andre Steyn, corporate affairs director said he could not comment on whether there were any discussions at shareholder level.

He said the company realised prior to its merger last year that it would need to look at a strategic alliance or alliances with international partners if it wanted to grow its international trade. At present the company's export revenue makes up 16% of the total and last year it said it wanted to double this by 2005.

This in turn sparked interest from a number of parties.

"Pernod Ricard is an obvious player and on the face of it both companies seem to have similar ways of working. There don't seem to be any clashes of interest as there might be some of the other big players," said Andre Steyn from Distell.

MD of Pernod Ricard in South Africa, David de Maardt, is presently in France and spokesmen at the local office in Stellenbosch declined to comment on any issues relating to Distell.

If an international company wanted to gain a controlling interest in Distell it would have to deal directly with at least two of its three major shareholders.

The shareholders are KWV (on behalf of about 4,500 wine farmer shareholders), the Remgro Group (majority shareholders are the Rupert family) and South African Breweries (the world's fifth largest beer company), each with a 30% share. The remaining 10% is available to the public on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange. 

KWV chairman, Lourens Jonker, who is also a non-executive director of Distell, dismissed the matter as speculative at this stage, saying nothing had been discussed at Board level at Distell and no approaches had been made to KWV about acquiring its shares.

Remgro's chief executive officer and deputy chairman, Thys Visser, said, no approaches had been made to his company and that, "no for sale" signs were up for the company.

He said until such time that something tangible was put on the table he could not speculate about whether Distell would consider any offers.