Monday, June 2, 2014

Vilafonté: Stunning South African Red Blends

I’ve dreamed of going to South Africa since I was a kid, for surfing, not wine. But as I developed my passion for both surfing and wine over the years, the trip became more and more of a necessity. Well, I finally made the transatlantic trek. I’ve just returned from South Africa, and I can honestly say the trip exceeded all of my highest expectations.

I spent about ten days in the Western Cape with my wife before heading to the northeastern part of the country for a camping safari. While on the Cape, I took advantage of some gorgeous surf breaks with clear blue, intensely powerful waves. I wine-tasted my way through the Cape Peninsula, the Garden Route, Hermanus and Stellenbosch, exploring a diverse viticultural landscape. I was in paradise.

Of course, there were travel frustrations, necessary adaptations, cultural oddities, a bribe-hungry cop I had to smooth-talk, thorns both metaphorical and physical. But, overall, the trip was epic, invaluable, worth the years of waiting, planning and saving.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll have a series of posts based on my time in South Africa. I’ll share my impressions of the country’s wine, food, culture and surf. But, to start off, I thought I’d discuss two of the most memorable and praiseworthy wines from my trip: two red blends from Vilafonté called Series M and Series C.

Vilafonté is a coordinated effort between South African Mike Ratcliffe and Californian Zelma Long. Mike runs his family’s Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch, and he’s active in international wine communities. (Click here for a post on Warwick’s awesome wines.) California pioneer Zelma Long worked as enologist for Robert Modavi in the 70s, Simi in the 80s, and currently owns several of her own projects in Sonoma and Napa. Mike and Zelma kicked off Vilafonté in 1998, and together they’ve created something marvelous.

With their diverse backgrounds, the Vilafonté team keeps a narrow focus. They produce only two wines, both red Bordeaux blends. The Series M is based on Malbec and the Series C is based on Cabernet.

Last week I started off a day of wine tasting at the Vilafonté winery, located in a former distillery on the edge of Stellenbosch. I met with Sofia Hawkins, who manages sales and Vilafonte’s wine club. We tasted the 2011 vintage of both wines while chatting about the vineyard, the founders’ vision for the wines and more general impressions of the Stellenbosch wine culture.

The 2011s were equally stunning and elegant. Both are beautiful at a young age — aeration is a must, decanting highly recommended — but they will develop all sorts of nuance and complexity in the cellar.

The wines are made from estate fruit grown in the titular vilafonté soils (gravelly clay) in the Paarl-Simonsberg region, on the north side of the serene Simonsberg mountains. Both wines are composed of only free-run juice, Sofia explained, which may help explain the velvety and effortless mouthfeel and of the wines.

The 2011 harvest began on Valentine’s Day and lasted three weeks. My wife, who enjoyed the wines as much as I did, asked Sofia about mechanical harvesting, recalling a previous wine trip in Germany where we witnessed a mechanical harvester shaking and chopping the living hell out of rows of vines. Sofia’s reaction was telling of Vilafonté’s attitude toward the vineyard and the natural environment it shares. “No machine harvesting. It’s all done by hand.” Wine quality and vine health aside, she said mechanical harvesters shouldn’t be used because, “there are lizards in the vineyard.” I love that attitude, and I loved the wines.

Here are my notes…

2011 Vilafonté Series M - South Africa, Coastal Region, Paarl
Dark ruby colored. The aromas are deep and contemplative, evolving quite a lot over the half-hour tasting. Great tannic structure, but the tannins are sanded down so the mouthfeel is creamy, complemented by fresh acid. The black cherry and blueberry fruit is pure and voluptuous. I get complex notes of cola, cedar, dried leaves, charcoal and baking spices. The wine is long, full and complex, and the mouthfeel is so damn attractive. A blend of 51% Malbec, 46% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 22 months in 20% new French Oak and 12 months in bottle before release. A stunning wine. 
(93 points)

2011 Vilafonté Series C - South Africa, Coastal Region, Paarl
Deep ruby colored. Such complex aromas: currants and dried blueberries infused with cola, charcoal smoke, loam, sweet herbs. Clearly this needs time to show its full aromatic display. Great structure, serious concentration, the tannins have a bit more grit than the Series M, but there’s still a wonderful velvety approach. Bold currant, fig paste and blackberries mix with notes of tobacco, soil, loam, anise, forest floor and granite. Dense but it opens up. Burly but elegant, if that’s possible. Aged 22 months in 80% new French oak and 12 months in bottle before release. 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 14% Malbec and 9% Cabernet Franc. Needs four or five years at least, but will hold for a decade+ without problem. 
(93+ points)

Every vintage, Vilafonté holds back some cases of each wine and releases them after they’ve been aged for four or five years, allowing consumers a glimpse of the long-term potential for these wines. Tasting some Vilafonté wines with five+ years on them is now on my to-do list. I expect to be thrilled. If you’ve tasted some older vintages, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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