Seriously Old Dirt: A Wine Journey of Geological Curiosity

Look at that wine bottle reading “Seriously Old Dirt”, and right there certain conventional wine terms are thrown out of the window, plunging into a broken heap below. In a competitive environment seeking to sell premium wine to fashion-conscious wine drinkers, “Serious” and “old” are not the first descriptors that come to mind. Not to mention “dirt”. I mean, who uses dirt in any reference to an item meant for human consumption, not to mention enjoyment?

But for Mike Ratcliffe, owner and CEO of iconic wine entity Vilafonté and his team honesty, belief and commitment on a wine label are more important than the norm. Especially if that belief revolves around the ethos of creating wine from vineyards planted in some of the oldest soils on earth.

“Seriously Old Dirt underscores our conviction that we South African wine-growers have something truly unique in the ancient soils characterising the Cape winelands,” he says. “It is actually a bold story, visceral and tangible in these old clods of earth in which the country’s vineyards are set. The geology of our wine regions presents the industry with an incredible opportunity to emphasise an aspect that make our wine offerings totally original and captivating. Diversity of soil, dating back 700 million years to the beginning of planet earth. If that is not a USP, what is? Like fellow winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris and Andrea Mullineux, we deem it a privilege to honour these soils through our wines.”

Mike Ratcliffe

And not just old soils, but, like, seriously old.

“I cannot for the life of me remember when exactly the name Seriously Old Dirt cropped-up,” says Ratcliffe. “The term was being bandied about in the Vilafonté winery long before the wine was even thought of. At the beginning of our journey, Phil Freese, Vilafonté co-founder and previous partner, introduced the Vilafonté project by stating it evolved with a quest of discovery in which the team took the classic grape varieties of the world and planted them in the oldest soils on earth. The rest is history.”

And yes, it is all about the “dirt”. As Ratcliffe says, Seriously Old Dirt the wine is ”regionally agnostic, but soil specific”.  Classic winemaking from vineyards selected through various journeys of discovery throughout the ancient geologies that make-up the Cape winelands.

“Together with legendary soil scientist Dawid Saayman and viticulturist Marco Roux we have discovered, identified and profiled some of the oldest soil sites in the Cape,” says Ratcliffe. “From the decomposed granite of Stellenbosch, layered vilafontes soils in Paarl and the rich limestone fossil-beds of the Wandsbeck Valley 160km east of Cape Town, vines are bedded in growing matter harking back to the beginning of the earth, over 700 million years ago. As a wine, Seriously Old Dirt’s roots are anchored in these soils – both in terms of the quality of fruit vines growing here give us, as well as our geological curiosity in honouring this cardinal feature of South African wine.”

Arlene Mains, Seriously Old Dirt’s seriously smart and youthful Head-winemaker, confirms Ratcliffe’s commitment to soil as the principal building-block of the wine. “Soil is the foundation, the life-blood of a vineyard,” says Mains, “and it is the earth that determines the personality, the character and the varietal expression of the grapes the vineyards are going to give me to make wine from. The search for vines planted on these old, pre-historic soils has been a voyage of wonder for all of us involved with Seriously Old Dirt. Exploring the South African winelands with the focus on finding ancient geology and to see how unique geography has created an extraordinary symbiosis with the vineyard has been mind-shifting and gives the wine a new dimension.”

With an MSc in Wine Microbiology from Stellenbosch University, Mains has worked at Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux as well as multiple vintages at Opus One, the cult Californian brand that began as a collaboration between the Rothschilds and Robert Mondavi. It was spending time in the vineyards at Opus One that gave her these insights into the importance of viticulture and soils.

“I am not interested in farming a vineyard that to the eye looks all pretty, healthy and manicured,” she says. “For me, it is about taking all the steps needed in farming a vineyard that produces fruit of the quality and expressive profile we need for growing Seriously Old Dirt.”

Cabernet Sauvignon will always drive the blend, something Ratcliffe is adamant about. “Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux blends from South Africa are my loves – I am going to have Cabernet Sauvignon on my gravestone, I hope,” he says.

The 2020 vintage of Seriously Old Dirt has 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. And in composing the blend is one of the area’s where true craftmanship comes into winemaking.

“As head winemaker for Seriously Old Dirt by Vilafonté, and being focussed on one wine only, there is no space for even one drop of wine not meeting the criteria we demand in the final bottle,” says Mains. “If a barrel of any other component is not performing, I have authority to remove it from the process.”

The young wines, on completing malolactic fermentation, gives Arlene and her team an idea of the percentages of that vintage’s blending components. “Different varieties and vineyards are, however, aged separately in old French barriques (225l),” she says. “After six months the barrels will be assessed, and the final blend brought together. The wine is then sent back to barrel as a complete whole to integrate and mature further for six months.”

All this talk of quality and criteria and selection poses the question: what does Seriously Old Dirt aim to be as a wine?

Mains smiles. “Well, it probably isn’t recognised as official wine terminology, but ‘yummy!’ is the first thing that comes to mind,” she says. “Classical red grape varieties led by Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety made for growing in the ancient soils of the Cape, aged in old barrels to soften-out the edges and provide sumptuous fruit-flavours found in a find dry red wine….it can only be delicious and that is why one would want to drink it.”


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