Vilafonté: Two Decades of Greatness

The ancient Roman wine-growers said you had to plant vines on rocky hills for the best grapes and juice, but I wouldn’t write-off the flat, broad plains. Bordeaux’s Médoc region, for one, is hardly steeply inclined, and last time I looked Romanée Conti lay on a piece of Burgundian dirt flat enough for Frans Malherbe to moon-walk on.

There is a fine piece of steady, even land north-east of Cape Town just before Paarl, a countryside looked upon by a broad, endless sky intersected in the distance by purple-grey mountains. This is fine country for vines and grapes, and the record shows it. On the farm Welgemeend one Billy Hofmeyr, an icon of Cape wine, made the first South African Bordeaux-style red in 1979. It was not only the first of its kind, this wine, but one of the best, too. Of all the old local vinous treasures sold at the swanky auctions, none out-guns a Welgemeend from the early 1980s, except perhaps the GS 1966.

The soils of Welgmeend continue north-east, an ancient crust of earth holding some innocuous farm space and wild-looking brush cut by red clay paths and littered with a couple of obligatory commercial building sites and more aesthetically pleasing hospitality arrangements. In a quiet, pastoral part of this land lies Vilafonté, and it is a vineyard. A red wine vineyard from which two wines are made bearing the vineyard’s name and which have, in less than two decades, leapt to the very top offerings available from the Cape.

There are two reasons for the desirability and success of Vilafonté, with wine quality assuredly being one. The other is the building of the brand to respect and complement the fine wines originating from such a special place, and this has been done extraordinarily well by owner Mike Ratcliffe. I was fortunate to taste the first 2003 vintage, just labelled and not yet on market, together with fellow members of the Wine Swines. And although the focus at these gatherings is always on the wine, as it must be, Mike’s vision for Vilafonté accompanied the admirable comments the Swines were making on the wine.

Mike Ratcliffe

The vision was for an object of luxuriousness – from the texture of the label, bottle-shape, to the accompanying marketing visual imagery and the creating of desirability to get hold of a bottle of Vilafonté even before one had tasted it. And judging by the success of the brand today, that vision stayed true and has played out remarkably well.

Mike and his team recently put together a tasting comprising all 21 vintages of the Vilafonté C – this be the wine dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, while the “M” is Merlot driven. And facing the samples from 2003 to 2022, I was reminded of the emotional power of fine wine. For, with respect, my admiration for the success of the brand, the story-telling, memories of the American legends Phil Freese and Zelma Long who had initially set-up Vilafonté with Mike, all this was shunted aside by the riveting draw of the great South African wine this had become.

Along with the domineering Cabernet Sauvignon, Vilafonté sees Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc gelling the final outcome, the percentages of grape variety depending on vintage and stylistic wants from each specific year. Percentages of new French oak used, too, is not defined. 2009 used 100% new wood, while in 2010 only 53% of the wine saw new barrique. Give or take a few years, primarily at the beginning of the Vilafonté journey, the wine spends 22 months in barrel, and the alcohol-level tries to stick to 14.5%.

Carted in from their Paarl home at harvest, the grapes are vinified at the Vilafonté winery in Bosman’s Crossing, Stellenbosch. Seeing as my office is located across from the winery, I have an umbilical cord to this wine in that in summer, I witness the berries being sorted, smell the sweet-feral aroma of fermenting juice and watch the cellar teams calmly and confidently tending to fermentation and racking and all those other cellar goings-on.

Of course, I had never tasted all vintages – especially alongside one another – but going through the 21-year line-up there was a familiarity. It is an unfortunate one, this familiarity, as it rests on a few well-worn clichés so often used that they have lost their lustre. These be “elegant” and “refined”, two terms obvious in associating anything with luxury as well as littering every second wine-tasting note. But these are words that jump from the glass of each Vilafonté rendition, the red wines singing with class and stature and a regalness that, with some vintages, has one tempted to stand up to show respect for what is in the glass.

Of the earlier vintages, the Vilafonté C from year 2008 was especially overwhelming. The wine has 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot and 6% Malbec, and the 92% new oak-aging regime of 20 months was spot on in allowing the wine to be in a splendid condition at 15 years of age. The statuesque complexity and aggressive earthy blows of a great Simonsberg red are present, with a tapestry of life-affirming tannins and a chilly freshness. But the site of the Paarl Vilafonté vineyard exposed to glowing, even sunlight radiation allows for a heart-warming showing of polite dark fruits including prune, sour-cherry and plum, with an intriguing element of spice and Maplewood-ember.

The showing of what 15 years can do to a Vilafonté has me awaiting the further maturation of vintage 2013. Here, Cabernet Franc comes in at 13% – there was none in 2008 – with Cabernet Sauvignon (58%), Merlot (21%) and Malbec (8%). The result is a wine of enough ominous dark power to make a Haitian witch doctor eat his own voodoo doll, but not in the unbalanced, vicious and disturbing sense. Rather sell-binding and hypnotic.

On the nose there is a classic cedar whiff with aromas of warm tar and unsettled grape must. The palate welcomes luxury in an erotic silkiness delivering sensational tastes of fig-paste, garrique, black-currant and sage, with a slight savouriness. The wine is invigorating, exciting and firm, beautiful now with true greatness still to come.

And then there is Vilafonté C 2020. While these wines undoubtedly gain allure, complexity and verve through maturation, there is beauty in their youth. Here the tannins are still talkative, jostling for attention through layers of fruit, fynbos and graphite. On well-made, pure-fruited wines such as these, the restless exuberance strides beside a polished harmony which is as delightful and rewarding as opening the bottles a decade or two down the line. Especially in a classy red wine year such as 2020.

Here the brightness is piercing and seeking, rather than the thigh-shivering glow of the older wines. There is zest and alertness, the rolling thunder of the dramatically tannic and the crunch, crush and break of ripe fruit encased in a cloth of damp raw linen. This is when a wine shows its pedigree in the restless heart-beat and the flexing of muscles, giving the experience of wine-drinking a visceral thrill on the edge of a poetic and beautiful violence.

The story is two decades old, versed and chaptered in tales of geography and land; plains and sun on the edge of a unique landscape where mountains peak as high as the dreams and ambitions of those wishing to create the greatness that lies in earth’s expression of itself through the thing that is wine. This story will never end, but it can never be retold enough.

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Vilafonté Walks the Talk

Hindsight brings wisdom, so it is only now that I am truly beginning to get what Mike Ratcliffe and his team were on about with Vilafonté. It was in 2005, at a gathering of the Wine Swines – the most famous wine-tasting circle in South Africa – that Mike used the word “luxury brand” to introduce a thing called Vilafonté which he was driving together with Californians Phil Freese and Zelma Long. It was the maiden 2003 vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Vilafonté “C” and the more Merlot-ish “M”.

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