Vilafonte’s Co-Owner Mike Ratcliffe Unveils the Phenomenal New Release Series C 2016 in London…

So all it took was a fleeting flying visit to London to give a small select group of wine trade buyers a sneak peak of this exciting new Vilafonte Series C 2016 blend and the hype and excitement was in full swing. Co-proprietor Mike Ratcliffe scheduled this pre-release tasting to allow a few UK market heavy weights a chance to hear about and taste the success story of the 2016 vintage first hand before the official South African launch on the 1st of November.  

The first plantings were made at Vilafonte on their 42 hectares way back in 1995 and at the time included Petit Verdot which was the only one of the five Bordeaux varieties which proved to be unsatisfactory and was subsequently grubbed up. On the plus side, varieties like Malbec proved to be incredibly successful along with the classics of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, all planted on the 750+ million year old low potential “Vilafonte” soils of Paarl.

With the first commercial release now already the 2003 vintage, Vilafonte can no longer be regarded as one of the fine wine new kids on the block but rather one of the leading lights in the premium red wine category in South Africa. To put the new release into proper context, the 2016 was tasted along side an illustrious array of older vintages of both Series C and Series M.

With Co-owner Mike Ratcliffe

Vilafonte Seriously Old Dirt 2014, 13.5 Abv. (Second Label of Vilafonte)

A blend of 41% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Malbec and produced from the same meticulously farmed vineyards as the Series C and M wines, inevitably when you are making complex blends, there will be high quality wine components that don’t make the final Grand Vins, which are instead redirected to the second wine Seriously Old Dirt. The 2014 shows a sophisticated dark broody nose full of earthy black berry, cassis leaf, crushed gravel and blueberry spice. The palate is plush and restrained, full of complex layers of black bramble berry fruit, tobacco spice, graphite and liquid minerality. Very grown up, wonderfully classical and texturally incredibly pure and polished with little oak imprint. A superb introduction to the profound wines of Vilafonte. 

(Wine Safari Score: 92+/100 GregSherwood MW)

Vilafonte Series M 2015, 14 Abv. 

40% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Malbec, with 22 months ageing in French oak. 68 barrels produced. The bouquet shows a leaning towards a plummier opulence with liquid graphite, dusty gravel, black cherries, damson plum, brûléed coffee beans and subtle sweet chocolate and tomato puree nuance. The palate texture is incredibly classical and fine, harking back to some of the finest right bank Merlot based blends produced. The finish shows saline plum, cassis, piquant lipstick spice and the most dreamy creamy chocolate eclair generosity. Delicious wine from a very classy, top notch vintage. This is certainly one for the cellar.

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 GregSherwood MW)

Vilafonte Series C 2009, 14.8 Abv.

54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 8% Malbec aged 23 months in 100% new French oak. 23 barrels produced. Still an impressively dark garnet red rim, the bouquet resonates with complex notes of wet tannery leather, dusty chew tobacco, dried thyme and sage, espresso, freshly tilled earth and stewed red currants. This big bold vintage is rich and youthful, full of creamy brioche, black currant and sweet black plum notes with cool fresh acidity harmoniously balanced by eminently powerful and bold sweet textural tannins. A vintage regarded as one of the greats and showing very gracefully. In a happy place at the moment but certainly no rush to drink this one.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 GregSherwood MW)

Vilafonte Series C 2014, 14.5 Abv

65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Malbec aged 22 months in 70% new French oak. 48 barrels produced. Wonderfully pure, fine and fragrant with a noticeably youthful fragrance of black cherries, graphite, violets and caramelised red berry fruits. A lovely fine hedonistic opulence is present in the glass with the most intricate and expensive oak profile, vanilla pod spice and supple, creamy, polished mineral tannins. Wonderful purity and freshness to behold. Wow, not the most famous vintage for red wine collectors in South Africa but a wine with a surfeit of poise and elegance, purity, focus and harmony. A splendid wine indeed.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 GregSherwood MW)

Vilafonte Series C 2015, 14.5 Abv.

57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 9% Malbec aged 22 months in 67% new French oak. 44 barrels produced. A superbly distinguished classical red blend with a lush opulent bouquet of black cassis, espresso, dried sage, sweet tobacco, graphite spice and buttered brown toast. What a wonderfully proportioned wine that really takes South African red wine quality to the next level. Purity and precision, seamlessly integrated oak with effortless power, concentration and balance. This has all the hallmarks of greatness.

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 GregSherwood MW)

Vilafonte Series C 2016, 14.5 Abv.

62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 12% Malbec and 11% Cabernet Franc aged 22 months in 77% new French oak. 30 barrels produced. The most focused and intricate of aromatics, the small, tight, compact black grape bunches harvested in 2016 are accurately captured and represented perfectly in this stunning premium wine. Less distinctly showy and opulent than the 2015 blockbuster at the same stage of its evolution, this is an incredibly finely composed red blend with massive precision but also plenty of curb appeal, revealing fragrant layers of crushed violets, blueberry pie, vanilla pod spice, buttered brown toast, saline cassis, liquid minerality and a graphite complexity. Within a restrained, concentrated style, this vintage represents the most intelligent extraction and tannin management possible reflecting the care required to handle the small, thick skinned berries in this drought vintage. A hauntingly pretty wine that is seriously compact and complete and dare I say a step up in quality on even the spectacular 2015 release. Drink from release or cellar for 25+ years as this wine certainly has the structure and stuffing for the long haul.

(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tasting the Superb Van Biljon Cinq 2014 Red Blend from Stellenbosch…

The 2013 bottling of the Cinq was a triumphant wine for the vintage with Chris Keet spinning his magic within the context of a more difficult year that included a very late harvest and delivered one of the largest grape crops on record in South Africa. The 2014 vintage was another cooler year but also a much wetter year that some top producers managed to create more elegant European-styled wines with careful picking and fruit selection.

Van Biljon Cinq 2014, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot from vines grown on ancient decomposed granite soils of the Tarentaal Farm on the Polka Draai Road in Stellenbosch. The bouquet is effusive, building in the glass with great promise. There are gorgeously opulent notes of blueberry, blackberry and black cherry kirsch liquor interspersed with hedonistic notes of incense, cedar wood spice, vanilla pod and a subtle stony, graphite minerality. The palate is medium bodied and sleek showing a confident line of fresh linear acidity, very fine precise tannins and plenty of pithy, spicy crisp black fruit with nuances of sweet cherry tobacco, cassis and tart black currant. The precision on the wine is a true marvel with impressive balance, a certain amount of sensual elegance and an intense, pure finish that is superbly focused and finely polished. A wonderful red blend from some of the best terroir in the Cape wine lands. Drink this on release with food or hide it in your cellar for 6 to 8+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

South African Grand Marque Rust en Vrede Estate Back to Its Best Again…

The history of this great estate reads like a classic novel in the same vein as many great Bordeaux chateaux. Highs and lows, controversy and family disputes and changes in winemakers and house style.

Tasting the latest creations of winemaker Coenie Snyman, it can be confirmed with a fair degree of certainty that this famous old South African grand marque is almost back to its very best again. This can only be good news for consumers and collectors alike.

Rust en Vrede Estate 2015, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

The 2015 Estate red is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Syrah and 9% Merlot. This is the flagship wine of the estate and boasts astute winemaking to match. The bouquet offers up a fine perfume of dried potpourri, violets, cinnamon stick and an alluring melange of mulberry, black currant and savoury damson plum with a complexing top note of black Kalamata olives. Subtle mocha and vanilla pod nuances carry to the palate which is eminently refined and elegantly balanced, showing delicious spicy black currant, graphite, black liquorice, salty cassis and a subtle lick of salted caramel. Beautifully plush and textured, this is a seamless vinous package of fine wine enjoyment that speaks volumes about the very fine 2015 vintage twinned with re-energised, ambitious winemaking. A winery returning to its very best potential once again. Drink now or cellar for 10 to 15+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Mastering New Vintage Angst – Tasting the New Release MR de Compostella 2016 Red Blend…

I’m looking forward to writing up my summary of the best South African red wines of 2018 as the list should feature a tantalising tussle between the last few late release 2015 vintage red creations and some of the follow up 2016 new release challengers. One of the most iconic releases of 2017 was undoubtedly the 2015 MR de Compostella, still arguably the most sought after and collectable Bordeaux-styled fine wine produced in South Africa and one of the very few stalwarts that regularly trades on the Liv-ex International Fine Wine Exchange in London.

Bruwer Raats and his MR de Compostella partner Mzokhona Mvemve state that the “aim with the MR de Compostella wine is to take each of the five components and make a varietal wine in it’s own right. The wines are then tasted blind after one year in barrel. The wines that scored less than 90/100 points are then not considered for the final blend”. This is a very rigorous and ruthless process no doubt but also one which has assured that the final component blend release has never scored lower than 93/100 from international critics since the maiden vintage in 2004. So if you want a track record for your fine wine, there you have it!

The 2016 vintage was the second of the drought vintages and while 2015 was also very hot and dry, it did have the added benefit of plenty of ground water reserves after a wet 2014 winter. So an altogether more challenging set of conditions for the 2016 vintage that puts the achievements of Bruwer and Mzokhona into greater context with the magical new release of MR de Compostella.

MR de Compostella 2016 Bordeaux Blend, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

It happens in all fine classical regions… the angst and agony of a successor vintage following on from a block buster release like… 2015 Bordeaux, 2015 Super Tuscans or indeed 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon based blends in South Africa. Made from grapes from Stellenbosch grown on decomposed dolomite granitic soils, what immediately strikes you is the large percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon that makes up the final blend in 2016. So renowned for his exceptional Cabernet Franc creations, many of Bruwer Raats’ past MR de Compostella red blend releases have had a dominant percentage of Cabernet Franc which can leave a real signature imprint on the final wine.

The 2016 however is a blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17% Cabernet Franc; 12% Malbec; 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot with a 14.5 Abv, 3.59 pH, and a 5.7 TA. The aromatics are cool, perfumed and spicy showing plenty of overt violet fragrance, cedar spice, cinnamon stick, pencil box and dried mint leaf with an overall tendency towards elegance and classism rather than overt decadence. There is no shortage of sultry black berry fruit complexity with seductive nuances of black currant, pithy black cherry and sun raisined cranberries but they do require a bit of coaxing out the glass. Medium bodied, the palate is wonderfully understated and elegant, quite feminine but very precise and slightly more linear than some of the bigger more opulent, masculine vintages from MR, but is equally beguiling and sophisticated, teasing the senses with delicious notes of blood orange, raspberry coulis, earthy red currant, salty cassis and a sumptuous milk chocolate harmony. A thoroughly enchanting and engaging wine, the 2016 is a little more elegant and light on its feet, more ballerina than gymnast, retaining a keen line of acidity and freshness, impressive subtlety and awesome textural finesse. This has all the markings of another truly great expression. In the end, the wine does not feel Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated at all … with the sum of the component parts greatly surpassed by the finished blend. Drink this beauty from release and over the next 15+ years. Well done boys!

(Wine Safari Score: 96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Drinking An Iconic South African Red – Unravelling the Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 and the South African Fine Wine Investment Market…

In the week that Wine Cellar South Africa launched (and sold out of) its first fine wine investment fund built around (physical) iconic South African wines from the 2015 vintage, I thought it was fitting to drink a wine that illustrates the true greatness of South Africa’s best red wines. In light of the Wine Cellar VIP 2015 offering, many international commentators less intimately connected to the fine wine market have stated that “few South African wines improve appreciably with extended ageing” and thus the fine wine investment model is built on a sandy foundation.

Firstly, one needs to clarify what extended ageing implies. From a wine trade / merchant point of view, one could reasonably expect the quality of wines included in the VIP 2015 Fund to age and certainly improve incrementally for easily 10+ years… and many on the list for certainly 20 years plus. Secondly, to say that there is no secondary market for aged South African fine wine is blatantly wrong. There is massive demand but merely little to no supply… and the older stock that does make it to market commercially is either small parcels kindly released by the wineries themselves from archive stocks as more of a marketing endeavour or the stock is from provenanced private collections. Either way, it is an insignificant, non commercial quantity unable to influence the market in any meaningful way and adds no liquidity.

I have been involved in the top end of the UK fine wine trade for 20 years now, many of which I have actively been promoting and selling the very best wines from South Africa to international collectors and connoisseurs. Admittedly, you need to sell the best names from the best vintages, but that is certainly no different anywhere else in the fine wine world. Many top South African red (and white) wines clearly age very very well and while you always need to be selective and take professional advise, this fact is now indisputable.

To many, the term or idea of investing in a wonderful agricultural product like wine is sacrilege, a dirty word, a dirty concept. But for time immemorial, the concept of “investing in wine” implied buying double your requirements, with money you did not always readily have, and then selling half the wine several years later when more scarce to finance the drinking of the other half. In essence, this is still the model many fine wine investors (drinkers) that I deal with on a day to day basis follow. Indeed, I cannot name one private client on my books who is tea total and who only invests in wine for the hard cold cash returns. They are all passionate about wine.

One thing is very clear to me however. For South African fine wine to gain a genuinely fluid and dynamic foothold in the fine wine investment market globally, there has to be a strong and confident “wine investment culture” locally in the home market of the wines in question. The demand for older vintages needs to begin at home and then ripple out to international markets. For far too long it has been international buyers piling into the Nederburg Auction wines, the Cape Wine Makers Guild Wines or the odd rare fine wine older vintage auction offering. This Wine Cellar VIP 2015 Fund marks the turning of a corner, where locals put their money where their mouths are and invest in iconic wines from possibly a once in a generation quality vintage. With over 12,000 bottles included in this fund, we should over the coming years, see stocks of these perfectly cellared older vintages released onto the market for local and international consumption at a premium that is commensurate to the quality and rarity of the given wine. Supply and demand will decide that premium.

For what it’s worth, I bought this wonderful Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 from the winery in March 2018 and drank it recently at a South African themed fine wine lunch in London. Poured sighted, there wasn’t a taster on the table of seven that did not sit in awe of its youthful elegance. A true testament to the ageability and longevity of classical Cabernet Sauvignon produced by one of South Africa’s top estates. The message now disseminating out of the South African fine wine scene is not whether the country is able to produce age worthy wines of super premium quality, but whether the industry as a whole has the skills and knowhow to market these wines globally in a proper confident manner, for the correct premium price tag and importantly, to the correct target market segments? Time for everyone to up their game in the South African fine wine trade.

Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, W.O. Stellenbosch

A beautiful mahogany colour, the nose is initially tight and cedary, spicy and quite restrained, but 20 minutes of air in a decanter after the cork is pulled allows this grand old wine to open its shoulders. Wonderfully mellow but still vibrantly youthful, beguilingly complex, fragrant and intriguing. The palate is loaded with lovely sweet raisined cranberries, violets, sweet tobacco, black tea and an earthy red currant sappy depth. Texturally this is so fine, initially quite piquant and spicy but also beautifully elegant. Incredible to think this wine is 42 years olds and still going strong. A bold, powerful and elegantly regal red showing the real potential of South Africa’s greatest terroirs and the true premium standing of great Cabernet Sauvignon. What a treat!

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Tasting Margaret River Icon Estate Vasse Felix’s New Releases with Head Winemaker Virginia Willcock …

Vasse Felix has been one of the leading producers of premium Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Margaret River region of Western Australia for a very long time. Just last year they celebrated their 50th birthday as a winery with their first vines planted in 1967 by founder Tom Cullity. Their success undoubtedly lies in their wine’s supreme elegance and finesse married with concentration and power. Indeed, bigger bolder wine styles were made in the 1990’s but more recently the wines have become finer boned, prettier and more elegant without losing any of the innate power of quality Cabernet Sauvignon tannins.

I tasted through the new releases today in London at 67 Pall Mall private members club with head winemaker Virgina Willcock joining in the tasting via live satellite link from Margaret River. Ahhh… the joys of technology.

Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Margaret River, 14 Abv.

Blended with 13% Malbec, the Filius shows a soft sweet fruited nose full of violets, fresh spearmint, black berry and cassis lift with hints of dusty tobacco complexity, bruised black plum and wet earth. The palate is light footed and very elegant, full of polished tannins, subtle minerality and soft, fleshy accessible black berry fruits. Bright, super fresh, elegant and very accessible. Drink now to 2026+

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

Whole berry and 100% natural ferment with 8% Malbec added to the blended before 18 months of barrel ageing. Deeper and darker, packed with black berry, black cherry, eucalyptus, earthy mulberry, kelp and boiled black currant bon bons and a dusty limestone minerality. Plenty of piercing cassis intensity, suave polished pinpoint tannins, supple silky fruit texture and again, a very vibrant integrated seam of freshness and acidity. Beautifully perfumed, supremely pretty, impressively concentrated. Drink now to 2030+

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The Vasse Felix flagship Heytesbury Bordeaux red blend had been produced since 1995. This wine saw its last edition in 2012 when the wine was transformed into the Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec cuvee in honour of this Margaret River pioneer who sadly died just before the first Tom Cullity 2013 blend was released.

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon – Malbec 2013, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

20% Malbec and around 4% Petit Verdot. A wonderfully complex intense expression with dusty limestone, violets, cherry blossom, graphite, black currant, black pithy cherry and a pronounced maritime saline kelp savoury note. Palate is ultra polished, beautifully focused and pure with incredible vivacity and soul. Super elegant, saline and bright and intense with a long, fine eucalyptus kissed finish. Very impressive indeed.

(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon – Malbec 2014, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

Dense, savoury and earthy, there is a very fine depth and purity with notably greater concentration, tannin texture and power. Very classical and Bordeaux-like aromatics with cedar, violets, buttered brown toast, graphite dust and a crushed gravel minerality. The palate is full and deep, swallowing the 60-70% new oak with great ease. There is impressive fleshy depth, concentration but also noteworthy classical restraint. Suave and intense with powdery tannins and acid brightness melting into each other, complimenting each other in a superb synergistic marriage. A truly iconic, delicious, premium benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon expression from Margaret River.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2017, Margaret River, 12.5 Abv

Wild yeasts and 100% barrique fermented. Remarkable dusty, gravelly, cool climate Chardonnay feel with vibrance, brightness and linearity. Nose is full of lime peel, oat meal, brioche, ripe lemon and savoury buttery biscuit notes. Steely, taught, lemon and lime cordial notes are packed with layers of gravelly limestone minerality, bright acids and an incredibly youthful, saline, pineapple leesy finish. Very impressive for the price.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2015, Margaret River, 13 Abv.

Deep, broad and powerful with wonderfully complex serious notes of lemon pie, lime peel, green apple and wet chalk minerality. Captivating richness and density but also wonderfully complex struck match flinty nuances. Tightly wound, power packed and deliciously fresh and saline with a textural, yellow grapefruit and pineapple finish.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River, 13 Abv.

A wonderfully powerful, intense structured Chardonnay that incorporates all the great qualities of Chardonnay into one wine. Loaded with wet chalk, struck match, delineated texture and linearity, boasting incredible complexity of white citrus, lime marmalade, green apple, brioche and buttered brown toast. Amazing textural balance, sensorial intensity and a very long, mouth watering finish. Superbly impressive benchmark cool climate Chardonnay that will appeal to Burgundy lovers and general Chardonnay connoisseurs.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

“I want to drink the best wines money can buy… and if I can make wines similar to those wines, then I think that’s great… and I want to drink them!” – Virginia Willcock

What Future For South African Second Wines? Tasting Top Super Premium Vilafonte’s Seriously Old Dirt Cuvee…

South Africa is currently enjoying a very buoyant year for red wine releases at a time when the onslaught of big white wine reviews seems almost relentless. Much of this new found red success is undoubtedly down to the incredible “once in a generation” 2015 vintage that has produced some of the most lauded and iconic red wines in the modern era of the South African wine industry.

One of the questions that this new found success raises for me as prices push to new super premium levels is the potential role second wines currently play or could play in the future development of the South African fine wine market. They are not a new phenomenon. After all, anyone who loves top South African Bordeaux blends will remember the declassified Meerlust Rubicon 2011 blended away into the delicious Meerlust Red 2011, or the MR de Compostella 2010 that was “declassified” to create the new Red Jasper 2010, now an established brand on the market. Or even the De Toren Z, which started off life as an “off-cut” blend of Fusion V but which has now also established itself as a popular fine wine in its own right regularly scoring as high if not higher than the Fusion V from international wine critics.

On this blog, I have already been running a series of reviews on second wines from top Bordeaux Chateaux as I look to identify the over performers, the dark horses and the unexpectedly great second wines worthy of consumer attention. These wines after all serve an important role in the market, giving fine wine consumers a glimpse of the greatness they might encounter with the more expensive, more premium first wines. With a lower price tag comes an abundance of powerful premium branding, desirability but also affordability and of course a greater degree of earlier drinking accessibility.

In this vein, I cracked a bottle of premium brand Vilafonte’s Seriously Old Dirt 2014, a wine produced from unique ancient soils with quality assured for current enjoyment in a true second wine model. Made with a 6-7 day cold soak, partial natural fermentation with an extended fermentation period, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 22 months. Vine age varies between 4 and 20 years old and the 2014 vintage surpasses both the 2012 and 2013 vintages that were released almost exclusively to the Vilafonte Wine Club and is a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Vilafonte Seriously Old Dirt 2014, WO Paarl, 13.5 Abv.

Lovely rich, opulent nuanced nose of cedar, vanilla pod, polished teak, creamy choc spice, mocha, black berry, black plum and crushed rose petals. The palate is medium-bodied with a truly plush, succulent mouthfeel, infused with brown sugar, cassis and leafy plum. Tannins are very fine grained and classical, sweet but retaining ample mineral, stony graphite grip. A seductive, enticing wine that definitely shows its aspiring pedigree and noble parentage. Drink now to 2028+

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)