Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Fridjhon on Vilafonté - A player with real potential at the top end of the market

From Business Day, 27 June 2007
The Butcher Shop’s Alan Pick has something of a reputation for worrying about margins and sales above all else. This is not entirely fair. I’ve known him for at least 20 years and if I had to name the features which have brought him his undisputed success, they would be his passion and his sense of detail. The two go together: if you don’t care enough, you can’t be bothered to focus on the small things, and if you are not constantly seeking to improve an already successful product, it gets old and stale before you realise it.

Pick was one of the guests attending the presentation by partners Zelma Long and Mike Ratcliffe of the last three vintages of the Vilafonte wines. As he left he turned to Ratcliffe and said, “I like the way you’re passionate about this”, rather than “I like the wines” or “I like the way you guys have gone about this”. It was a very telling observation, and in many ways sums up the partnership in which Ratcliffe joined Long and Phil Freese in an enterprise which aims to create a defensibly premium South African red wine.

I use the term “defensibly” for a reason: there is no shortage of wineries and brands that have been using price as a marketing strategy, working on the not wholly dangerous assumption that if the wine is expensive enough, post-purchase justification will make it taste good. In other words, it really is an intrinsic part of the Vilafonte enterprise — both as expounded (passionately) by its partners and evident in the wines — that whatever it takes to make the wine better must be incorporated in the production programme. Beyond that, you can expect all the marketing smoke-and-mirrors that come from a scion of the Cape Wine industry whose formal training finished with a wine marketing master’s degree from the University of Adelaide.

Freese is one of the world’s leading viticulturists — a man who headed Mondavi’s viticultural team at the time the Rothschild-Mondavi Opus One joint venture was established and who, for the past 10 years or so, has been a visiting consultant to many of the Cape’s leading producers. Long, his wife, was chief winemaker at Mondavi and then vice-president of Domaine Chandon in California. Ratcliffe — whose family owns Warwick in Stellenbosch — bought into the project a few years ago and has since overseen its international launch and the development of its own winery. In very little time Vilafonte has begun to prove to the wine world that it is not one of SA’s export fantasies, but a player with real potential at the top end of the market.

There are only two wines sold under the Vilafonte label. One is a Merlot-styled (and usually Merlot-dominated) blend where the label small print says “Series M” and the other is a Cabernet-structured (and thus far Cabernet-dominated) blend called — not unsurprisingly — “Series C”. The distinguishing feature of the Series M wine is that it is softer, plusher and more readily accessible — in keeping with the Merlot stereotype. In reality this is achieved as much with Malbec (which at Vilafonte seems to be performing remarkably — to judge from tank samples I have tasted from time to time). The 2003 contains 41% Merlot, the 2004 a mere 31% (but it does have 25% Malbec) and the as yet unreleased 2005 52%.

The Series C is massively weighted to Cabernet Sauvignon — as high as 82% in 2003 and down to 66% in 2005 — but it also reflects the character of a small percentage of Cabernet Franc. Unsurprisingly the whole feel of the Series C wine is one of power and intensity, layered with a range of the fruit aromatics associated with both cabernets —– blackcurrant, graphite and even the slightest herbal, almost spice-like whiff.

It goes without saying that these wines are not cheap. Some of the cost is accounted for in the intensity of effort which went into composing them, some in the prestige packaging which goes with their positioning. In the South African market they sell for R250 a bottle for the Series M and about R350 for the Series C. Relative to the US price of $50 and $70 for the two cuvees and the UK price, £35 and £50 respectively, the rand cost is not outrageous. And with a US Wine Enthusiast’s blind-tasting rating (for the Series C) as “the best Cabernet in the world”, it’s a snip next to the Chateau Latour 2003, which finished in third place.

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