Thursday, November 08, 2012

Would you sell your family heirloom engagement ring in exchange for a seat at an exclusive South African dinner that includes Bordeaux First Growths?

By Kim Maxwell

The thought occurred as I pondered who spends R15,000 to R20,000 without flinching on one night of top wines and food. But then The White Club isn’t geared at you and me. Essentially it’s a very exclusive supper club, its members a jetsetting group of individuals with limited time but unlimited air miles and funds. They have very exacting tastes - they like the best - and they’re used to having what they want. This non-profit club funds their taste for fine food and Bordeaux First Growth wines. The thrill is in sitting around a dinner table with rare wines and 15 other likeminded companions. This week in Cape Town; next month Mumbai or Tokyo. What does it take to be accepted? “You have to be a good dinner partner,” says The White Club’s Malene Meisner.

Meisner is CEO alongside president Rene Dehn. These two wineloving Danes facilitate it all from Basel. They are employed to make themed wine dinners happen in different cities, and spare no expense and effort in pre-selecting and purchasing the right wines beforehand (South African tasters were involved in local selections). They even bring their Zalto stemware along. A high-end concierge service is on offer too. It works like this. If any of The White Club members fancy a private chef’s table at a sought after restaurant, and want to drink a wine or vintage not on the list, they’ll make it happen.

What would you pay to taste six South African red wines against rare Bordeaux First Growths and international icons? Last weekend The White Club members and local guests paid dearly for the pleasure at The Saxon in Joburg, Delaire Graff Estate and at The Taj Hotel in Cape Town respectively. The Saxon wines included Mouton Rothschild 1928, Latour 1925 and Lafite 1961, at a R20,000 tag. The Taj R15,000 dinner included younger French vintages (including the likes of Pétrus 1997, Cheval Blanc 2001, Margaux 1998, Latour 1991, Haut Brion 1995 and 1986). From South Africa Waterford The Jem 2007, Columella 2009, Vergelegen V 2007, Vilafonté Series C 2005 and Series M 2009, Epicurean 2006 and MR de Compostella 2008 were thrown into the mix at both dinners. Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2007 also featured. The Delaire Graff Estate meal cost a mere R5000, including six South African reds alongside Cheval Blanc 1999, Vega Sicila Unico 1998 and Pétrus 2001.

I joined a few journalists over lunch at The Taj to hear more about The White Club. We felt lucky to have Lafite 1995, Vega Sicilia Unico 1998 and Latour 1988 poured as leftovers. The best lunch flight pitted Château Petrus 2001 (a bottle sells upwards of R16,000) with a bold Vilafonté Series M 2009 and an elegant Columella 2009 against an initially subdued Château Margaux 1998, opening with redcurrant notes. The plush tannins, spice and velvet richness of the youthful Pétrus was my standout wine, Columella second choice. Dehn was whispering in my ear at the time. “Our reference is Bordeaux left and right bank for these tastings. In that context South Africa is producing fantastic red wines. But the diversity of South Africa’s varieties is a huge plus. You’re making good red blends, Cabernet Sauvignons, some great Pinot Noirs. Some local Chenins I’ve tried are among the top 20 in the world.”

Dehn’s advice for SA wines wanting to crack the nod? The White Club only ever serves mature Bordeaux against South African reds. “We’ve tasted the Vilafonté against Pétrus several times to show it belongs. In value Vilafonte is worth one unit. Pétrus is worth 100,” says Dehn. Only two or three per cent of South African wines feature on overseas wine lists and he says that’s a problem. “Your wineries are not managing to keep stock of their wines. Our members want to drink older vintages.” Are any winemakers listening?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Melvyn Minnaar on the 2012 Nederburg Auction; "Vilafonté Series M 2005 ... competed for top spot..."

To revitalise custom when age sets in, and tradition treads water or sinks, is tricky. The annual Nederburg Auction, to be 40 years old in  a few years’ time, is certainly a Cape winelands institution. But the last decade or so has been one of starts and stumbles to reinvent the excitement it had for the first quarter of a century. Once the place and event to be invited to – as wine producer, buyer or dazzling socialite – recent years have been ho-hum in all fields: the party, the prices – and plenty of the wines.
All that chopping and changing, and the daft add-ons (fashions shows, music, odd food, whatever) often seemed like ad hoc marketing strategies: panic in the face of the success by the Cape Winemakers Guild young-ones, who got buyers to pay outrageous prices for their wines. As if silly high prices were the be-all and end-all of quality or innovation.
That the wines on offer at the Nederburg were not always the kind of stuff that suited the tradition of prestige didn’t help. (Probably too much producer politics and corporate intervention.) Boring.
Any way, if the cheerful tasting this week of some of the wines in the upcoming September auction is any indication, the Nederburg Auction may have turned the corner – at least as far as wine custom is concerned. On balance, most of the 52 wines offered to media and some trade people were fair game for auction.
Of the Nederburg offerings, none could be questioned. In fact, some of the best wines tasted, were the Nederburg auction specials: the Private Bins and the noble late harvests. This is thanks to cellar master Razvan Macici, who has been looking after the enormous Nederburg portfolio for eleven years.
The line-up of Nederburg wines, made for the auction, is a key factor in the business of the event, and some 27 are on offer this year, including those Private Bins which have historical stature. Judged from the 14 we tasted, Macici’s wines are going to play an important role in the turn-around of the event.
With a track record of ten plus years, his wines can now play the role that they should in the original reason for the auction: to offer wines of age that are truly excellent, with even more maturation potential.
The Nederburg Private Bin R115 (shiraz/cabernet sauvignon) 2000, for example, was one of the finest at the tasting and has plenty of aging ahead, The Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2007, beautifully balanced and bright,  promises to be one of the famous of the famous. The sauvignon blanc 2010, under the well-known, if eccentrically-numbered D234 Private Bin mark, may well develop wonderfully as well, and the Private Bin R163 2004 cabernet sauvignon is one to keep and watch.     
Other white stars of the tasting going on auction include sauvignons blanc from Delaire (2009) and Durbanville Hills Biesjes Craal (2008), Rustenberg’s sensual roussanne 2008, and the Stellenrust 45 chenin blanc 2009.
Among the reds, Vilafonté Series M 2005, and the gloriously Burgundian Groot Constantia pinotage 2000 competed for top spot with the mentioned R115. The old Chateau Libertas 1968 was sensational beyond its curiosity value - heaven knows how much more than the reserve price of R3 000 for the single six-bottle case this will fetch at auction.
The latter is really what the Nederburg Auction ought to be all about: heritage, authenticity, elegance and superb winemaking that outlives the present. If decent prices are part of the deal, that’s fine, but not the only or ultimate measure.
Carina Gouws, overall in charge of Distell’s wine business, hinted at this at the tasting, as strategy for the turn-around. So finally, perhaps, the 2012 Nederburg Auction ‘of rare wines’ may well live up to custom. It’s the wines, stupid!

Sunday Times wine-writer Neil Pendock rates Vilafonte 'my best red' at the Nederburg Auction 2012

There are 52 cards in a standard deck and 52 wines in the Nederburg Auction media, chefs and trade tasting in Paarl this morning (below). Is there a message here somewhere?
My best red was the Vilafonte M 2005 blend called “immediately delicious” by tasting host Dave Hughes and my best white was the Oak Valley Chardonnay 2009 with tight lime and tangerine flavours and excellent balance. The pH of 3.11 means it should last longer than me. Was this the wine that won a gold medal as well as a “commended” rating at the International Wine Challenge a couple of years ago? Oops!
Some lovely quotes. From Nederburg cellarmaster Razvan Macici (below) “in my early days I used to swim and now I look like a submarine…”
On the Almenkerk Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Dave noted “I don’t get elderwood [in the tasting note of auctioneerAnthony Barne], but then I don’t know what elderwood is… a lot of wine from Elgin is not as good as the fruit that goes into the winery.”  Clearly not the case with Almenkerk.
Best dessert was the Nederburg S316 Weisser Riesling NLH 2001 with its definite Riesling character overlaid with marmalade and orange peel although the wine to buy for young people is definitely the Edelkeur 2007, “the most awarded wine ever made by Nederburg” according to submarine Macici. To end, a glass of 1929 KWV Port (below, left) and six cases are offered.  Incredible.
From Sunday Times

Michael Fridjhon recommends Vilafonte 'Series M 2005 for the Nederburg Auction 2012

This year’s Nederburg auction, on September 28 and 29, comes at the end of a week of wineland festivities, the (more or less) biannual bash called Cape Wine. This showcase, organised by Wines of South Africa to drum up exports, brings buyers, advisers and wine writers to the Cape in their droves and gives them a feel for South African hospitality and a sense of our wine country.
This is the ideal time for the longest running of our fine-wine auctions to assume its place on centre stage. However, after the preview tasting of more than 50 wines destined for the sale (roughly one third of what is on offer), I’m not sure I understand the logic of the selection.
A panel is delegated to sift the auction wines from a mass of entries from many of the country’s leading cellars. Nederburg, which foots the bill for (or at least a chunk of the cost of) the event and needs to sell its auction range at the sale, apparently submits its wines to this process. You would expect that if there were to be a few affirmative inclusions they would be here — where the big volumes of Nederburg wines come to market.
This was, however, not the impression that emerged from the preview tasting. Most of the Nederburg wines were comfortably in the same bracket as the samples from the smaller, independent wineries. Instead, it was the very unevenness of the classes that left many tasters a little confused about how the selection had been put together.
The big parcel of the Nederburg Sauvignon Blanc — the Private Bin D234 2010 — was the best of the six Sauvignons at the tasting. It just pipped the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2009, and looked good in the company of benchmarks such as the Diemersdal Eight Rows. However, it was streets ahead of Almenkerk’s 2009, which showed reduced eggy notes and a sugar level (6.9g/l) vastly too sweet for the category.
With the Chardonnays, there was a similarly confusing pattern in the six samples at the preview. The Nederburg parcel D270 2009 was not the best (pole position here went to Oak Valley’s 2009), but it was decent enough. However, I’ve tasted better Chardonnays from the Nederburg cellar and many better current release Cape Chardonnays.
The Delheim Sur Lie 2009 was pretty ordinary; the Spier Private Collection 2007 palpably sweet; and the geriatric Jordan Nine Yards 2007 visibly on its deathbed.
There was an excellent Chenin — the Stellenrust "45" 2009 — and the usual brilliant array of dessert wines, unfortified and fortified. The Nederburg Edelkeur 2007, the Eminence 2001, an unbelievable 1977 Edelkeur and the extraordinary KWV Port 1929 (the highest-scoring wine at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show) are all there with a message in the bottle for the foreign visitors at Cape Wine.
Then came the red wines, and while there were several impressive samples in the line-up, more of a mixed bag would be difficult to imagine. A really good Plaisir de Merle Malbec 2007; an evanescent but finely detailed Chateau Libertas 1968; very good Kanonkop (1994) and Thelema (2004) Cabernets; and some pretty decent Shirazes — most notably Hartenberg The Stork 2006 and La Motte 2004 — all vi ed for my attention. In the world of blends, the Vilafonte Series M 2005 and the Rupert & Rothschild Baron Edmond 2001 are both worth tracking down. But there are also several wines to avoid: the Nederburg Bin R104 Petit Verdot 2001 was flat, tired, porty and well past its sell-by date. The Perdeberg Rex Equus 2007, the Auction Crossing Shiraz Viognier 2005 and the Nederburg R115 2000 did nothing to lift the average. In short, judging from the preview, this year’s auction may appeal more to the gambler than the wine collector: shop with care or buyer beware.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Vilafonte and Warwick Wine Club Tasting at Tintswalo, Waterfall Estate, Jo'burg

Vilafonte join the ranks of Royalty - from

Wine lovers will be thrilled to hear that six South African wines now form part of the exclusive ‘First Growths’ tastings, held by an international private members club, The Parmigiani White Club (TWC).
Each year this exclusive club conducts tastings all over the world and earlier this year, for the first time ever, South Africans were introduced to the ‘First Growth’ wines series. As the wine world is ever-evolving, today the term ‘First Growth’ has come to mean not only to Bordeaux wines, but indeed ‘wines of the most exceptional quality’. 

The internationally acclaimed non-profit private members' club, TWC, confirmed that the six South African wines that professional tasters picked to form part of the ‘First Growths’ series are, MR de Compostella 2008 (97), Vergelegen V 2007 (95), Villafonté Series M 2009 (95), Waterford Estate The Jem 2007 (96), Epicurean 2006 (95) and Columella 2009 (95), and will all be introduced on the tasting nights. These will accompany the legendary Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia. 

It comes as no surprise that South African wines are ranked among these illustrious ‘First Growths’ wines and we are delighted to host two tastings in SA this year. We promise to those attending that the evenings will be unforgettable, glittering black tie experiences,” says CEO f the exclusive Wine Club International, Malene Meisner. 

“Wine lovers have recognised that wines from the South African Cape Winelands rank among the best in the world and guests will have the exclusive opportunity to taste some of the world’s best wines, champagnes and sparkling wines as ‘First Growths’ are considered among the most sought-after wines in the world,” Meisner concludes. 

Over the past few years some of the top South African restaurants and hotels have regularly found themselves among the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is thus gratifying to know that South Africa’s culinary expertise is keeping abreast of the country’s winemaking expertise. After all, wine and food are inseparable twins. 

The Parmigiani White Club will travel to Vienna, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Istanbul, Mumbai, Zurich, London, Madrid, Chicago, New York and Burgundy, where the six SA wines will be introduced to wine tasters and wine lovers from all over the world. The Club looks forward to host an elite dinner and tasting in Johannesburg on the 25th October at The Saxon. Cape Townians will also be treated to an exclusive dinner and tasting at The Taj on the 26th and on the 27th October TWC will host a lunch at Delaire Graff Estate. 

The language of wine is internationally understood, and these six wines will prove to be the most worthy ambassadors.

For further information on The White Club and the tastings visit:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Vilafonte comes top in Bordeaux Blend tasting

Some of South Africa's most illustrious wines came together in the 'Top 12' Bordeaux blend tasting at La Mouette recently. Both Vilafonte wines performed excellently with the Vilafonte 'Series M' 2009 performing beautifully by coming first in the tasting. The detailed results and individual scores for each wine are displayed below. More info here.

Vilafonte vineyard manager Edward Pietersen with Gauteng sales manager Marcelle Nickloes

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Christan Eedes on Vilafonte - the 2009's

Vilafonté is a joint venture between Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick in Stellenbosch and American husband and wife Phil Freese and Zelma Long, Phil an accomplished viticulturist and Zelma equally skilled as a winemaker. The property is in the Simonsberg-Paarl ward and there are two wines under the Vilafonté label, Series C and Series M. The 2009 vintage was recently released. Scores and tasting notes below: Series C 2009: 18/20 Price: R450 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec. Very expressive on the nose with notes of cassis, violets and attractive oak. The palate displays super-concentrated fruit, fresh acidity and fine tannins. Full bodied but perfectly proportioned. Plenty of weight and power but the wine is entirely in balance and retains great drinkability. Series M 2009: 17/20 Price: R350 46% Malbec, 32% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc. Ripe dark fruit and vanilla on the nose. The palate is rich but not unduly weighty. Snappy almost tangy acidity, tannins smooth but not slippery. A voluptuous wine, the high proportion of Malbec lending a slight wildness. General observation: Prior to the 2009 vintage, the Vilafonté wines have always been serious but rather deliberate and imposing. What is striking about the new releases is that for all their intensity, they still have refreshment value.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Lovely article about Vilafonte and Zelma Long by Andrew Jefford in Decanter magazine - today.

Jefford on Monday: Walking and talking with Zelma

Fifty-five vintages bring a sense of perspective. That’s how many Californian winemaker Zelma Long has now overseen, principally in California, but latterly in South Africa, too, at the Vilafonté estate she founded in 1997 with her husband, viticulturalist Phil Freese.
Decanter's Andrew Jefford
In addition to her work in California, Washington and Paarl, consultations take her to Israel and France -- which was where I caught up with her recently, on a bright spring day in the Rhône valley. We were walking the vineyards of Xavier and Nicole Rolet’s high-sited Chêne Bleu estate, at the intersection of Gigondas and Mont Ventoux.
“I grew up in eastern Oregon,” remembers Zelma, “where nobody drank wine. But I ended up down in the Bay area, and my parents-in-law bought land in the Napa valley and planted it, back in the 1960s. I had a science background, but I wasn’t excited about what I was doing, which was dietetics -- it would be much more exciting nowadays. So I thought I’d go back to school and learn about winemaking. And that was it; that was the start. Then I got recruited for a harvest at Robert Mondavi by Mike Grgich. Two years later he left, and I took over his job as chief enologist. I was there for about ten years. Bob Mondavi really was an incredible man -- optimistic, driven, with clear vision; he was an early thinker about wine culture. And wonderfully good humoured, too; he was real fun to work with. We were always doing something different. If ever there was a wine university, that was it.” Mondavi was followed by Simi, which Zelma eventually left in 1999 in order to concentrate on Vilafonté.She identifies three stages in California’s development. “The first, in the 1970s, was our understanding of winemaking. In the 1980s, we began to analyze the vineyard -- soils, climate, plant materials, planting systems.  Then in the ‘90s, we began to put the two together, which I think is the most important. The big challenge now is to work out what’s going on, the nature of each harvest, what the tannin profile is like... Understanding the season; formulating a response. Every vintage is different. That’s what I find wonderful and fascinating about winemaking: it’s a way of telling the story of the vineyard.”What made Zelma and her husband plant in South Africa? “Winemaking technology and wine science travels quickly. But the thing that doesn’t travel quickly is wine growing. You can’t just go to another country for harvest and really understand what’s happened over the season. You need to spend season after season there.” Vilafonté, she says, is “our heart and soul. We wanted to do something where we could start from the beginning and use our expertise and experience and invest it in a small project. We found the land; we planted the vineyards. We only produce two wines. It’s a very focused effort to produce something of high quality.”I’d never tasted these wines until a week or two ago, and I’m impressed. One of them is called ‘Series M’: a Malbec-Merlot blend with some Cabernet Sauvignon stiffening and a shot of Cabernet Franc. The 2009 smells of damson and truffles, and has impressive fruit architecture on the palate: lithe, athletic, concentrated and resonant. The ‘Series C’, meanwhile, is principally Cabernet balanced by smaller percentages of the other varieties. It smells fatter, with more of the ‘fynbos’ in it; has less penetrating fruit but better width and richness, and finishes with a rolling wave of bramble, forest brush and warm clay minerals. They are two of the finest South African wines I’ve ever tasted: authoritative, refined, satisfying. Quantities, alas, are small: 31 barrels of the M and 23 of the C.“I think what South Africa has to offer,” continues Zelma, “are world-class wines of incredible diversity. The Cape is essentially a marine climate; the soils are incredibly old. South Africa to me doesn’t have the massive fruit expression that we see in California, nor is it quite as restrained naturally as we see in France. If you can generalise, I’d say that the wines are very fresh, the tannins are softer (because the climate is a little softer), and the wines have more acid structure and less tannin structure than you get in California. With our own vineyards, we never add acid. People now realise that if you grow the grapes properly, they retain their natural acid.” 
Vilafonte winemaking partner - Zelma Long
Her work in Israel has been with the Golan Heights winery, which she describes as “incredibly impressive: the highest quality level I’ve ever seen in a winery of its size and diversity. They brought me in because they wanted to improve the vineyards, and wanted to help the growers understand what was needed in order to do that, and wanted the technical staff in the winery to understand too. They just take information and run with it. I very much like working there.”France is different. “When I first came here many years ago with Robert Mondavi and talked with the vignerons, my sense was that they saw themselves as stewards of their land; they were just part of its long history. I’ve always thought that was very beautiful. I don’t know whether it’s going to continue, because of the nature of our globalizing world, but that history, that culture, than sensitivity to the land makes France a different growing environment, and in a way, a role model. What tends to happen in the New World is that someone comes in with some resources -- and they build a winery. Because you can build a winery; you can hire a great architect and build a beautiful winery. But from my perspective, the investment would be better put into the vineyards first, because that’s what you need to make great wine. That’s what the Rolets have done here at Chêne Bleu; they spent 15 years reclaiming the vineyards before they built a winery and began making wine.”The Rolet family (Xavier’s sister Bénédicte Gallucci looks after the vineyards, and his brother-in-law Jean-Louis Gallucci is winemaker) are not short of advice: Claude and Lydia Bourguignon were there at the same time as Zelma, busily digging pits in the vines, as was another Californian winemaker, Doug Margerum of the Margerum Wine Company. The Rolets, too, make two red wines: the Syrah-Grenache-Viognier Héloïse and the Grenache-dominated Abelard, both released as Vins de Pays rather than appellation wines (the vineyards straddle four AOCs). They are earlier in their evolutionary trajectory than Vilafonté -- I’d like to see less oak than in the initial releases -- but once you’ve ducked behind that sweet sheen they share some of the close-grained purity, innate balance and unshowy finesse of Zelma’s Simonsberg wine. Might that be her doing? I wouldn’t presume to guess, but if 55 vintages of winemaking are going to teach you to pursue anything, purity and finesse have to be somewhere near the top of the list.