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Vilafonté: Partnership in South African Excellence
By Rebecca Murphy
Apr 28, 2020
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Vilafonté is the name of a South African wine created by Zelma Long, Dr. Phil Freese of California and Michael Ratcliff of Stellenbosch, South Africa.  The name comes from the Vilafontes soil where the vineyard was planted.  The 100-acre property includes 40 acres of four grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.

Zelma Long is a winemaking legend.  In the years I have been privileged to know her, I began to realize that many of the winemakers I admire and respect had, at some time in their career, worked for her;  Dawnine Dyer, Genevieve Janssens, David Ramey, Nick Goldschmidt, Peter Sissek…to name just a few.  The second woman to graduate from the enology program at U. C.  Davis, she moved from harvest volunteer at the Robert Mondavi winery to head of winemaking from 1973 to 1979.  Then, on to Simi Winery as winemaker and a few years later, she became the CEO.  She has extended her influence by consulting with winemakers in California, eastern Washington, Israel, Argentina and South Africa.   

Her husband, Phil Freese, is her equal in winegrowing.  His Ph.D. is in Biochemistry, but his life’s work is winegrowing, a term that he created at the Robert Mondavi Winery as head of winegrowing from 1982 to 1996.  There he also collaborated with NASA Ames Research Center in pioneering the use of NASA-based technology to detect vineyard problems with disease and pests.  When he left Mondavi, he created his vineyard consulting company appropriately named “WineGrow.”  He once explained that his practice is to ask his client to describe the style of wine desired.  This enabled him to develop recommended vineyard design and practices to attain that style. 

Michael Ratcliffe comes from a highly acclaimed, second-generation wine family in South Africa.  His Canadian-born mother, Norma Ratcliffe, married South African, Stan Ratcliffe, and they acquired Warwick Estate.  They planted Cabernet Sauvignon with the idea of selling the grapes to wineries.  However, Norma became extremely interested and enthusiastic about understanding how to make wine.  She became one of the first women to make wine commercially in that country.  Often referred to as the “First Lady of South African wines,” she was one of only five women to be invited as a member of the Cape Independent Winemakers' Guild.  Michael took over the winery management responsibilities in 1999 after completing a Graduate Diploma in Wine Marketing from the University of Adelaide in South Australia.  She retired in 2000, and Ratcliife became Managing Director.  A lifetime on-the-job education of winegrowing and winemaking—coupled with a Graduate Diploma in Wine Marketing from the University of Adelaide in South Australia—had prepared Ratcliffe for his leadership role in the wine industry of South Africa.  Warwick Estate was sold in 2018 to an American investment fund.

In a recent web-based presentation, Long, Freese and Ratcliffe talked about their Vilafonté project.  Freese and Long had been working with vineyards and wineries in South Africa and were impressed with the wines that were produced there.  In the early 1990s, Long judged in a competition sponsored by South African Airways that provided an overview of South African wines.  She gave a full day seminar about advances in wine growing and winemaking for South African vineyard and winery professionals at an event in Cape Town.  “We understood it was possible to make beautiful wines in South Africa, said Freese.  “There were beautiful and great, significant wines here.” 

In 1997 they had the opportunity to buy land that they thought would produce good wine grapes.  Freese noted that it was basically a dry-land wheat farm, untilled, with virgin soil for a vineyard.  The owner was leaving South Africa for Australia to be with his children, and the property was for sale.  They studied the soil profiles by digging soil pits and determined that the soil was marginal for wheat but for wine it was “seriously old dirt.”  It was half a million years or older, as determined from the presence of old arrowheads found near the soil surface.  Freese noted that since the surface was half a million years old, the soil below indeed must be…seriously old dirt.  The age of the soil suggested that much of its capacity for sustaining vigorous growth is depleted, so the vines and grapes would be smaller with more concentrated fruit.  His mantra is to grow just enough vine to produce just enough fruit to make your target wine.  

They planted four Bordeaux red varieties and spaced the vines for high density, about 2100 vines per acre (around twice the South African average).  As a result, while the production per is vine low, the production per acre is high because of the density.  Vines are irrigated by a drip system.  “Our idea is not just to grow grapes but to grow wine,” said Freese.  He described the concept of wine growing: Define the mission, the wine description, then aim to fulfill the mission.  “You have to have that in mind before you start the journey.”
  
In 2003, when the vines were mature enough, they proceeded to make wines.  They produced “Series M” from Merlot and Malbec with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, and “Series C,” primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.  The Series M is blended for fruit and richness, approachable with a backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Series C is meant to be big, potent, powerful with the structured backbone of Cabernet and the flesh, fruit and deliciousness of Merlot with the ability to live a long life. 

Long said that her twenty years of winemaking in California developed her understanding of the elements of a great wine.  She explained that a great wine requires intensity of flavor and a balance and harmony of the components, acid, tannins and alcohol.  Nothing sticks out.  The wine’s personality comes from the vineyard.

They realized they had wine, but no names for the two blends.  They spent many nights considering potential wine names.  They wanted a simple name to make it easy for consumers to identify when buying Vilafonté wines.  They decided on Series C to indicate a Cabernet Sauvignon blend and Series M for the Merlot-Malbec blend.  Freese said “Michael’s wife was the smartest in the room.  She told us to go to bed and stop drinking so much.”
 
Freese marveled at the way the partnership with Ratcliffe fell into place.  He and Long saw South Africa as having great potential for producing high quality wines and they had a vineyard that could grow great wine.  He had the viticultural know-how, she the winemaking chops.  They were putting their personal resources behind this endeavor to make their wine.  “It was a special opportunity for us,” he said.  But, they could not be in South Africa full time.  In 1999 Ratcliffe returned from University of Adelaide in South Australia with an advanced degree in wine marketing and a willingness to partner with them.  Freese called it “a key point in life where everything comes together.  It was very satisfying.”  Together winegrower, winemaker and wine marketer.
 
For a quick object lesson in what I was writing about then finishing this column today, I opened a bottle of the 2003 Series C.  The blend is 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, nine percent Merlot, seven percent Cabernet Franc and tow percent Malbec.  First of all, the cork looked brand new.  The color of the wine was a beautiful, vibrant, translucent ruby to the rim.  No browning.  The aromas were pure and focused with black cherry aromas, whispers of cigar box, vanilla and an ethereal floral note.  In the mouth, the black cherry, plum fruit was tightly integrated with vibrant acidity and burnished tannins.  It is ethereal, seamless, yet intense.  It displays a dichotomy of New World approach-ability vs. Old World restraint that I associate with South African wine.  It will continue to evolve for several years…and I certainly hope for another opportunity to enjoy it.  



Read more of Rebecca Murphy's columns at: Rebecca Murphy
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