Vilafonté: A Standard Bearer of South African Wine Excellence

Vilafonté: A Standard Bearer of South African Wine Excellence.

Nestled in the viticultural haven of South Africa, Vilafonté has distinguished itself not only as a purveyor of premium wines but also as a pillar of innovation and tradition in the wine industry. Founded by Mike Ratcliffe, a seasoned veteran of the wine industry, and his partners from the American wine scene, Vilafonté is not merely a winery but a testament to passion, expertise, and cross-continental collaboration.

Mike Ratcliffe: A Legacy of Wine

Mike Ratcliffe grew up in the vineyards of Warwick, a historic winery established by his parents in the heart of Stellenbosch. Under the tutelage of his mother, a chemist from Canada who turned her analytical acumen to winemaking, and his father, who purchased the Warwick Estate in 1964, Mike developed a deep connection with the craft from a young age. Taking over as managing director in his early twenties, Mike steered Warwick to great success before venturing to start Vilafonté in 1997, alongside American wine luminaries Dr. Zelma Long and Dr. Phil Freese.

The Philosophy of Vilafonté

Vilafonté was conceived through the visionary collaboration of Mike Ratcliffe and esteemed American winemaker Dr. Zelma Long and viticulturist Dr. Phil Freese. Together, they aspired to establish a South African winery on par with Bordeaux’s esteemed first growths.

Named after the ancient “Vilafontes” soil type that predominates its estate, Vilafonté is profoundly tied to its terroir. This deep connection to the land is central to the winery’s identity and influences every aspect of its production. 

At its core, Vilafonté adheres to a philosophy of exclusivity and excellence, producing only small quantities of exceptional red wine blends. The winery meticulously cultivates four principal grape varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec—emphasizing selective agricultural practices that enhance the unique characteristics of each varietal.

In addition to collaborating with Dr. Zelma Long and Dr. Phil Freese, Mike is supported by a dedicated team at Vilafonté. Edward Pietersen leads the vineyard operations, while the cellar is expertly managed by Chris de Vries and Arlene Mains under General Manager Sophia Hawkins.

Soil Plays the Leading Role at Vilafonté. Seriously Old Dirt.

A Transatlantic Partnership

The remarkable journey of Vilafonté is as much a story of transatlantic collaboration as it is about viticulture and winemaking. At its core, the partnership between Mike Ratcliffe and the American duo, Dr. Zelma Long and Dr. Phil Freese, has been a fusion of distinct winemaking philosophies and expertise that spans continents. This collaboration is not merely a business arrangement; it is a confluence of visions, a shared dream to elevate South African wine to global acclaim.

Dr. Zelma Long is one of the most respected figures in the American wine industry. Her career began in the early 1970s, a pioneering time for women in winemaking. Long’s academic background in enology and viticulture, combined with her innate passion for winemaking, propelled her into influential roles at some of California’s most prestigious wineries. As one of the first women to assume the role of head winemaker in a male-dominated industry, she broke barriers and set new standards for quality and innovation. Her work at Robert Mondavi Winery and later at Simi Winery, where she served as chief winemaker, has been widely acclaimed. Long’s approach to winemaking is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a deep understanding of the science behind wine, and a creative flair that has led to many groundbreaking wines.

Dr. Phil Freese, on the other hand, is a viticulture legend whose influence on grape growing practices has been profound. With a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology from UC Davis, Freese’s understanding of the complex interactions between vines, soil, and climate has led to revolutionary vineyard management strategies. His tenure as Vice President of Winegrowing at Robert Mondavi Winery and then later at Opus One allowed him to implement his innovative approaches, significantly influencing the quality of the grapes and, consequently, the wines produced. Freese’s expertise is not limited to the Napa Valley; his consultancy work has spanned the globe, helping wineries in diverse climates and terroirs to optimize their vineyard potential. His belief in the importance of terroir and his ability to translate this into practical vineyard management practices have been instrumental in the success of numerous wineries worldwide.

The union of Ratcliffe’s vision with Long and Freese’s expertise has been the cornerstone of Vilafonté’s success. Their collaboration is built on mutual respect and a shared commitment to excellence. Long’s winemaking prowess and Freese’s viticultural genius, combined with Ratcliffe’s entrepreneurial spirit and deep knowledge of the global wine landscape, have created a winery that is both innovative and deeply rooted in the tradition of fine wine production.

This transatlantic partnership has allowed Vilafonté to harness the best of both worlds: the rich, diverse terroir of South Africa and the cutting-edge techniques and insights of American winemaking. It stands as a testament to the power of collaboration, bridging continents and cultures to create wines that are truly exceptional. The legacy of this partnership is evident in every bottle of Vilafonté wine, a tribute to the unity of vision and the shared passion that brought it to life.

Mike and his Founders (start of the project) and current Vineyard and Winemaking Team.

Signature Wines of Vilafonté

So, now we know more about the philosophy and characteristics of Vilafonté it is time for us to take you to the tasting room with the signature wines of Vilafonté. Together we will taste three red blends, ranging from the ‘entry level’ Seriously Old Dirt to the top-flight Series M and C (both only available in selected quantities). 

Vilafonté Seriously Old Dirt 2020, Series M 2020 and Series C 2021 as rated by Dutch Wine Apprentice.

2020 Seriously Old Dirt by Vilafonté

The 2020 Seriously Old Dirt by Vilafonté captures the quintessence of their winemaking philosophy, which focuses on soil-specific, regionally agnostic viticulture. This vintage showcases a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Malbec, and 2% Cabernet Franc, emphasizing a shift towards a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant profile, differing from previous vintages which often highlighted Merlot and Malbec more prominently.

Aged for 18 months in seasoned French oak barriques, the wine boasts a rich ruby hue, exuding sophisticated aromas of black currant, strawberry shortbread, and cherry tobacco, interwoven with whispers of gingerbread and vanilla pod spice. This bouquet sets the stage for a palate where dark cherry and blackberry merge seamlessly with the warm undertones of baking spices and hints of hazelnut and tobacco. The addition of subtle liquorice notes adds depth, enhancing the luxurious feel of the wine.

The palate is robust, yet retains a graceful elegance, characterized by a medium to full body and an alcohol content of 13.5%. The wine’s structure is built on a backbone of fine-grained tannins and bright acidity, which carry the flavors through a fresh, prolonged finish marked by notes of just-ripe plum and soft oak. The texture is polished and smooth, indicative of a wine that has been meticulously crafted to achieve a balance between intensity and weightlessness.

The Seriously Old Dirt 2020 is a narrative of its terroir, expressed through the meticulously selected ancient soils of the Western Cape. This narrative is further enriched by the wine’s age-worthy potential, promising a development that will likely charm both collectors and casual drinkers over the next 10 to 15 years. Drink it now for its youthful vigor or let it mature to discover the additional complexities it promises to reveal.

We reward this wine with a 92-point DWA score.

Series M 2020

The 2020 Series M from Vilafonté is a testament to the heritage and meticulous craftsmanship that defines its lineage, prominently featuring a Merlot-based blend that also includes Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. This vintage pays homage to the storied traditions of Bordeaux’s right bank, showcasing a blend that is 43% Merlot, 37% Malbec, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6% Cabernet Franc, which lends it an air of classic, understated elegance.

The bouquet is a complex array of fragrant lilac and sweet violets, with a robust undercurrent of black currant and black cherry, enveloped by an earthy limestone and aromatic cedar. The infusion of spicy oak and a hint of dried herbs enhances the olfactory experience, while a rich undertone of dark chocolate adds a luxurious depth.

On tasting, the wine initially presents with a quiet confidence, smoothly transitioning into an expansive mid-palate where finely woven, satin-like tannins take center stage. These tannins elegantly support a spectrum of flavors from lush plums and tart raspberries to the indulgent taste of creamy milk chocolate, culminating in a satisfyingly soft and rounded finish.

Matured for 22 months in an astute combination of French oak barriques, including 12% new wood, this treatment allows the robust flavors to meld beautifully without overshadowing the wine’s intrinsic qualities. The balance between the oak and the matured fruit suggests a promising evolution over time, with a peak drinking window extending from approximately 2025 to beyond 2040.

This vintage is poised and mature, reflecting a sophisticated depth and an engaging complexity that promises to evolve. Its powdery tannins and plush, mocha-laced finish provide a lasting impression, making it an exemplary addition to any discerning wine lover’s collection. With its impressive structure and vibrant energy, the 2020 Series M is a compelling narrative of its terroir and vintage, poised to deliver delight both now and in the years to come. Limited to just under 19,000 bottles, this wine is an inviting prospect for both immediate enjoyment and future exploration.

We reward this wine with a 96-point DWA score.

Series C 2021

The Vilafonté Series C 2021 encapsulates the essence of its South African terroir, presenting a flagship wine characterized by an impressive combination of intensity and structure. This vintage is a masterful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (57%), Merlot (26%), Malbec (10%), and Cabernet Franc (7%), each component meticulously chosen to enhance the wine’s depth and complexity. Aged for twenty-two months in predominantly new French oak barrels, this wine showcases a sophisticated poise from its meticulous crafting.

On the visual front, the Series C 2021 greets with a striking dark red to black core, transitioning to a vibrant ruby rim, suggesting its youthful vigor. The wine unfolds slowly, revealing a symphony of aromas: initially offering incense and violet blossoms, it soon gives way to an opulent mix of black plums, fresh black currants, and boysenberries. With each moment, further nuances emerge, such as sandalwood, sappy juniper, and blonde tobacco, which delicately weave through the bouquet.

The palate is nothing short of luxurious, where silky tannins meld with a linear progression that commands attention, culminating in a finish that is both lengthy and memorable. The generous expression of fruit adds layers, enriching the experience and underscoring the wine’s balanced elegance. Despite its current completeness, the Series C 2021 is poised for an impressive evolution, promising increased complexity for those who choose to cellar it over the next two decades.

This vintage benefited immensely from the climatic conditions of the year—ample winter rains followed by a cool and wet spring extended into the early summer, promoting vigorous vine growth and a bountiful harvest. The absence of typical heatwaves during the crucial ripening months preserved the grapes’ vibrancy and structural integrity, allowing for a harvest that was both abundant and of high quality. The result is a wine intensely colored, rich in layered flavors, and demonstrative of a vintage that many in the Cape view as extraordinary.

In summary, the Series C 2021 is not just a wine but a vibrant narrative of its environment and meticulous winemaking. It is a stellar choice for collectors and enthusiasts alike, echoing the qualities often revered in iconic vintages. Whether enjoyed today or in the years to come, it promises to deliver a sensory journey that celebrates the very best of what South African Cabernet-led blends have to offer.

We reward this wine with a 98-point DWA score.

Work in the Cellar at Vilafonté.

Global Recognition and Future Aspirations

Under Mike Ratcliffe’s leadership, Vilafonté has not only achieved significant critical acclaim but has also helped shape the global perception of South African wines as world-class. With ambitious plans for the future, including a 100-year strategy that encompasses sustainability and innovation, Vilafonté is poised to continue its legacy of excellence.

Mike Ratcliffe’s journey with Vilafonté is a compelling chapter in the story of South African wine, marked by a dedication to quality, a respect for the land, and a vision that transcends generations. As Vilafonté moves forward, it remains a symbol of the potential and passion inherent in South African winemaking—a beacon for connoisseurs and enthusiasts around the world.

Grape Masters, a Chat with Mike 

If you want to learn more about Vilafonté and Mike Ratcliffe we suggest you put your headphones on! We have interviewed Mike Ratcliffe in our Podcast series Grape Masters. You can find Grape Masters on your favorite Podcast player. For more information on the Podcast click here.

Vilafonté is imported in the Netherlands by Vinites, and available through selected retail and hospitality partners. We would like to thank Mike and Vinites for their support in writing this article. Follow Mike on social media: @mikeratcliffe

This article is written by our own Niels Aarts. Picture credits: Dutch Wine Apprentice and Vilafonté.