Greg Sherwood MW: Vilafonté excels in blind tasting
By Greg Sherwood, 22 February 2023
With “Dry January” finally out of the way, February in the UK wine trade normally heralds an active month of re-engagement for both suppliers and buyers across the country with multiple portfolio tastings and producer masterclasses reigniting interest within the industry. While the year as barely begun, many in the broader fine wine trade are already starting to feel fatigued after a more prolonged and challenging Burgundy En-primeur 2021 campaign this year threw up a whole host of new logistical and financial challenges. Indeed, this must surely be the first Burgundy campaign in almost a decade that still seems to be running even as we hit the depths of February. In any other year, the Burgundy En-primeur trade tastings would have been over by mid-January and the private client selling side of the affair over by early February.
But this year sees a nervous tension permeating the airways, not only because of the lack of availability and generally sky-high stock prices, but also because on a more philosophical level, many in the fine wine trade are starting to see a certain end-game nearing for the very highest priced Burgundy wines. In scenes reminiscent of Bordeaux circa 2009 and 2010, just before the bubble burst, producers are again holding back on releasing prices as if they are waiting to see what their neighbours will do with regards to yet further pricing increases. Of course, Burgundy has tended to follow its own set of rules when it comes to global supply and demand, but as producers move ever closer to the final precipice of pricing, releases are becoming more and more delayed, year after year, as commercial fears start to creep into their minds.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same, the old adage goes, and for the time being, Burgundy manages to hang on to its market share and consumer loyalty even as many high-reputation, entry-level Bourgogne Blancs and Bourgogne Rouge wines near the £45-£50+ per bottle retail price point, and even more for the super-premium producers’ basic entry-level wines from the likes of Roumier, Mugnier and Mortet, etc. The longer and harder the Bordeaux and Burgundy producers hang on to their lofty positions of prestige and affluence, the more likely it is that some of the new world’s greatest emerging fine wines will want to benchmark their products against the best of the old world.
Never one to shy away from facing a challenge head on, Mike Ratcliffe, proprietor of the premium Paarl boutique winery Vilafonté was in town to launch the new Series C and Series M 2020 cuveés to the trade and of course used his one-hour masterclass to host a thrilling and challenging blind tasting for sommeliers, merchants and journalists, presenting back-vintage Vilafonté Series M and C wines alongside some of the best producers in the world.
The simple format consisted of three flights of three wines, all presented blind, with each flight featuring a Vilafonté wine within an international fine wine line-up. The wines tasted included:
Seriously Old Dirt 2019
(86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 5% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc)
Echo de Lynch Bages 2019
(53% Merlot, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc)
Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
(86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot)
From the three flights, I did thankfully manage to pick all three Vilafonté wines, however, for this first flight, I was naively convinced that this plush, dense, opulent first red was indeed a Vilafonté Series M red and not the Seriously Old Dirt. It had a wonderfully deep Merlot / Malbec mouthfeel but also seemed to have more structure and density than I remember when tasting the Seriously Old Dirt 2019 on release. The Echo de Lynch Bages was again picked blind as a classical French left bank Bordeaux but was by no means lean and austere, instead this wine boasted plenty of black cassis, dark berry fruits, a structural tension and a modicum of mineral restraint but with an impressive ripeness for a Bordeaux. The final wine, the Vasse Felix Filius has always been one of my favourite Aussie value wines from Margaret River and it showed lovely clarity of blue and black berry fruits with a lush, perfumed black currant sweetness. So, for me, that was a correct blind 3 out or 3.
Vilafonté Series M 2016
(50% Malbec, 36% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc)
La Jota Vineyard Merlot 2016
(90% Merlot, 5.5% Petit Verdot, 4.5% Tannat)
JFW Chateau Lassegue Grand Cru St Emilion 2016
(60% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon)
The second flight was where things really started to get interesting. Having recently reviewed the Series M 2013 archive release and the new M 2020, I was pretty quick to pick the Vilafonté M in the range with its sublime balance of fruit with a classically dense, complex mouthfeel. Really very impressive indeed. The La Jota was sweet and scented, packed full of black currant and black plum, with a piercing fresh expressive intensity… and simply delicious. The final Lassegue seems quite lean, mineral and restrained in contrast, with dry tannins, notes of tilled earth, medicine chest and a stony, graphite old world finish. Again, for me, I nailed this threesome blind picking the second wine as Californian.
Vilafonté Series C 2017
(57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec)
Chateau Margaux 2017
(89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot)
Te Mata Estate Coleraine 2017
(73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot)
The final flight was undoubtedly the most difficult of the three. A quick nose of the wines helped me pick the Vilafonté, and the first growth, though I thought it may be Mouton Rothschild when I first tasted it. The Te Mata was undoubtedly the only wine that really stumped me as by this stage of the game, I was just not expecting a New Zealand wine to feature, and if it did, I was not expecting it to present in such an austere, mineral, restrained manner. When time was called, I have to be honest I was still contemplating potential answers but I was more in cool-climate South Africa or California than anywhere in New Zealand. But a very classical and classy wine that has earnt a reputation for being a long-lived fine wine.
To close the proceedings, the room full of circa 40 to 50 tasters were asked to pick their favourite wines in descending order from each flight. The results were not particularly surprising with the superb Vilafonté wines taking two of the three top slots and only narrowly losing out to the Chateau Margaux on a final show of hands.
1 Seriously Old Dirt 2019
2 Echo de Lynch Bages 2019
3 Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
1 Vilafonté Series M 2016
2 La Jota Vineyard Merlot 2016
3 JFW Chateau Lassegue Grand Cru St Emilion 2016
1 Chateau Margaux 2017
2 Vilafonte Series C 2017
3 Te Mata Estate Coleraine 2017
So, what conclusions can we draw from yet another excellent comparative blind tasting? Well, I always used to haggle with Winemag.co.za editor Christian Eedes when he scored a top South African Bordeaux Blend too low (in my opinion), and it was always agreed that the only real way that the status quo could be settled was to hold a blind benchmarking tasting pitching like for like vintage wines against South Africa’s best. This was a very well-constructed and informative tasting that showed just how comparable South Africa’s classical best were to some of the world’s greats when tasted in a blind comparison. Once again, what price do we put on a wines label?
Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.
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