Greg Sherwood MW: Vilafonté excels in blind tasting

By , 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:

Flight 1

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.

Flight 2

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.

Flight 3

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.


Flight 1:
1 Seriously Old Dirt 2019
2 Echo de Lynch Bages 2019
3 Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Flight 2
1 Vilafonté Series M 2016
2 La Jota Vineyard Merlot 2016
3 JFW Chateau Lassegue Grand Cru St Emilion 2016

Flight 3
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 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.


8 comment(s)

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    David K | 28 February 2023

    BvR, many thanks for your response, insights and clarification. I try to keep abreast of developments in SA as best I can – hence my paying attention to such articles. Thank you too for the tip on Reyneke Biodynamic Syrah – I will be checking it out.

    I also religiously cellar the Storm Pinots (and quite few others from SA) when they hit these shores. I look forward to comparing them with the Chacra Pinot’s – JS’s wine of the year around 2018 – when they are ready to go.

      Greg Sherwood | 28 February 2023

      I think one very important factor that several readers / commentators to my article have alluded to is that we definitely should not get hung up about SA not featuring that prominently in Top 100 and Top 50 Lists etc. Certainly for the USA, this is almost solely based on whether the wine has a decent importer / distributor within their complicated three=tier system and what kind of marketing and exposure the brand has. SA wines have a very challenging time logistically in the USA and this is then born out in the subsequent Top 100 lists. (Feel free to read my previous piece about can we crack the US market as there were some interesting and well-informed comments to that piece as well.)

      Many US reviewers will not taste and review a wine from SA if they believe it is not generally available or has an importer unless they maybe taste it in a Report-style write up in SA itself. I would argue that the Suckling Reviewer Trip last year was totally irrelevant in the bigger picture and purely a money making escapade for the website. The results were only made available to subscribers, which in the SA context is surely a tiny number of people compared to those who shell out $$ to follow Neal Martin / Galloni at Vinous or eRobertParker.

      I always acknowledge that the pricing of South Africa’s top wines is a prickly issue and there are no rights and wrongs, just different perceptions and opinions. My reporting of the tasting Vilafonte performed well in was not held or put together by myself, I was merely a guest at the blind trade tasting and decided the results would be interesting to the many South African readers on Winemag who buy these wines which are indeed not cheap.

      Lastly, reporting on the various occasions that South Africa’s elite wines perform well in blind or sighted tasting should not automatically be interpreted as a siren call from me or anyone else to raise prices. The matter of fact is that generally speaking, South Africa’s best wines are cheap in comparison to many comparable quality wines from Europe or USA that command greater demand which of course pushes their prices even higher. While those consumers in SA look at current pricing of the top SA wines and it makes their eyes water already, these wines are nevertheless still looked upon as being very affordable overseas and the demand is almost insatiable at the moment which will inevitably have a knock-on effect on supply and demand in the local market. You cannot separate the two in this global market.

      Personally, I always celebrate our top South African wines, whoever makes them, when they perform well overseas. It’s as much about building recognition as it is about justifying our critical scores and price points to a sceptical fine wine audience that is often very set in its ways. Simply implying that I write about wines that I may buy or sell as a wine merchant is pruerile. In the 25 years I have worked as a fine wine buyer in the UK, I have always tried to buy ANY great South African wine that I taste which blows my socks off. There are no restrictions. Everything is fair game in my world. So I do chuckle when people imply I merely write about the wines a buy and sell. I only write about the top wines of SA…. and I only buy and sell the top wines of SA, so it is safe to presume there will be a massive overlap. I am always happy for my scores and tasting notes to be judged. I never ask people to agree with me, merely to respect the fact that this is one opinion… my opinion… and there is nothing underhanded about that. We should all celebrate a bit more instead of trying to find reasons why we shouldn’t. The world has enough killjoys already.

        David K | 1 March 2023

        Greg, many thanks for your informative and detailed response. And just to clarify, I am not in any way doubting your assessments, I am speaking to some readers response to these: “but I do think some readers get a bit carried away with these blind tasting results”.

        Besides, yours is one of the primary opinions I seek out when researching any SA wine. And I will often buy said wines based on your opinion.

        We will have to agree to disagree regarding the importance of making the “top” lists. I fully understand that quality is not necessarily a defining criterion, but we all know the impact that Parker had on Pomerol wines in the ‘80s. Also, Jim Murray on Japanese whiskey in general and Yamazaki in particular. Do you know how difficult it is for us to by a bottle of Yamazaki 12 right here in Japan? The list is a long one. Rankings matter to buyers. And if the demand is there, the system will find a way.

        But of course, this will drive up price, which is exactly what I (and most of us) do not want.

        Thanks again for all your insight and help. I am really looking forward to your reviews for the SA ’21 reds.

    David K | 28 February 2023

    Firstly, many thanks Greg for the article. It is always good to see our wines doing well.

    Not to be the party pooper here, but I do think some readers get a bit carried away with these blind tasting results. The reason I say this is because wines from just about everywhere do exactly the same thing in both blind and sighted tastings. And yes, we have upped our game considerably in recent years – and continue to do so. But so has every other region. And so have the premier French makers. Just take a look at how the ratings for Mouton Rothschild has improved since 2012. Of course, they made stunning wines prior to this, but with the introduction of the new facilities in 2012, the trend has just gone up. Plus, other makers in Bordeaux itself have really upped their game – Saint Pierre (St. Julien), Brane Cantenac (Margaux), and numerous examples on the Right Bank etc. etc. – the list goes on. And these are wines that we are imitating.

    Regarding price, there is no doubt that many associate price with quality. Can one then assume that they expect the likes of Paul Sauer to be priced the same as the 1st Growths? I certainly hope not. I have just bought some of the above-mentioned Chateau Saint Pierre 2019 (95 & 96 points – NM & JS respectively) that was cheaper than the PS 2019 (96+ GS) – here in Japan at least. And the Porseleinberg (by all accounts a brilliant wine) is the same price as the Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape 2016 (100 points – JD). So, for those looking for price parity in global markets – we are already there. And the only ones benefiting are the makers and the merchants.

    And certainly, the biggest reality check, is that SA wines simply do not feature in the most prominent, global “top 100” wine lists. Everyone else is there – France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, NZ, US, Chile/ Argentina. Go ahead and check the lists from James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Enthusiast etc. One SA wine (a Vin de Constance) came in at #98 on one of the lists (James Suckling on his 2018 list I think it was) some years ago. And with that single exception, we are absent.

    In closing, I want to say that I am completely behind improving SA wines, and genuinely want to see them in the top 10 lists. But in the same breath, I don’t want to pay any more for them. And if I am missing anything here, please do point it out to me. So instead of believing we belong at the very top, lets rather use these energies to actually get there.

      BvR | 28 February 2023

      @David K. I found your response quite interesting. Sure everyone continues to improve and up their game on a global scale, but that’s not what the article is about. It’s about the fact that the SA wines are doing this and competing with the best in the world, at a fraction of the price point (on most occasions).

      In regards to top100 lists, I am sorry but your frame of reference is out here. JD doesn’t cover SA and JS famously sent a few people from his team, for the first time ever to SA and they sat in a hotel room and tasted 800 wines in a few days. I would also argue that none of the critics mentioned really have a reason to push/celebrate SA wines as the allocations and effort into the Asian and US market is limited compared to the other regions they cover “properly”. But that’s probably the theme for an article in itself.

      The only relevant global ratings of SA wines are where a critic dedicates the same amount of time, effort, exposure and longevity to all the regions they cover, allowing them to score “like for like”. The only international critics that fit that bill currently are NM and TA and their scores on a like for like basis more often than not shows how cheap top SA wines are. And though he is patriotic, GS tastes some of the worlds “best/most expensive/famous” wines on a weekly basis and his frame of reference for his SA wine ratings are cemented in that.

      It’s not always about the price point of the top wines from some of the top makers in comparison to others either. Yes I’m sure Porseleinberg is a similar price to Clos des Papes in Japan (18,700Y), but for a fraction of the price (3010Y to be exact) you can get a Reyneke Biodynamic Syrah (NM rated them both the same…).

    James Bosenberg | 27 February 2023

    It’s a tough problem to solve. I do think we need our top wines to be consumed locally and that has to come at a price lower than that of the top wines of France, Italy, US etc. We simply can’t compete financially with those markets and we are already seeing price increases of our top wines in excess of 10-12% YoY so it becomes more difficult as the years go by. It would be a sad day if a Paul Sauer, for instance, is only consumed by a very elite few locally.

    I’d like to believe at the core, winemakers and proprietors would not want to see that either.

    Greg Sherwood | 24 February 2023

    I chatted about your comments at our tasting with Mike Ratcliffe. One of the biggest problems remains the delicate state of the local SA home market and the fact that pricing is, to a large extent, limited by most producers’ ambition to sell at least half or perhaps a bit more or less, of their production in the local market which is undoubtedly very price sensitive because of the tough economic situation. As international price parity exits these days, prices in the overseas market are linked to prices in the local market and so South African wines look cheap in comparison to similar quality wines from France or the USA etc. I don’t see any way to square this circle other than simply putting prices of the top SA wines up and reducing the amount of wine sold in the SA home market, with export markets taking the lions share. There are going to be winners and losers.

    Also, greater availability of SA’s top wines in the secondary market is a growing phenomenon and as people start buying top SA wines to store and not just to drink, more and more mature stock will eventually get traded at higher prices on the secondary market. And we all know how well some of SA’s best wines age.

    PK | 22 February 2023

    I guess now the question remains, “what to do next?” after another good blind showing against international counterparts?

    Let’s be honest, this is the umpteenth time we had seen our top SA wines perform like this in tasting and competitions around the world. How do we use these kind of showings and the momentum it creates to get SA fine wine to take the next step on the international stage? How to create secondary market presence and some movement for our top end wines?

    Could some of the countries top producer work as a collective with fine wine merchants, collectors or for instance fine wine investment companies in certain markets and hold back some of their top wines and release the wines ex cellar in 3-5 years, at a slightly more premium price. This could see a secondary market being created for these wines in some international markets, especially UK, EU and possibly Asia. More importantly also showing growth in terms of market price, even if it is created by the producers themselves. We see this happen in many of the most famous wine regions around the world.

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