Evolution of a blend

As I’ve written before, one of the most informative and potentially enjoyable tastings is a vertical of a particular wine. As only 22 years have passed since South African wine has seriously been accepted back in the international market, with all the demands that incurs, producers are only now getting to grips with their winemaking thanks to greater understanding and confidence. Help in this regard also derives from the many young vines now reaching a level of adulthood.

I have been fortunate to have tasted most of the Vilafonté wines – Series C and Series M – from a young age, thanks to verticals held by Phil Freese and Zelma Long, the brand’s co-owners with Mike Ratcliffe. These eventually became too much of a task from many points of view.

Such past experiences did, however, make the prospect of tasting all ten vintages of Series M from 2003 to the newly-released 2013 (there was no 2008) a mouthwatering one.
Sadly, neither Freese nor Long were present at the tasting held earlier this week at their Bosman’s Crossing winery; they visit twice a year from the US, usually July and November, but winemaker since May 2010, Martin Smith and Ratcliffe admirably held the fort, giving the assembled guests insights into the philosophy behind the blend and vintages along the way.

Setting up for Series M vertical in the Vilafonté cellar
Setting up for Series M vertical in the Vilafonté cellar

Series M has always been described by Long as ‘another wine’ rather than ‘a second label’. Whereas Series C is dictated by cabernet, the M (actually, MM) has been guided by merlot and malbec with nowadays just cabernet sauvignon offering background support. A drop or two of cabernet franc was included in most years until 2009, when it was dropped from this blend.

The oaking regime too has changed; for the first three vintages (2003-2005), new oak was used to the tune of 30%; since then the figure has dropped to around 20%, depending on vintage.

It was only when I reached wine #10, the latest and just released 2013, that the jigsaw of this label’s evolution finally fell into place. Much hinges on the merlot/malbec, malbec/merlot interaction as well as a better understanding of the winemaking approach to achieve the best, most harmonious result.

Both 2003 and 2004 now reflect ripe, sturdy profiles, the latter with a hint of telltale animal notes. Personally, I’d be inclined to drink up soon.

Despite being a hot, dry vintage, 2005 seems fresher than the previous pair with well-integrated tannins, slightly less so the oak. Whilst I wouldn’t wait to open this, a further year or two wouldn’t harm.

Such is the freshness, juicy grape tannins and persistent succulence, that we were pretty well all surprised to hear 2006 logs in at 15.5% alc. Balance is all, though at that level, a glass will go a long way. Yet again this vintage is showing much better than the more highly-touted 2005.

From then on age is on the side of the wines, mainly because of balance. It’s interesting to try and pick out whether malbec or merlot lead the pack via their fruit: blue (berries) or mulberries for malbec, bright or dark red mainly plums for merlot.

Starting with 2007, the merlot/malbec contribution continues to rise; 33%/30% in that year with 22% cab sauvignon, 5% cab franc providing black fruit tones. As is the general profile, this is a big wine, but tempered tannins and balanced freshness make it less of a challenge.

By the time one of the decade’s best regarded vintages, 2009, comes around, it’s clear the team have confidence in the MM combination and which works best in each vintage: here 46% malbec, 32% merlot, 21% cabernet sauvignon and, for the last time 1% cabernet franc. The blue fruits are there but so is greater refinement, a seamless flow with finer grained tannins. Smith revealed it was also a smaller harvest with just 21 barrels making up Series M.

Red fruits – fleshy, red plums – make a reappearance in 2010 in a lively 49% merlot, 30% malbec, 21% cabernet blend. A perfect combination in a vintage which in several instances has produced hard, unyielding wines. Here the tannins (grape) are juicy, with less evidence of oak.

My notes ended with ‘Poised. Elegant.’ There’s been some discussion by my colleague, Christian Eedes about elegance and how it presents itself differently to different people. For me balance is most important, with complexity and an homogenous feel. Homogeneity in young wines doesn’t mean the tannins can’t benefit from age, the flavours from greater intricacy. One just gets the impression homogenous wines will mature at an even pace, no component falling off at any stage to disturb greater excitement with age.

At this stage, 2011, Smith’s first vintage, is less homogenous, more grunty, chewy, with its highest malbec component to date, 51%, evident in the depth of its blue fruits. Smith confided he very much likes this vintage with its greater oomph!

The two youngest wines follow the MM continuum: 2012 – 48% merlot, 35% malbec and 17% cabernet – concluded with a sweet note of ripe fruit I hadn’t noted in previous wines. It’s regarded as another excellent vintage, so I’d be in no hurry to open: 2013, which sells for R450/bottle and for me the best in the lineup, again switches malbec 45% and merlot 34%, the balance cab. Restrained aromas, a sleek, polished feel, drier finish and noticeably less oak.

There is great and beneficial evolution over these ten years; I’m sure ten years hence the younger wines will give immense pleasure and satisfaction – and look forward to noting the proof!

This tasting was a treat and great learning curve.

The Vilafonté vineyards, between the Simonsberg & Paarl, as they looked in 2005
The Vilafonté vineyards, between the Simonsberg & Paarl, as they looked in 2005

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks, as I’m taking a break prior to the tart of the annual mountain known as Platter tastings.

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