Fifty-five vintages bring a sense of perspective. That’s how many Californian winemaker Zelma Long has now overseen, principally in California, but latterly in South Africa, too, at the Vilafonté estate she founded in 1997 with her husband, viticulturalist Phil Freese.
In addition to her work in California, Washington and Paarl, consultations take her to Israel and France — which was where I caught up with her recently, on a bright spring day in the Rhône valley. We were walking the vineyards of Xavier and Nicole Rolet’s high-sited Chêne Bleu estate, at the intersection of Gigondas and Mont Ventoux.
“I grew up in eastern Oregon,” remembers Zelma, “where nobody drank wine. But I ended up down in the Bay area, and my parents-in-law bought land in the Napa valley and planted it, back in the 1960s. I had a science background, but I wasn’t excited about what I was doing, which was dietetics — it would be much more exciting nowadays. So I thought I’d go back to school and learn about winemaking. And that was it; that was the start. Then I got recruited for a harvest at Robert Mondavi by Mike Grgich. Two years later he left, and I took over his job as chief enologist. I was there for about ten years. Bob Mondavi really was an incredible man — optimistic, driven, with clear vision; he was an early thinker about wine culture. And wonderfully good humoured, too; he was real fun to work with. We were always doing something different. If ever there was a wine university, that was it.” Mondavi was followed by Simi, which Zelma eventually left in 1999 in order to concentrate on Vilafonté.
She identifies three stages in California’s development. “The first, in the 1970s, was our understanding of winemaking. In the 1980s, we began to analyze the vineyard — soils, climate, plant materials, planting systems. Then in the ‘90s, we began to put the two together, which I think is the most important. The big challenge now is to work out what’s going on, the nature of each harvest, what the tannin profile is like… Understanding the season; formulating a response. Every vintage is different. That’s what I find wonderful and fascinating about winemaking: it’s a way of telling the story of the vineyard.”
What made Zelma and her husband plant in South Africa? “Winemaking technology and wine science travels quickly. But the thing that doesn’t travel quickly is wine growing. You can’t just go to another country for harvest and really understand what’s happened over the season. You need to spend season after season there.” Vilafonté, she says, is “our heart and soul. We wanted to do something where we could start from the beginning and use our expertise and experience and invest it in a small project. We found the land; we planted the vineyards. We only produce two wines. It’s a very focused effort to produce something of high quality.”
I’d never tasted these wines until a week or two ago, and I’m impressed. One of them is called ‘Series M’: a Malbec-Merlot blend with some Cabernet Sauvignon stiffening and a shot of Cabernet Franc. The 2009 smells of damson and truffles, and has impressive fruit architecture on the palate: lithe, athletic, concentrated and resonant. The ‘Series C’, meanwhile, is principally Cabernet balanced by smaller percentages of the other varieties. It smells fatter, with more of the ‘fynbos’ in it; has less penetrating fruit but better width and richness, and finishes with a rolling wave of bramble, forest brush and warm clay minerals. They are two of the finest South African wines I’ve ever tasted: authoritative, refined, satisfying. Quantities, alas, are small: 31 barrels of the M and 23 of the C.
“I think what South Africa has to offer,” continues Zelma, “are world-class wines of incredible diversity. The Cape is essentially a marine climate; the soils are incredibly old. South Africa to me doesn’t have the massive fruit expression that we see in California, nor is it quite as restrained naturally as we see in France. If you can generalise, I’d say that the wines are very fresh, the tannins are softer (because the climate is a little softer), and the wines have more acid structure and less tannin structure than you get in California. With our own vineyards, we never add acid. People now realise that if you grow the grapes properly, they retain their natural acid.”
Her work in Israel has been with the Golan Heights winery, which she describes as “incredibly impressive: the highest quality level I’ve ever seen in a winery of its size and diversity. They brought me in because they wanted to improve the vineyards, and wanted to help the growers understand what was needed in order to do that, and wanted the technical staff in the winery to understand too. They just take information and run with it. I very much like working there.”
France is different. “When I first came here many years ago with Robert Mondavi and talked with the vignerons, my sense was that they saw themselves as stewards of their land; they were just part of its long history. I’ve always thought that was very beautiful. I don’t know whether it’s going to continue, because of the nature of our globalizing world, but that history, that culture, than sensitivity to the land makes France a different growing environment, and in a way, a role model. What tends to happen in the New World is that someone comes in with some resources — and they build a winery. Because you can build a winery; you can hire a great architect and build a beautiful winery. But from my perspective, the investment would be better put into the vineyards first, because that’s what you need to make great wine. That’s what the Rolets have done here at Chêne Bleu; they spent 15 years reclaiming the vineyards before they built a winery and began making wine.”
The Rolet family (Xavier’s sister Bénédicte Gallucci looks after the vineyards, and his brother-in-law Jean-Louis Gallucci is winemaker) are not short of advice: Claude and Lydia Bourguignon were there at the same time as Zelma, busily digging pits in the vines, as was another Californian winemaker, Doug Margerum of the Margerum Wine Company. The Rolets, too, make two red wines: the Syrah-Grenache-Viognier Héloïse and the Grenache-dominated Abelard, both released as Vins de Pays rather than appellation wines (the vineyards straddle four AOCs). They are earlier in their evolutionary trajectory than Vilafonté — I’d like to see less oak than in the initial releases — but once you’ve ducked behind that sweet sheen they share some of the close-grained purity, innate balance and unshowy finesse of Zelma’s Simonsberg wine. Might that be her doing? I wouldn’t presume to guess, but if 55 vintages of winemaking are going to teach you to pursue anything, purity and finesse have to be somewhere near the top of the list.
Written by Andrew Jefford