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New South African-American ‘luxury’ venture

The first-ever South African-American joint venture wine has just been launched in the UK – two wines aimed squarely at the luxury end of the market.

Vilafonte, which was presented today in London to UK journalists, is the result of a collaboration between veteran US winemaker Zelma Long, grower Phillip Freese, Warwick Estate MD Mike Ratcliffe, and US importer Bartholomew Broadbent.

The winery consists of 13ha of vineyards planted to the Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, in the Paarl appellation of the Western Cape. The entire holding consists of 40ha, which the team suggests will be developed in due course.

Freese, formerly head of winegrowing at Mondavi and one of the designers of the Opus One vineyards, said the land was virgin before they took it over.

The soil – which he called ‘the most important part of the project’ – consists of gravel and stones on a clay base. The climate is ‘Mediterranean-like’.

The two wines are called simply Vilafonte Series M and Vilafonte Series C. Both are blends of the four grapes, with the former the more Merlot-based and the more ‘accessible’ of the two.

The 2003 – of which around 2500 cases in total have been made – is the first vintage to be released. There are 100 cases of each earmarked for the UK market, imported by Louis Latour Ltd.

Weighing in at £30 and £40 respectively, the M and the C continue a trend towards ‘icon’ South African wines. Earlier this month the Vergelegen “V” was launched with a £55 price tag – the most expensive South African wine ever.

Vilafonte wines are expressly aimed at the luxury market. Production methods are intensive from the vineyard to the bottle. Freese uses his own-design ‘cane-cordon’ pruning system as well as the ‘Leaf Water Potential’ measuring system, a unique method of assessing vine stress by measuring water pressure in the leaves.

Also deployed is the the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a system developed by NASA, which uses satellite imaging to measure relative vigour of the vines.

In the winery, Long practises intensive sorting and uses a variety of mixing methods. ‘This is luxury winemaking as well as a luxury wine,’ she said.

‘We believe we have the potential to produce wines that are at least as good – at the very minimum – as the best in the world. We want to be accepted as one of the more significant wineries in the world,’ Ratcliffe said.

He added that the group intended to ‘assume a leadership role’ in the field of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a key issue in South Africa. ‘We have had advanced discussions and have made a firm commitment to be involved at the highest level.’

Written by Adam Lechmere

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