The Losh Cause
Photography by Claire Griffith
The last month has seen the launch of two prestige wines from South Africa, not hitherto a region renowned for super-premium offerings. But if these two take off, Chris Losh expects to see more super-premium contenders from The Cape.
It's not often that the wine industry moves so fast as to make an internet column out of date, but that's what happened to me at the end of May.
I was settling down to write a few hundred words on the European launch of Vilafonté a wine which bills itself, with a certain amount of calculated arrogance but not inaccurately, as "The First Luxury Wine Brand from South Africa" when within a few days Vergelegen brought out their own (equally expensive) super-premium.
Suddenly, my words of genius didn't look quite so timely and, in something of a sulk, I sat back for another week to see if any more heavy-bottled $50+ wines crawled out of the woodwork. Thus far, it seems we're safe, so I've taken a chance and leapt back into the water.
Of the two projects, the Vilafonté is arguably the most interesting. Vergelegen, after all, is an undisputed A-list winery in the Cape and this is just a top-end line extension to an already well-respected winery.
Vilafonté, though, is a rather different animal. It's a joint venture between Stellenbosch's Warwick Estate and the celebrity wine couple Zelma Long and Phil Freese from California. The latter two are responsible for overseeing the grapes and the wine in Paarl, while Mike Ratcliff at Warwick is putting his not inconsiderable PR skills to good use in getting it column inches worldwide.
The wines are good and interesting, but not cheap, and to European eyes at least, seem to be aimed squarely at the US, where expensive new arrivals are more accepted than they are in cynical "need to earn your spurs for 200 years first" Europe.
The real eyebrow raiser here, however, is not that anyone in South Africa has had the courage to produce a wine with such a confident boast and price tag to match, but that there should be so few projects like Vergelegen or Vilafonté.
After all, there's no shortage of similarly ambitious projects in California and the US, while even the Chileans have not been slow in foisting dozens of over-concentrated, over-oaked and over-priced super-premiums on the world in the last few years.
But South Africa, leaving aside maybe half a dozen wines of established pedigree, is relatively under-represented at the top end. This is partly because it doesn't have a strong show system to scatter gold medals around (like Australia), and partly because the country hasn't really come under the eye of Robert Parker yet. There's also the factor that many potential outside investors have spent much of the last decade waiting to see whether the country imploded or collapsed economically.
Since neither of these has happened, I think it's safe to say that Vilafonté will be the first of many such high-end joint ventures between South Africans and hungry foreigners. The team have been prescient in setting up a respected fine wine distributor in the US, and if sales there do take off, you can be sure they won't be the last.
Indeed, within a few kilometres of Vilafonté, some of Bordeaux's biggest names already have their own joint venture projects on the go. And if the likes of Pichon Lalande, Cos and Angélus see potential in the soil, it's fair to say there's probably something there worth getting excited about.
Which is why the Vilafonté launch (perhaps more than that of the well-established Vergelegen) is significant. If consumers go for it (and certainly in terms of quality it's as good as or better than many of its pricier peers) then we'll know the world is ready for new icon wines from ZA.
If they don't, there'll be a few nervous accountants in The Cape.
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