A match made in heaven…

Vilafonté winemaker, Chris de Vries, in the vineyard, checking up on his beloved vines in the lead-up to the 2019 harvest.

That’s Z block, says Chris pointing to a verdant green vineyard block to the left of the road, above the irrigation dam.

He pronounces it “Zee”. “Zelma’s block. It’s her favourite. It’s merlot that thinks it’s cab. It has all the hallmarks of a cab: great structure, dense black fruit. If you tasted it blind, you’d think it’s a cab.

“The block closest to the dam is a wannabe cab. It thinks it is cab, but it doesn’t have what the Zee block has. And the block in the middle is just happy to be an expressive, ebullient red-fruit merlot.”

We’ve driven the short distance from the Vilafonté cellar at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch to visit the 18.2ha vineyard from which winemaker, Chris de Vries, gets all the grapes for making the premium-quality Series “M” and Series “C” Bordeaux-style red blends for which Vilafonté is known.

The description which Chris gives of these three blocks of merlot encapsulates the intricacies behind the selection of clonal material for each of the distinct soil types in the vineyard, which, with the viticultural practices applied to each, produce the wines that they do.

None of this is accidental. Vilafonté is named for the predominant soil type on the farm, Vilafontes, one of the most ancient known soil types in the world.

Its preparation and planting happened under the guiding hands of husband-and-wife team Phil Freese and Zelma Long, who rank among the finest winegrowers and winemakers in the world.

Resident in California, Phil and Zelma spend a good deal of time in South Africa each year, Phil to keep a weather-eye on the management of the vineyards, and Zelma to oversee the harvest, vinification, maturation and blending of each vintage, while Mike Ratcliffe, the South African in the three-way partnership that owns Vilafonté, manages the marketing and sales effort that has earned the estate an enviable footprint in America and elsewhere, and also in the local fine wine market.

At a recent Christies Hong Kong fine wine action, a six-bottle case of Vilafonté Series “M” 2007 sold for US$1 730, about R24 400, which places it firmly in the premium fine wine category.

As we wander through the vineyard, Chris describes each block of vines: the soil it is planted in, what type of wine it will produce, and where it will fit into the intricate jigsaw puzzle that constitutes the Series M and Series C wines. He speaks also of the trajectory that led him from his studies at the University of Stellenbosch to what can only be described as a plum job, growing wine at one of the most sought-after producers in the local wine business at the relatively tender age of 29.

Chris describes the genesis of his journey into wine, attributing it to a bottle of wine which he never actually got to taste. “My aunt, Lorraine gave my uncle, Olaf, a 1995 Opus One. I’d seen and handled this bottle, and I thought ‘what the hell. I have to go and work there some day.’ I was an 18-year-old, I had already made the decision to study winemaking with the aim of working specifically on red. And I wanted to work at Opus One.”

In his final year of a degree in oenology and viticulture in 2011, Chris interned at Uitkyk wine estate. “At that stage I was looking at either branching off into brandy or red wine production, so that’s why I chose Uitkyk, which is well known for its red wines.”

He went on to complete a Master’s programme in which he researched the impact of smoke taint on wine, completing his dissertation in 2014, while working at Vilafonté for the first time. “Which is when I met Phil and Zelma,” he says.

His research led to a new understanding of the effect of vegetation fires on wine grapes, and resulted in the publication of two scholarly articles in technical journals. Significantly, his research shed new light on the notorious burnt rubber characteristic in South African reds, which attracted a great deal of negative attention from British wine writers.

“By that time, I’d arranged to do an internship with Neil Ellis, after which I was going to Opus One to intern for the last six months of 2015, thanks to Zelma and Phil.

“I’d figured out I wanted to actually work at Opus One, as I gently hinted to Zelma. She got the ball rolling and put me in touch with Michael Silacci (Opus One winemaker). He interviewed me and I got the job.”

Chris started at Opus One in July 2015, and his first project was to be curator of the winery’s wild yeast programme.

This entailed isolating wild yeast strains found in the winery, propagating them, and then scaling them to industrial level for large-scale fermentation.

“Michael liked to name the various yeast strains, so, for example, we had The Wolf, Chouette (The Owl in French), and The Coyote, the latter so named because it is a half wild yeast strain, which reminds him of the coyotes that come into the vineyards and urban areas,” says Chris. “In 2016, with the help of a microbiologist, Dr Gordon Walker, we isolated a new yeast strain from an oak tree behind the cellar – it is actually more difficult to isolate yeast strains from grapes than from other sources – and then scaled it up for commercial level fermentation. Because I was from Stellenbosch, and since the yeast strain comes from an oak tree, I named it The Squirrel.”

Chris returned to Stellenbosch to do the 2016 harvest at Le Riche Wines and in mid-January had breakfast with Zelma and Phil. “It was just a kind of catch-up about how things were going at Opus One,” says Chris. Or was it?

“In March at the end of harvest, I received an email from Zelma, hinting that they were looking for a new winemaker at Vilafonté,” says Chris.

A second breakfast followed, and this time, Zelma and Phil interviewed him for the job. “Zelma knew I would be returning to Opus One, so she contacted Michael and persuaded him to let me go immediately after harvest, so I could return to Stellenbosch and commence my duties at Vilafonté.”

Michael Silacci acquiesced, although he was sad to see Chris go.

“I rushed back from California at the end of October 2016, leaving there on a Friday and arriving at Vilafonté on the Monday morning, straight into a financial meeting.

“It was insane,” Chris says with a wry smile.

“I played a role in the blending of the 2016 vintage, 2017 was my first solo vintage and this year is my third harvest.”

Turning to his relationship with the Vilafonté partners, Chris says: “We are so fortunate having Zelma, the oenologist, and Phil, the vigneron (wine-grower), in this project.

“They help to maintain and direct the style going forward and to maintain what we have here, and Mike Ratcliffe is the driving force behind the marketing effort. It’s a match made in heaven. I’m fortunate, because I get counsel from all three of them.

“During harvest both Zelma and Phil are here, and they give me full consultation on when to harvest. I have free-rein in terms of technique, but I do have to run new techniques past the winemaking and wine-growing partners. I’m the daily manager, but I get their input, so it’s a dream job for me. And it’s the only reason I came back. When I got that email from Zelma (in March 2016), I knew it was meant to be.”

And the future? “This is my future. I see this as my project. I have no interest in going elsewhere.

“This is my focus through and through. There was synergy from the beginning.”

Chris de Vries is the nephew of Bolander’s editor, Carolyn Frost.