By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 17 April 2021
Cap Classique, South Africa’s premium sparkling wine, is celebrating 50 years this year. Yet despite its long history and great value, this traditional-method fizz is not as well-known as it should be.
That was my verdict after joining Cape winemakers to celebrate their sparkling milestone with a tasting selected from Cap Classique Producers Association’s 84 members.
“It is a vibrant category in South Africa producing 10.25 million bottles annually”, explained Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck, CCPA chairperson. But although UK is its number one market, with impressive growth sales last year, Cap Classique’s name is barely known compared to Champagne, Prosecco or Cava.
“Many consumers do not know the difference between sparkling wines and Cap Classique, but it is time to change that”, admits Ferreira.
South Africa is one of the only New World countries to use a separate name for their ‘methode-champenoise’ fizz. The name, which derives from MCC (meaning Methode Cap Classique), is in my opinion a bit confusing as it sounds too French.
Its beginnings were surprisingly modest back in the early 1970’s, when Frans Malan of Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch made the first recorded bottle-fermented Cape fizz (there may have been earlier attempts).
“My father went on an extensive trip to France in 1969 and visited Champagne”, says Johannes Malan of Simonsig. “On his return he made South Africa’s first bottle fermented fizz in 1971 vintage, launched in 1973”, says Malan.
Malan (senior) used the same Champagne method with second fermentation in bottle, but he did not use the same classic Champagne grapes. “My father worked primarily with Chenin Blanc and Crouchen Blanc which were growing in the Cape”, he says.
“It was a hard sell as the whole market was dominated by carbonated wine”, admits Malan. “He called it Kaapse Vonkel (Cape Sparkle), packaged in a special gift pack to show how different it was, but never mentioned Champagne”, he says. “It was the most expensive white wine in South Africa – at R3 per bottle”.
Progress was small and slow – with no other wineries daring to attempt high quality with a market in the grip of low-priced wines. A decade later Boschendal produced its first ‘methode-champenoise’. It was not until 1997 that producers were able to use Cape-grown Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. “I did try Pinotage – but it tasted like water”, laughs Malan.
“We never tried to copy Champagne, apart from using the same method. We knew we had different climate and soils; our wine tastes of sunshine with more primary fruit and freshness”.
One of CCPA’s founding members Jeff Grier of Villiera joined forces with Champagne producer Jean-Louis Denois in 1984: “it really fast tracked us and Cap Classique has been our focus ever since”, says Grier.
Today Cap Classique can be made using any grapes – but the best come from classic grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
“It is made from the first grapes to be harvested from across 32 geographical wards; the main areas are Stellenbosch, Paarl and Robertson”, says Ferreira.
New stricter ageing rules are being implemented for 2021 harvest. “Cap Classique wines must now have 12 months lees contact (previously 9 months), but richer wines are in bottle for 3-5 years as in Champagne. Our new message is ‘perfected by time’”, he says.
So how does it fit into our sparkling wine market? Well above Prosecco and Cava, say CCPA. At £12-£24 it fits neatly below English sparkling wine and Champagne – which they are hoping will be a fizzy sweet spot alongside French Cremant.
Quality is still a work in progress, but there are some exciting wines available in a diverse range on offer from zero dosage, brut dry to demi-sec made from varying microclimates, soils and winemaking techniques. A new generation of winemakers are experimenting with perfecting whole bunch press, malolactic fermentation, tete de cuvee (first flow juice) and perpetual blend with amphora reserve wine ageing.
Undoubtedly Cap Classique is one of the fizz world’s best kept secrets and still under-priced – compared to other premium bottle fermented sparkling wines.
GRAHAM BECK BRUT NV (12%)
£11.99/£16.99 Majestic Wine
Fruit forward creamy blend with soft rounded palate from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on limestone; aperitif-style crowd pleaser.
VILLIERA TRADITION NV (12%) ***STAR BUY***
£15.99 reduced from £17.99 Simply Wines Direct
Rich earthy savoury Pinot Noir-dominant fizz from Jeff Grier’s Villiera, consistently good family-run fizz-focused estate, with next generation Xander Grier’s innovative techniques upping quality.
KLEINE ZALZE BRUT NV (11.5%)
Biscuity aromas, zippy citric fresh high acid, impressively elegant from 70% Chardonnay crafted by cellarmaster Alastair Rimmer.
SIMONSIG CUVEE ROYALE 2017 (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£24 Cap Classique UK; currently on offer at Simply Wines Direct
Intense lime lemon and roasted almonds in this single vineyard Chardonnay grown on weathered shale; no malolactic preserves acidity and four years lees ageing gives rich nuttiness and complexity.
LE LUDE MCC BRUT NV
£29.99 Hard to Find Wines
Specialist boutique MCC Franschhoek-based producer owned by the Barrows with talented winemaker Paul Gerber; so elegant with poised citric fruits, refined complex blend with minimum three years lees-age.
BOSCHENDAL ROSE BRUT NV (12.5%)
£15.95 Hercules Wines; Wine Box; Simply Wines Direct
Sleek 60% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay blend with 10% Pinotage to add meat on the bones; 20% reserve wines gives texture and complexity; rich strawberry fruits, creamy; much improved effort.
L’ORMARINS BRUT CLASSIQUE ROSE NV (12.5%)
£22.70 Bancroft Wines
Regular winner at our fizz tastings; one of my favourite Cap Classique roses, from Antonij Rupert estate in Franschhoek; charming spicy rich creamy Pinot Noir-dominant.
ROSE OF SHARON 2011 Domaine des Dieux (11.5%)
£18.50 Stone Vine & Sun
Winemaker Sharon Parnell crafts zesty 58% Pinot Noir/42% Chardonnay blend from her maritime-influenced Hemel-en-Aarde vineyard; six years ageing, intense red fruits, dry, elegant, punches above its price.
Join Rose’s Bulgaria’s native grapes tasting: Friday 30 April with guest Dr Caroline Gilby MW www.rosemurraybrown.com