Taste Our Bubbles

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By Joanne Gibson

There are now around 100 South African producers making sparkling wine in the traditional champagne way, and the production continues to grow at 20 per cent a year

“What wine can you drink with breakfast?” asks Johan Malan, cellar master at Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch. “There is really only one.”

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Yes, the sparkling wine first made in Champagne, France, and emulated all over the world ever since, not least in South Africa. Johan’s father Frans made the first local ‘méthode champenoise’ bubbly in 1971, naming it Kaapse Vonkel (Cape Sparkle). 

And it wasn’t just because he wanted to drink wine with his scrambled eggs. 

There has been a fascination with bubbly ever since Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon was tasked by his superiors with taming the ‘vin du diable’ (devil’s wine) that was causing bottles to explode all over the Abbey of Hautvillers cellar. Why were they exploding? Because they had not completed fermentation when bottled in autumn, only to start bubbling away again when the temperature rose in spring. 

Although Dom P’s aim was to prevent second fermentation, his work paved the way for commercial champagne production: making a base wine from white Chardonnay and/or black Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; deliberately adding more yeast and sugar to kick-start a second fermentation (this time in bottles sealed with crown caps); leaving the dead yeast cells (lees) in the bottles long enough to impart their nutty, toasty, buttery flavours to the wine; gently ‘riddling’ (shaking and twisting) each bottle to point downwards; freezing the sediment now settled in the neck to form an icy plug; removing the crown cap to eject this plug under pressure; and finally topping up the bottle with a ‘dosage’ of still wine, the sugar content determining whether the bubbly is ‘brut zéro’ (extremely dry) or ‘doux’ (sweet) with extra brut, brut, extra sec, sec and demi sec in between.

For Dom P’s 20th-century counterparts in sunny South Africa, an important consideration was harvesting the grapes earlier than normal to achieve the high natural acidity of bubblies from northern France. Although Frans Malan used Chenin Blanc for his first few vintages of Kaapse Vonkel—at R3 a bottle, the most expensive local wine on the market at that time—his son Johan moved over to the traditional champagne grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in 1987. A decade later Pinot Meunier was included, and Kaapse Vonkel became the first local bubbly made from all three traditional varieties.

In the meantime, however, the Cape’s answer to champagne was enjoying so much success that 14 producers joined together in 1992 to give it a name in its own right—Méthode Cap Classique (MCC). This was almost three years before the European Union declared an embargo on the terms méthode champenoise and Champagne method. The local producers also formed the Cap Classique Association (CCA)—whose ranks have now swelled to 75 members. These members represent about three-quarters of MCC producers in South Africa, with the category enjoying 20 per cent year-on-year growth while the rest of the industry faces stagnation. 

“The volume nearly doubles every five years,” says CCA chairman Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira, cellar master at Graham Beck Wines. He claims the growth is largely being driven by local demand, with only a small percentage of production being exported. “South Africans are increasingly embracing bubbly as a drink to be enjoyed every day, regardless of the occasion.” 

Total production of around seven million litres is dominated by a handful of producers, includingDistell (which owns The House of J.C. le Roux and Pongrácz), Graham Beck, Simonsig, Villiera andHaute Cabrière (Pierre Jourdan), between them accounting for nearly 80 per cent of production. But they deserve their commercial success, if accolades over the past few months are anything to go by. 

Domestic market leader J.C. le Roux was recently named overall winner at the 2012 Amorim Méthode Cap Classique Challenge when its flagship Scintilla 2003 scooped two trophies (Best MCC Blend and Best MCC overall), while its Pinot Noir Rosé 2008 was named Best Rosé. At the same competition, Simonsig’s flagship Cuvée Royale was named best Blanc de Blancs for the second consecutive year (for the 2007 in 2012, and for the 2005 in 2011, when it was also the overall winner).

Then Pongrácz brought home the trophy for the best bottle-fermented sparkling wine at the 2012 International Wine & Spirit Competition for its flagship Desiderius Pongrácz 2003. Having already received a Double Gold medal at the 2012 Veritas Awards, the wine then scored Double Gold in the 2012 Five Nations Wine Challenge in Sydney, Australia. However, Villiera topped that achievement when its Monro Brut 2007 was named top sparkling wine and Best Wine on Show out of 550 wines across 16 classes from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina.

Needless to say, these award-winning flagship MCCs are made only in exceptional vintages. It’s mostly the big bubbly specialists that can afford the luxury of cherry-picking the best base wines, then leaving the twice-fermented wines on their lees for several years. 

Although the big MCC ‘houses’ dominate production, not to mention competitions, smaller producers are fizzing away nicely across the Cape. They extend from Cederberg near Citrusdal, with its Blanc de Blancs (extra-dry with baked apple pie and cream notes after four years on the lees) to Bramonnear Plettenberg, with its latest disgorgement of a bone-dry Sauvignon Blanc bubbly. But two areas have really helped to put MCC on the map, namely Robertson, with its Chardonnay-friendly limestone soils, and Franschhoek, which has just launched the Franschhoek Méthode Cap Classique Route.

In Robertson, must-visit bubbly houses include Graham Beck. “I remain in search of the perfect bubble,” says Pieter. “Long may I not find it!” Bon Courage, home to the Platter’s 5-star Jacques Bruère Brut Reserve Blanc de Blancs. Viljoensdrift with its Villion Brut a fitting tribute to French Huguenot forefather, François Villion, and a bargain at R75. Exciting newcomer Wonderfontein. And, of course, Weltevrede, with its Philip Jonker Cap Classique Collection. “Entheos is our least expensive but, in a way, also our most important, because it’s what we’re best known for,” says Philip. “The name means ‘energy of spontaneous laughter’ and we all need some of that every day.”

Coming from Cape Town, an MCC tour of Franschhoek would have to start just after the Klapmuts turn-off to towards Simondium, at Anura, to be precise. Here the Brut 2008 won the Old Mutual Trophy for Best Sparkling Wine in 2010, and the Brut 2009 was recently named best MCC at the South African Airways awards for wines chosen to be served aboard SAA flights. At Plaisir de Merle, cellar master Niel Bester has celebrated his 20th vintage at the historic Distell flagship farm by launching the Grand Brut 2010—a blend of 63 per cent Pinot Noir and 37 per cent Chardonnay, left on its lees for two years. And Boschendal’s Le Grande Pavillon Brut Rosé remains a firm favourite, although do consider trading up to their rich yet zesty Grand Cuvée Brut 2008.

Topiary Wines is a must-visit for its Blanc de Blancs Brut, twice awarded 5-star ratings in Platter’s. Antonij Rupert now owns the former Franschhoek cellar of Graham Beck Wines, its L’Ormarins Brut NV a taste of great things to come. La Motte’s MCC Brut 2009 is a blend of 60 per cent Chardonnay and 40 per cent Pinot Noir, all grown on the property’s organically managed vineyards. The limited production of 3 000 bottles is left on the lees for 25 months.

Joining Morena, Môreson, Rickety Bridge and Stony Brook on the MCC map is another newcomer,Grande Provence. Platter’s winery of the year Cape Chamonix and neighbours Dieu Donné and My Wyn comprise a mini sub-route of their own—along with boutique bubbly specialist The House of GM & Ahrens. Heading out of town, you can turn left to Haute Cabrière or take the road less travelled to Colmant, a dream destination for Cap Classique and champagne lovers. The Colmants’ Brut Rosé, Brut Reserve and Brut Chardonnay offer remarkable value for money, their imported bubblies offering a taste of where the magic began. Enjoy!