Fifty Years of Cap Classique

The year 2021 represents a milestone in the history of South African wine, specifically for the Cape’s bottle-fermented sparkling wines, knows as Methode Cap Classique, or MCC for short. Although cheap, carbon dioxide-injected sparking wines had been made for decades, it was Stellenbosch winemaker, Frans Malan, who returned from a visit to Champagne in 1968, with the idea of South Africa producing it’s own high quality version. Owner of the Simonsig Estate, he procured rudimentary equipment, built his own riddling racks, and in 1971 single-handedly made a natural bottle-fermented sparkling wine from Chenin Blanc.

This was the first Cap Classique, released under the name Kaapse Vonkel (‘Cape Sparkle’), and began a new chapter for the Cape wine industry that today has over 250 exponents throughout the Cape winelands. Though there is no restriction on grape varieties that can be used to make MCC, today the majority of MCC is made using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It is made in areas as diverse as hot, inland Robertson, with its limestone-rich soils, the mountains of Stellenbosch and Paarl, and in cool, maritime regions like Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde.

Cap Classique wines range from those with the minimum 12 months’ lees contact, to complex wines lying in bottle for 60 months or more. Like Champagne, wines can be dry, demi-sec or zero-dosage, the sugar level designations exactly matching those of Champagne. Sparkling rosé is growing in popularity too.  I tasted seven wines as part of an online session with their winemakers, to celebrate and explore MCC half a century on.

Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira of Graham Beck estate led things off with an overview of the ‘state of play’ for Cap Classique. He touched on the very tough time that South Africa’s winemakers have had during the repeated lock-downs and alcohol bans of 2020, but the emphasis here was on celebration of the wines and the MCC style. The lockdowns have, however, meant the current crop of undisgorged wines in cellars are having extended time on the lees, so when those are released they could be interesting buys.

Cap Classique is reported to be the fastest growing category in South African wine, doubling every 4.5 years, to a current production of 10.2 million bottles annually. Production and sales of other sparkling wines (not made by the classic method) have fallen correspondingly. The UK is the #1 export market for Cap Classique, significantly ahead of the USA and Sweden.

Pieter predicts that in future there might be a second tier added to the MCC classification, hinting that this might involve longer minimum ageing for example. Johan Malan, the current head of Simonsig, took the floor next, also celebrating 50 years of his father’s ‘invention’, Kaapse Vonkel (Frans Malan pictured). He explained that at first very little was made, the market saturated with carbon-dioxide injected cheaper wines, so every bottle was sold in an individual box with a leaflet explaining what made it different. By the early 1990s Johan and a small group of classic method winemakers would meet to taste each others’ base wines, and to discuss and improve quality. This was the genesis of the Cap Classique Association, and group tasting of base wines continues today.

The Wines

(2021) This Brut sparkling wine from Graham Beck is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 80% from their home vineyards in Robertson, the rest from coastal vineyards of the Western Cape. There are few more experienced producers of MCC that Graham Beck, and this is lean, linear and lovely. There's a suggestion of bread and biscuit after 18 months on the lees and with around 10% of reserve wines in the blend, but pin-sharp lemon and rosy red apple aromas. On the palate, this has a great zesty length of lemony-fresh fruit, a salty and nutty aspect adding some layering into the finish. Dosage is 9g/l, but with no malolactic it is one of crispest, most refreshing wines in this line-up. Watch the video for more information. On offer at £10 in Waitrose until April 6th 2021, and in Majestic and other retailers too.
(2021) Villiera began making its Cap Classique in tandem with a Champenoise winemaker with whom they had a 10-year contract, which Jeff Grier says 'saved us re-inventing the wheel'. The Tradition cuvée is composed of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, spending 18 months on the lees. The wine has 8g/l dosage, and includes a proportion of wine from their Reserve Perpetuelle. It opens with plenty of small bubbles and a creamy, nutty character, nice biscuity autolysis and lightly spicy Cox's pippin fruit.  The palate walks a lovely line between freshnessand zipping lemon and salts acidity, and a more ripe and rounded mid-palate fruit. Long and beautifully done.
(2021) Around 85% of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here comes from vineyards close to False Bay in Stellenbosch, with the remainder from Robertson. This wine saw full malolactic and 12 to 15 months on the lees, and the dosage is 8.4g/l. It immediately his freshness, a dry citrus and Asian pear clarity, subtle biscuity richness too. The palate is zippy and fresh, a raciness to the mousse and acidity, but there is a fruit sweetness on the mid-palate keeping this crowd-pleasing and very easy to drink.
(2021) From a hot, dry vintage that saw the smallest production yet for this wine, the 64% Chardonnay and 36% Pinot Noir blend spent 15 Months on the lees and saw full malolactic. 2,000 cases produced. It opens with subtle, refined pear and apple, a touchy of yeasty and lightly earthy character, even a touch of clove. Despite a lowly 5.5g/l dosage, there is an impression of sweetness in the mouth, quite intense, with a lick of saltiness and of bitters in the finish. No UK retail stockists listed at time of review.
(2021) The second cuvée to appear after Kapse Vonkel was introduced, this comes from a cool vintage that suited the estate-grown Chardonnay in this Blanc de Blancs. This is a wine made only in suitable vintages, which has resulted in 17 editions over the past 30 years. It has just over 3g/l dosage and spent four years on the lees, disgorged in March 2020. Johan says it is a wine that improves after disgorgement - a 2012 tasted the day before this tasting was in a perfect place. Gentle pastry notes to creamy custard apple, a hint of hazelnut. The palate has a little of that creaminess, but is clean and lime and citrus fresh, a dry, sharply-defined wine as the finish shows a little salty minerality adding to the poise and length.
(2021) Boschendal's Brut Rosé spends 12 months on the lees and has a dosage of 10g/l. It's around 70% Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay and around 10% Pinotage, with 20% reserve wines. Pale peachy-pink, aromas are delicately floral and fruity with just a hint of biscuit. Keen, fresh and perceptibly dry on the palate, the mix of small, tart berries and lemon gives a fresh if perhaps slightly lean character (the wine does not see malolactic), but it slips down well and finishes with a bit of tanginess for sure.
(2021) A blend here of 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay, from a relatively young estate whose first vintage of this wine was 2007. It has 8.3g/l of sugar. Pale and peachy in colour, the nose is tight and mineral, with salts and small, underripe red berries as well as something gently herbal. The palate is sheer and elegant, taut with citrus and redcurrant, that stone, salty minerality pushing out the finish. Classy stuff.

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