Dizzy Fizzy Flights: In Search of the Sweet Spot

Wednesday, 17 November, 2021
Graham Howe
Graham Howe experiences world-first flights of Cap Classique created by Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, cellar master at Graham Beck.

Cap Classique has been one of the big talking points of 2021, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the making of the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine in South Africa by Simonsig. This year also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) Producers Association in 1991 by fourteen producers – which has grown to 104 members and over 250 brands. While attending the twentieth Amorim Cap Classique Challenge in September 2021, I spoke to many leading producers who spoke about the comeback of the MCC category after the Covid19 downturn. Jeff Grier of Villiera is one of the veteran winemakers of the industry (1983) and pioneer of the award-winning Tradition range of MCC wines. For many producers, Cap Classique, a high-value product, makes up to 50% of sales. During the early phase of the Pandemic, domestic sales slowed, undermined by lockdown restrictions of events – and the limitations on numbers and postponed weddings, a key MCC market. The temporary ban on alcohol sales – especially during last year’s high festive season, also had a negative impact. But it’s been business as usual over the last six months.

I always look forward to attending the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, a highlight on the annual wine show circuit – and a benchmark for the evolution of the category. Producers turned out en masse at this year’s event to celebrate – and taste the winners among a record 135 entries. While Kleine Zalze Vintage Brut 2015 won the best Brut (the biggest category with 47 entries) and overall, Best Producer, Graham Beck, one of the country’s biggest specialist MCC producers won the Rosé category with their Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 and the demi-sec category with their Bliss Nectar Rosé. Heidi Duminy, the veteran chair of the Cap Classique challenge, emphasises the stylistic expression of MCC. “No other competition pays so much attention to detail – to the glasses used (Riedel), temperature of the wines, callback (variation by bottle), nuances of Rosé, bottles and vintage.”

Attention to detail in a four-decade career is a lifelong passion for Pieter Ferreira, cellar master at Graham Beck in Robertson since the making of the first vintage of Cap Classique in 1991. Celebrating his own thirtieth anniversary at the helm of this key MCC producer, “Bubbles” Ferreira launched the new Cap Classique route with the seven “limestone cowboys” of the Robertson Valley in late 2021. I spent two days tasting my way along the new route from Bon Courage, Graham Beck and Silverthorn to Paul René, Lord’s, Van Loveren and Weltevrede, exploring the terroir of Cap Classique in a region renowned for its signature Chardonnay – a key component of the base wine for the valley’s MCC.

“The search for the sweet spot” is the constant refrain of the makers of Cap Classique in the valley. Pieter Ferreira likes to talk about his pursuit of “the perfect bubble” at Graham Beck over the last three decades. He pays tribute Achim von Arnim, a pioneer of Cap Classique at Boschendal and Haute Cabriére (home of the acclaimed Pierre Jourdan range of MCC) – where Ferreira trained as his protegee for seven vintages from 1984 before taking over the reins at Graham Beck. With seven MCC vintages under his belt in France, five ink the USA and a new MCC project in the UK, Baron “Bubbles” declares, “All I know is bubbly. Compromises are there for relationships not making wine”. “We don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be the best” declares Ferreira at the tasting room and art gallery of MCC at Graham Beck’s landmark cellar atop the entrance to the Robertson Wine Valley. While the big six specialist producers of MCC in South Africa are Krone, Pongracz, Graham Beck, Villiera, Simonsig and Boschendal, respectively, Robertson is home to several dedicated MCC houses.

Since 2015, Graham Beck has focused exclusively on Cap Classique after disposing of its still wine brands. When it comes to his metier, Ferreira is as effervescent as bubbly. I learn a whole vocabulary of Classique speak over the course of several innovative flights of Graham Beck MCC, one of the highlights of the Cap Classique route. Sitting above a series of cellars which contain millions of bottles of MCC, Ferreira declares, “The perfect bubbly is somewhere in this cellar. Every glass of MCC contains up to seven million bubbles. Believe me. I’ve counted them”. He cites research by a French professor of physics in Champagne who has done the numbers using high-speed photography. On a roll, he talks about “the perpetual reserve” of reserve wine he blends into his non-vintage MCC. Moving onto “the clonal garden” of six clones of Chardonnay he sources to make Graham Beck’s range of artisanal, vintage and non-vintage MCC, he explains the role of terroir in making MCC. While 77% of the grapes are homegrown, sourced from Robertson, the DNA or main ingredient of Graham Beck MCC, grapes with different aroma and flavour profiles are also blended in from as far afield as Darling, Elgin, Napier, Slanghoek, Stellenbosch and Bonnievale – adding “the salt and pepper”. “Working with 150 different components vinified separately is a nightmare every harvest”.

A fascinating geological timeline in the Graham Beck tasting room gallery shows the evolution of the ancient soils, flora and fauna of the Robertson Valley back to the big bang. Ferreira explains that limestone soils, calcareous shale deposits and the cooling Breede breeze are best friends, the secret to Chardonnay’s success here. High pH and concentrated calcium in the limestone work well alongside the brittle calcareous deposits. The refined elegance, bright fruit and mineral combination of the Chardonnay – the region has the highest concentration of Chardonnay vines in South Africa - is the defining ingredient of the appellation’s Cap Classique success – and many other MCC regions. The opportunity to taste a range of specialist MCC flights – “a glass act” demonstrates the sensory experience of different custom-made glasses from flutes to Burgundy and MCC performance glasses - draws connoisseurs of Cap Classique to this destination cellar. The cellar offers six flights including MCC and infusions of olive oil, demi-sec MCC and chocolate, vintage and non-vintage tastings.

Ferreira says glasses should deliver wine directly to the sweet and sour receptors on our front palate. A new flight, “MCC and the pop” explores a pairing of gourmet popcorn and Cap Classique. We’re ready for the first flight after a walk-through to the fermentation vessel cellar, a man-cave of cement Nomblot eggs, clay amphorae, porcelain jars, large 2000 litre foudre and smaller oak barrels. In the first experimental tasting, Ferreira demonstrates the differences between the same Chardonnay 2020 base wine partially fermented separately in stainless steel tanks before going into five different vessels for three months. The results are astounding. While the Chardonnay fermented in porcelain is fresh, tight and inert, with great longevity, the 205 litre barrels produce a more aromatic, richer, leesy base wine – while the porous amphorae and cement eggs are evolved in-between the poles.

“Where’s the sweet spot?” asks Ferreira rhetorically, delighted with the trial. The second comparative flight contrasts Blanc de Blanc 2020 kept for one year on the lees under crown cap versus cork. Some traditional champagne producers undertake the second fermentation under cork (instead of crown cap) – a traditional “agrafe” technique introduced in South Africa by Le Lude, a specialist MCC house in Franschhoek. “You see, there is a difference” cries Ferreira. While the crown cap fermentation produces a frisky and fresh mousse which is more reserved, the cork fermentation allows for an ingress of cork tannin, producing a leesier, spicier, more evolved wine. We move onto a comparative cork flight of Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2015 – stored standing up and lying down for the last five years.

To our surprise, the wine stored standing up performs better – while the horizontal version is too evolved. Ferreira explains that while still wine corks are cut to allow for micro-oxidisation, sparkling wine corks are cut against the grain to allow for a tight seal. By now Ferreira is riffing on why a magnum of MCC matures at a slower rate than a 750 ml bottle – as it has double the volume but the same airspace in the neck. Talk about a master lesson in MCC. Our learning curve ends with the holy grail. First, we try the phenomenal maiden release in Graham Beck’s new artisan collection of limited releases (750 bottles) – the extended lees ageing 2009, disgorged a la volée after bottle fermentation of 134 months under crown cap. With a flourish, Ferreira disgorges his maiden Graham Beck Blanc 1991, made with 100% Chardonnay, kept under crown cap for thirty years. Not knowing the vintage, I hazard a guess the wine is 15-20 years old. It shows a gorgeous deep golden colour, fine gentle beads, tertiary aromatics of ginger and citrus spice and rich yellow stone fruit, brioche and butterscotch flavour, ending with a toasty almond nuttiness. We are privileged to taste the oldest Cap Classique I have tasted, a wine with great staying power – rather like Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira.