South African Shiraz; could it be Sparkling?

Monday, 27 November, 2017
Dave March CWM
South Africa makes world-class sparkling wines. Often from the original Champagne grapes, in the Champagne Method and in a similar range of styles. White sparklers and the increasingly popular rosés fill the shelves, but only a few producers seem brave enough to include an MCC style that has found more favour ‘Down Under’.

One of the first wines to open the exciting world of wine to me was Sparkling Shiraz. It is big in Australia and I enjoyed the Barossa Valley Estates E&E’s Black Pepper version (the 1998 scored 95points and had a 12 year drinking window!).

Not so popular a style here, it seems.

Strange, perhaps when you consider our sizeable plantings of Shiraz and the considerable success with it. Or perhaps that is the reason there is little made in a Sparkling version, it sells well enough without extra CO 2.

Sparkling Shiraz can be made in a carbonated style, or a full-on MCC, and will take bottle aging. All decent MCC’s require time on the lees, a year at least and for Vintage, probably nearer two or more, though Shiraz might not benefit from too much lees aging. Economically, that means a higher bottle price and requires a different potential market.

The carbonated version, though, does not have to be grape based CocaCola. Take Stellenbosch Vineyards Four Secrets brand, which had time on skins, 50% new oak, a warming 11.5% alcohol and a seductive 21grams/L sugar. For R70 this was a serious wine, involving serious winemaking. Such a shame it has been discontinued with lack of demand the reason.

Stellenbosch Hills do a carbonated Pinot Noir version, but it really is a sparkling Rosé, like many others, and at 35g/L residual sugar it is obviously a crowd pleaser and a long way from the dry, gutsy Australian style. It sells well though, with demand at home and overseas.

JC Le Roux offers the successful La Chanson brand, another low (7.5%) alcohol, decidedly sweet version (75g/l RS), with some Shiraz in it, carbonated and easy on the palate, but still a long way from a brut MCC Shiraz.

I am assured that there is a market for Sparkling Shiraz. Camberley, outside Stellenbosch, only make around 3000 bottles a year, yet only half of that might reach the tasting room (the rest pre-ordered) and that goes within weeks of release. It is not on tasting at their tasting room normally, as demand can see them open 8 bottles over a weekend.

Camberley have offered the wine for a decade, and only produce a vintage MCC version. It stays on its lees for 18 months and is not made from grapes deemed too inferior for their flagship Shiraz, but from tanks drawn from the same must. Running off some juice helps concentrate the remaining (more skin-juice ratio) which is perhaps the original reason Rosé Champagne began. The demand for their sparkling means that around a third of the harvest might go to the MCC. Camberley don’t need to push the wine, either. There is no back label, no style indication on the front, though it is Brut. “We would rather explain it to guests”, says Giscard in the tasting room. He adds they don't usually say much, just let people taste.

It is a unique taste, the 2015 Camberley is lighter, even slightly red berried, with a strawberry pot-pouri perfume, and fresh prickle. Too big for Rosé, but not overly peppery and an easy match across food groups. “Try Tuna, or smoked Salmon”, says Giscard. Perfect with turkey at Christmas. The 2009 was bigger, bone dry, more robust, almost an Aussie style as theirs tends to be more obviously Shiraz. Better vintages are reflected in the wine; the 2009 stayed rich and luscious for many years.

Kloovenburg Vineyards get close to my wish list, their Blanc de Noir Brut is a dryish (13g/l RS) Swartland Shiraz based sparkler, carbonated, but with four months on the lees to give it some depth. The look, though, is more Rosé than the antipodean style, if only it were Noir de Noir.

Solms-Delta make the Cape’s most successful brand, Cape Jazz, a low alcohol (9.5%) medium sweet (34g/l) version that is, as winemaker Hagen Viljoen says, ‘made in a more fun, accessible style and not too serious’. This is a carbonated wine, and because of the nature of all sparkling wines, heavier bottles, more expensive closures for example, it is more expensive to produce.  Solms-Delta outsource its bottling and labelling for Cape Jazz and this also has to be factored in. Considering this and the precision needed to maintain pressure during finishing and bottling – even for a petillant, mildly sparkling style – a sale price of R60 is ridiculously good value. Soline Lippe de Thoisy at Solms-Delta sees Cape Jazz as a party wine and adds that, ‘The Cape Jazz can also be served after a game drive for instance, when tourists come back to the lodge all dusty and thirsty, it is the perfect sun-downer!’

Like at Camberley, people are often hesitant to taste a Sparkling Shiraz at first, but as Hagen says, they ‘love it when they taste it’. Despite the RS in Hagen’s wine he maintains firmer tannin structure so that the wine is more versatile, and need not be only considered a dessert wine, in fact I have enjoyed it most chilled right down and before eating and the drier the better.

The carbonated style is fun, but certainly no joke and the MCC Shiraz is serious indeed. With the range of superb MCC producers in SA, and the need to always attract new customers, plus the quality of our Shiraz I wonder why the full-bodied, dry, bottle fermented Shiraz hasn’t taken off. Even the BVE Black Pepper Sparkler is no longer available.

Cape Jazz from Solms-Delta
Cape Jazz from Solms-Delta

Camberley 2015 Shiraz MCC
Camberley 2015 Shiraz MCC

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