Cap Classique celebrates 50 years.
A wine history that is younger than I am makes me feel ancient but, do you know what, I don’t care because I’m totally up for celebrating with Cap Classique their 50 years of making South African fizz and an exciting new wine story.
It all began with Kaapse Vonkel 1971. Kaapse Vonkel translates as Cape Sparkle which could easily have become the generic name for South African sparkling wine when others joined Simonsig in producing quality sparkling wine but, in their wisdom, as a group then an Association, they hit open Cap Classique – easier to say, easier to understand and with a real identifiable personality. I’m sure English sparkling wine-makers must harbour a modicum of envy.
The back story:
Back in 1968 Frans Malan of Simonsig visited Champagne. You may say the rest is history but obviously there’s a bit more to it than that. At the time, no one else was making second fermentation in the bottle sparkling wine in South Africa so there was no one from whom to seek advice; equally there was no one supplying the equipment needed to make sparkling wine so in forging his own path from grape variety choice to wine-making and ageing, Malan became a true Cape pioneer.
At first he used Chenin Blanc, unsurprisingly, of course, because then it represented 30% of the South African vineyard area and, after all, it works in the Loire for fizz. But there was another reason – there was little access to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other grape varieties he might otherwise have used. Malan created his own makeshift winery complete with homemade riddling pupitres and basically produced a genuinely hand-crafted wine.
Others followed suit, and within a few years there was a group of sparkling wine producers meeting annually to taste base wines, sharing information and experiences. ‘No one had any secrets because they all wanted to learn’ says Pieter Ferreira, Chairman of the Cap Classique Association. And this forward-thinking, open attitude and annual meeting continues today despite there now being over 80 members of the association. The idea of these get-togethers is simple – to help everyone produce their best sparkling wine with the notion that if all the products are good then the category is strong and everyone wins. Not least we, the consumers.
Some Cap Classique facts:
- Not all South Africa fizz is Cap Classique.
2. The Traditional Method must be used, in other words, having a second fermentation in the bottle.
3. Any grapes can be used but, as Pieter says, ‘why reinvent the wheel’ so these days the wines are largely made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier.
4. Grapes can be sourced from anywhere in South Africa and currently come from 32 different wards.
5. 12 months is the minimum ageing sur lattes, a change in 2021 from the 9 months previously set.
6. The styles are the same as other famous sparkling wine-producing areas in terms of dosage levels.
7. It is more common for wines to be from a single year rather than NV (Non-Vintage) and vintage wines do not suggest a higher level quality to NV.
8. It is not unusual for winemakers to ferment in oak.
9. A minimum of 3 bars of pressure is required.
10. Nectar is a category between Sec and Demi-Sec becoming popular in South Africa.
Five firm favourites:
- Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel 2018 Lea and Sandemann,£12.95
Obviously this has to feature because without it we may still be waiting for the quality we have learnt to expect from Cap Classiques. Expressive, citrusy and peachy with a pastry richness and saline acidity. There’s some oak used but no malolactic conversion so there’s a careful balance between fruit and structure.
2. Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2016 South Africa House of Wine £19.99
A proportion of barrel-aged Chardonnay and ageing of 48 months have produced a lively, elegant and complex wine which punches well above its price point. As does the Brut NV (available from Waitrose at £14.99) and the special cuvée, Clive. I recommend Graham Beck as a range.
3. Klein Constantia Brut 2016 The Champagne Company £22.50
A sinlge vineyard wine and 100% Chardonnay. The wine spent 9 months ageing in barrel before its second fermentation, then 36 months in bottle. It obviously shows some age but it’s bright with a vibrant tension suggesting that this is a sparkler for keeping as well as for current drinking.
4. Babylonstoren Sprankel 2015 Novel Wines £31.99
With 54 months on less you’d expect something pretty rich and creamy which this does indeed deliver. It reminds me of baked apple and caramel; there’s a slight nuttiness, it’s long and complex and, well, just deliciously dreamy.
5. Bon Courage Jacques Bruére Cuvée Rosé 2012 Frontier Fine Wines £17.95
A predominance of Pinot Noir (80%) with Chardonnay allows a raspberry character to shine through. There’s yeasty, pastry flavours from the extended lees ageing, the wine only having been disgorged in 2019, which sit neatly with the berry notes and silky texture. A joy.
Five more producers to look out for:
6. Pieter Ferreira
10. KWV Laborie
Once you taste/drink a few of these wines you will understand why I am a big fan of the Cap Classique category. In my experience there is real consistency of quality and most are true value for money. I would never feel the need to apologise to the unconverted that I was serving a Cap Classique where they might have expected Champagne. There’s class in this category, style and a perfect blend of drinkability, complexity and food-friendliness.
You may have noticed a buzz about SA wines in the last year or so, a deserved appreciation of their genuine progressive stride in quality and individuality but I wonder if Cap Classique wines may not have benefitted in the market in the way they should. These sparkling wines are worthy at, and of, any celebration.
And the good news is that they’re not celebrating their 50th anniversary on only one specific day or even a month this year but for the whole of 2021. This means, if you haven’t worked it out already, that you have an excuse to open a Cap Classique any and every day between now and the end of the year. By then you’ll be hooked.