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Published on wine.co.za on 30 August 2012

I recently came across a British writer’s article on New World sparkling wines, particularly those made in the traditional method. He wrote extensively and enthusiastically about USA, Australian, New Zealand and Latin American sparkling wines.

South Africa was given a brief mention, but the South African section was more notable for what it did not say than what it did say. Included was the paragraph: “Production is very small scale with fewer than two-dozen producers”.

I was surprised that a British wine buff knew so little about South African Cap Classique – surely a dynamic and exciting sector world-wide. I also felt my patriotic feathers slightly ruffled, and decided to do some digging around for more information in order to put the record straight. I contacted the author and he said he would really welcome additional details; he said that he had tried doing further research on South African Cap Classique himself, but had found information on South African Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) wines hard to come by.

Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira, chairperson of the Cap Classique Association (CCA), proved to be most helpful in this regard, and provided me with the following information:

Cap Classique was established in 1992, well before the embargo was placed on Méthode Champenoise in 1995. At that stage, the CCA came into existence, having 14 members. The CCA now has 82 members in their producers’ association. This is by no means inclusive, and according to the Platter Wine Guide, approximately 100 South African wineries make Cap Classique. The CCA raison d’être is the promotion of South Africa’s premium MCC wines, as well as the promotion of the common interests of the producers of MCC wines.

Cap Classique refers to bottle fermented sparkling wine made according to Méthode Cap Classique. Carbonated sparkling wine is mainly made by cooperatives and wholesalers. Pieter estimated there are fewer than three producers producing Charmat method (Cuvée Close) sparkling wine.

The latest statistics on sparkling wine from SAWIS (2011 figures) in South Africa are:

• Total litres sold locally per annum = 8.8 million litres
• Total litres exported per annum = 6.6 million litres

These figures do not distinguish between sparkling wine and Cap Classique, and Pieter estimates that of the 15.4 million litres produced per annum, roughly 5.4 million litres would be Cap Classique wines and 10 million litres would be sparkling wine. The major MCC wines that are exported are Poncracz, Graham Beck, Simonsig, Pierre Jourdan and Villiera, and the main export markets are Sweden, UK, Germany and the USA.

Total Cap Classique production per annum is approximately seven million bottles, and current sales suggest that this volume doubles every five years, making it an extremely exciting category in the South African wine industry. There are only a few really big producers (producing more than 200 000 bottles a year; two of these produce a million bottles a year). About six producers together produce nearly 80% of the sparkling wine produced in South Africa.

Styles which are emerging are Blanc de Blancs, blends, Rosés and the small amounts of Prestige Cuvées. Any variety is permitted, and current legislation for the time spent on the lees is a minimum of nine months. There is currently a white paper in existence stipulating that the minimum time on the lees should be 12 months; it is anticipated that this law will be in force by the end of 2013.

The CCA organises three festivals a year, as well as an annual base wine tasting workshop by their members, the goal of the workshop being the improvement of the quality of the base wines going into bottles. There is also an annual technical seminar, where international speakers discuss the latest products and technology, and this culminates in a Champagne tasting.

The CCA is also committed to various social upliftment projects. At the Investec Johannesburg Bubbly Festival in 2011, it was decided that all profits made would be donated towards a project dedicated to assist children in the winelands who come from challenging and disadvantaged backgrounds. Likewise, all of the big MCC producers share a common objective of the cultural and educational upliftment of the local communities, particularly in the winelands.

Interesting snippets about Cap Classique:

• In 1994, Graham Beck Brut NV was chosen as the celebratory drink at the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela.

• After declaring his intention to run for president, Barack Obama took Michelle Obama to one of their favourite restaurants in Chicago. The sommelier recommended Graham Beck Brut NV, and the Obamas liked it so much that they ordered it for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009.

• Frans Malan, the founder of Simonsig, was the first producer of Méthode Champenoise in South Africa when he pioneered Cap Classique in 1971. In 1997, Kaapse Vonkel became the first Cap Classique to use all three of the classic grape varieties used in traditional method sparkling wines, when Pinot Meunier was introduced (the three being Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Cap Classique Festivals 2012

• Magic of Bubbles – Franschhoek 30 November, 1 and 2 December 2012
• The 11th Amorim Cork Méthode Cap Classique Challenge. Judging will be conducted on 28 August 2012, and the winners will be announced at the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town on 20 September 2012.

I hope that this goes some way towards putting the record straight, and I encourage the British author of the article on sparkling wines to try ours.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one day, the French were to say of their Champagne – “Well, it’s like Cap Classique, but we are not allowed to call it that”!

For more on Cap Classique – visit http://www.capclassique.co.za

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