At the present time there are three, count ’em, three Méthode Cap Classique available in the LCBO and/or VINTAGES stores. Three. For and from one of the world’s most complex/best value bubbles and from a country where exceedingly high levels are coming into focus due to research, trials, experimentation and just plain passion for making traditional method sparkling wines. This Ontario situation my dear readers, is a travesty.
My return engagement with South Africa for a tour included a three-day tasting marathon at Cape Wine 2018 and I’ve since published articles on the whole experience plus more intensive looks at regional associations (Bot Rivier), varietal explorations (Pinotage) and producer portfolios (Rall and Alheit). It’s time to expand upon an important and fast growing category: Méthode Cap Classique.
Méthode Cap Classique
Plain and simple, Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) is a South African term indicating a sparkling wine made in the traditional method (the same way Champagne is made), by which a secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle. That said, there is nothing simple about MCC and who would argue that as a category it produces some of the finest, most complex and diverse sparkling wines in the world. It’s also very much a wine about terroir. As it stands, MCC has to now age on the lees for a minimum twelve months to be labelled as such. “We’re making wines that develop too quickly,” insists Paul Gerber of Le Lude. Gerber believes the minimum should be raised to 15. “Sparkling wine is not a terroir wine? Please. This is completely untrue.” As for sugar dosage he’s like a cook in the kitchen. “Dosage is like seasoning. If you do it properly you don’t taste it.” It is Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira that has put in the time and the research over 20-plus years to really understand the category but more importantly the potential. “You are always looking to express terroir,” he says. “For Brut we have to extend (the less aging time) to 60 months. So there is no lipstick or eye shadow.”
In Champagne the annual production is somewhere in the vicinity of 350 million bottles so compare this to South Africa where a fraction of that amount is released to the tune of seven or eight million Méthode Cap Classique bottles made by 100-odd producers, 73 of which are listed on the website for the Cap Classique Producers Association (CCPA), an organization established in 1992. The name was derived from the fact that the classic art of winemaking was introduced to the Cape by the French Huguenots, and the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine produced at the Cape was called Kaapse Vonkel (Cape Sparkle).
Grapes are selected from a diversity of regions in the Cape with only specific white and red grape varieties considered worthy “to ensure delicate fruit and rich complexity.” In this report I’ve tasted and reported on MCCs from Robertson, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Bot Rivier, Paarl, Prieska Noord Kaap and the Western Cape. This diverse regional cross-section of Cap Classique sparkling wine shows just how malleable and functional the range of styles are adaptable to many different South African growing areas.
Whole bunch pressing is at the heart of the winemaking process, with only the first pressing used to make the various base wines destined to be called Cap Classique. Individual base wines and blends are tasted annually by the Association’s own members to ensure that the final wine is of a high quality. A minimum of twelve months is required under the rules of the road and indeed there are members who ensure much longer yeast contact time, depending on the style and vintage.
On my first morning at Cape Wine in September 2018, my wine-négoce partner Scott Zebarth and I made a conscious decision to walk the congress floor and taste as many examples of MCC as we could before the lunch bell struck. Zebarth was duly impressed with Le Lude’s Cuvée Agrafé, Charles Fox Prestige Cuvée Cipher and Graham Beck’s Brut Rosé. Said Scott, “let’s do this.” And do this we did, to the effect of a sparkling wine crawl across Cape Wine that took us through 23 examples of MCC made by 14 producers. These are my notes on the wines.
Avondale Wines Armilla Blanc De Blanc 2011, Méthode Cap Classique, WO Paarl, South Africa (451930, $34.95, WineAlign)
The first vintage was 2003 for the Armilla blanc de blanc, now out of 2011 and having spent six years lees post whole bunch pressing. It’s a naturally fermented chardonnay of which two per cent saw some older barrel. After two years of coarse lees aging there began this formidable bringing of citrus and sharp apple bite. The following four on fine lees delivered the integration of acidity ahead of the gainful accumulation of toasted brioche. Richness at its best for this Méthode Cap Classique, of preserved lemon, fine aridity (under 5 g/L RS) and high acidulation (over 9 TA). Terrific MCC. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted September 2018 avondalewinesa @Avondalewine @RareEarth_Wines @AvondaleWines Rare Earth Wines & Spirits
Time always delivers for Boschendal’s pinot noir and chardonnay split from fruit ripeness out of Stellenbosch with some specific vintage help by the Elgin Valley. Disgorged a while back in 2018, the Grand Cuvée has had its bottle settling after having made the most of 36 months on lees. Dosage is elevated in this styling and worthy of the distinction when you consider the richness, nuttiness and toasty sensations. Plenty of citrus and looking for crudo, bivalves or scallops. Drink 2018-2023. Tasted September 2018 boschendal boschendalwines liffordgram @BoschendalWines @LiffordON @boschendal @liffordwineandspirits
De Grendel’s is a straightforward, creamy, highly pleasurable and vouchsafed Méthode Cap Classique of low pH and equanimity in residual sugar meeting total acidity. In fact it’s assemblage is done with such precision that it is in fact acidity that strikes its parts as being very pronounced. Mouth-watering with persistent mousse and length. Nothing particularly shocking or complex mind you, but certainly serviceable for all basic needs. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted September 2018 degrendelwines churchillcellars @degrendelwines @imbibersreport @degrendelwines Churchill Cellars Ltd.
As rich as it gets for the category, made by Pieter de Wet from estate chardonnay off of limestone Robertson soils.The low pH, generous yet proper dosage and high acidity all add up to a distinct, herbal and fine pettilant MCC of great distraction, complexity and at this stage, near-complete evolution. Plenty of citrus comes in every possible way. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 dewetshofwines @DeWetshofWines @dewetshofwines
Genevieve is Cap Classique made by Melissa Nelsen and was first made in 2008, released in 2010. Now with 2014 the lees aging time is 48 months with total output in the 12,00-13,000 bottle range, up from the 5,000 of that first vintage. The goal is 20,000 in the very near future. It’s essentially blanc de blancs, 100 per cent chardonnay as a wise, calm, mature and elegant traditional method sparkling. Just lovely. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 #melissagenevievenelsen @Genevieve_mcc
From proprietor Melissa Genevieve Nelsen this chardonnay spent four years on the lees and is what she calls “my soldier, it stands up right, expresses itself very cleanly.” Tasted two years after she gave us that assessment of the vintage it’s now even more Cap Classique than ever, feathery oxidative, gingery and toasty. It’s classic really and perched on the richer end of the spectrum, evolving with some haste and more than ready to go. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted September 2018
The ripeness is expressly up front in Beck’s 50-50 pinot noir-chardonnay joint and we’d all be hard-pressed to find its MCC equal in terms of focus, integrated and polished. Drink 2018-2021. Last tasted September 2018
An ode and an adherence to the magic of Cap Classique style, always with that sage feeling of evolution in age. Made pretty with its skin pink depth though I must admit to nosing and tasting the inimitable South African soil. Still, it is clearly and decisively Pinot Noir that floats the boat and rights the ship. This has noirs in its psyche and the Western Cape in its soul. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted January 2016
Clive is Graham Beck’s most prestigious and important cuvée, what méthode cap classique cellarmaster Pieter Ferreira calls “a respect to Champagne. While previous incarnations were wines of “best selection” the 2012 chardonnay and pinot noir are drawn from a single-vineyard for the first time. Stand in the tasting room and there it spreads out below, on soil riddled with limestone to equip this crisp and arid sparkling wine with all the necessary attributes. Bronze-parched apple and dried quince are noted. Sentiment and data from a 10 year study project of varietal, lees and aging are collected and come to this; a toast demure, a love divine, a wild control. Brilliant sparkling wine and undoubtedly a South African gem. Drink 20189-2027. Tasted September 2018 grahambeckbubbly vinexxperts @GrahamBeckSA @Vinexxpert @grahambeckmcc @Vinexx
Slanghoek pinot noir (77 per cent) meets limestone-Robertson chardonnay for a driest of the dry sparkling wine that spent 60 months on the lees. Beck’s attack for the Brut Zero “is based on the philosophy of grower’s Champagne,” notes Peter Ferreira and as such it surely ranks as one of the more mineral-toasty bubbles in the entire Cap Classique category. No sugar added during dosage allows the land to speak. There is a deeper intuition beyond flint-struck, something categorically chalky while delicate and flavour wise it’s simply limon-delicieux. The fineness is noted and the vintage too, from which the team saw enough to make use of the highest quality juice for a tête de cuvée wine. High ceiling for aging here. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted September 2018
Beck’s Roberston chardonnay is just one of those wines that settles seamlessly into that beautifully integrated dyadic realm where mousse persistence, acidity and texture meet at the vertices of balance and blessed. Always that minor hint of reductive lemon pith and toasted almond. Persistent and consistently fine, affordable and celebratory worthy bubbles. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted September 2018
Filia is the daughter of the Paardeberg, a self-described and cheeky Swartland Kap Klassique chenin blanc made by Christa Von La Chevallerie, dogter to Juergen and the Nuwedam Farm just off the R45 outside Malmesbury. Not just any sparkling wine mind you. Although the early stages of this old vines project from the (mainly) 2015 vintage only gives 18 months on the lees it also provides 1974 planted chenin blanc, for shits, giggles and shut the front door attitude. For Christa it’s a matter of “how far I can go with (the combination of) chenin and lees.” Clearly just the entry point here, with an announced mix of richness and tension, not yet knowing what can and will happen. The coast is clear, the chenin blanc is ready, willing, able and the winemaker will stop at nothing to make this bubble in her own image and way. Look out sparkling world. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted September 2018 christalachevallerie @HuisChevallerie @ChevallerieZA Christa Von La Chevallerie
Jacaranda is on it’s way towards establishing itself as one of the Western Cape’s Méthode Cap Classique specialists and this new cuvée is called “Q” for quality. The organic estate invests heavily in their agriculture and this just disgorged specimen saw 24 months on lees and a base wine in oak for a few months. It’s 100 per cent chenin blanc, from old vines in 80, 60 and 40 year-old blocks. They work with low sulphur and in spite of the minimal interventionist and risk-taking program this is quite toasty bubbles, yet also rich, creamy and palate swarming. Lingers as one does, long and properly, leaving you with a feeling of it being just lovely. Surely the beginning of a great relationship all around. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted September 2018 jacaranda_wine @jacarandawines
The Brut Reserve is actually a Blanc de Blancs, from 100 per cent chardonnay with higher elevations of sugar (11 g/L rS) and conversely acidity. It comes across dried than it is with richness in posit tug by citrus and cream, like lemon curd with a toasty edge. Once again an MCC of good persistence and length and will develop an extra layer of oxidative complexity at three years of age. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018
A most traditional Cape sparkling wine with aromas of yellow citrus, wet concrete and cold rooms with hanging and curing meats. It’s on the oxidative MCC side though acidity brings tension and balance. As a chardonnay bubble it does what is asked of it and treads well top age a few years. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 lanzeracwineestate @LanzeracWines @LanzeracWineEstate
L’Avenir Estate’s Méthode Cap Classique is mainly pinotage with some chardonnay and arrives in the glass as a light and nearly delicate bubble. It’s a succulent, sweet rusty, lively enzymatic sparkling wine with an opinion and a plan of action. Pleasurable to sip from a definite MCC teachable moment. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted September 2018 lavenir_wine_estate selectwinemoments @LAvenirWines @SelectWinesTO @LAvenirEstate @SelectWinesCanada
The Brut Rosé is a chardonnay and pinot noir split of 5.5 g/L dosage, just slightly drier than the MCC Reserve Brut. It’s beautifully pale, pure, fresh and regaling in high acidity. All about nervousness which is so engaging for pink fizz, pulling finesse and pushing tension. Raspberry and currants are fruit indicators for amazing work in Rosé MCC. Drink 2018-2023. Tasted September 2018 leludemcc @LeLudeMCC @LeLudeMCC
The blend is with pinot noir but in this sister cuvée to the Brut Rosé it’s really about what chardonnay is going to bring to the MCC table. The dosage is just slightly higher than the Rosé, here at 6.5 g/L and 24 months on its lees. Here the shift is towards more richness, almost counterintuitive when you think about blanc vs. rose but Paul Gerber is on to something big. There is a plum compote luxe note stirred into the citrus and so both ends of the fruit spectrum are involved and incredible. “You must taste the sun in the fruit,” insists Gerber, sparkling wine or not and so with verve, intensity and balance this travels to terrific and back. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted September 2018
Le Lude’s winemaker Paul Gerber assembles two non-vintage Bruts, blended each vintage for a house style. The fruit is primarily Robertson with some addendum out of Franschhoek. The first vintage was indeed 2012 and this chardonnay (80 per cent) plus pinot noir comes sweet herbal straight out of the riddle with a sultry, piqued spiciness. Already showing a hint of secondary notation by way of a honeyed nougat melted into the soft and delicate mousse. Still plenty of intensity and drive with citrus in whole represent by lime, fresh and juicy. Less red fruit (much, much less) and more white flower with the idea of yellow and green fruit. Stylish, persevering and precise. At 2.6 g/L it’s perfectly albeit sparsely seasoned and mature with Champagne confidence. Drink 2019-2027. Tasted September 2018
Agrafé translates literally as “staple,” from the French term and how a metal clip or clasp is used to secure the cork in a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine. Le Lude’s Tirage Liége, or “cork draw” is packaged as such and is a blend of 54 per cent chardonnay with pinot noir. It undergoes traditional cork fermentation and maturation on (premium) cork 36 months. The methodology takes this beyond intensity and into texture with creamy preserved lemon mousse persistence. As a whole it strikes as riper in ode to vintage and almost into something akin with Limoncello. Though it’s a most complex specimen of sparkling wine you might almost forget its highly accomplished nature and simply drink it up. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted September 2018
Recently disgorged and not yet labelled but actually goes back two years further in terms of lees aging than the 2012. Expressive of riper fruit and the effect of the vintage skins. Still the creamy mousse and texture in great persistence though not as much tension. Both oxidative and reductive in the MCC way, from fruit pulled off of various blocks and picked at various times. Real attention to detail and towards crafting an estate signature style from a specific vintage. Fleshes without any need for real dosage by finding its way from ripeness forward. Lime is the dominant flavour and balance is struck by masterful blending. Drink 2019-2027. Tasted September 2018
Lowerland is the small if far northern outpost work from Bertie Coetzee and Alette de Beer in Orange River, Prieska Noord Kaap. Time to re-adjust the set, for South Africa and Méthode Cap Classique and approach the game with eyes, nose, ears and palate wine open. Take a trip 1000 kms north of Cape Town to discover fields 1000m above sea level, where the summers are hot and winters see temperatures of -10 celsius. Now take this first estate kick at the MCC can, of 11 months on lees for fruit grown on the warmest spot. Carries an uncanny nose of orange creamsicle mixed with lemon pith, turning over to more things completely other. So persistent in aromas and bubble, with extraordinary acids and a healthy dosage in search of and gaining balance. Shows off a deft and gentle touch with capable grip. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 bioboertie vanloggerenbergwines alette.waterboer lowerland_wines @CoetzeeBertie @AletteWaterboer Bertie Coetzee @LowerlandFarm Alette De Beer
Solitaire is an estate-grown, clonal driven chardonnay in blanc de blanc dress. It’s both Franschhoek notable with its earthy soil construct but also “C455” clonal from an estate with a deep-rooted drive to advocate for this type of work for Méthode Cap Classique. It’s mainly fruit drawn from the 2016 vintage and while the house looks for consistency the vintage plays a dramatic role in terms of the social grace, aspect and communication. Saw some malolactic fermentation as well as some large format older oak, to bring some clarity out of the realm of authentic reductiveness. Normally sees 18-24 months on yeasts and this one was disgorged as far back as March 2018. The bottle time is a positive thing for an MCC with some anxiety and what the house might call a penchant to get “frazzled.” Can’t help but recall Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die, the psychic in the employ of Dr. Kananga. Might as well use this MCC for the Bond moments in your life. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 moresonwinefarm @moreson @moreson
Sheree Nothangel’s sparkling Cap Classique is composed of chenin blanc and chardonnay (56/44), at 4 g/L dosage after 24 months on the lees. This is the third year of the program and the first stage speaks to a style that acts in delicasse incarnate. Just lovely and creamy in which lemon billows with elastic solids as curd and there is a real feel of fine lees. Though downy it too is lifted but not explosive by acidity. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted September 2018 wildehurst @WildehurstW @wildehurst
Good to go!