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MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES: #120 (article first published : 2004-12-9)

Christmas is the time for champagne, and in South Africa that usually means Methode Cap Classique, sparkling wine made here using the traditional methods and grape varieties of champagne made in France, or alternatively some lesser breed of local bubbly.

Many years ago the French wine industry asserted, logically enough, that the term champagne should be applied only to wines from the Champagne area of north-eastern France. Producers in South Africa and elsewhere circumvented this problem by calling their wines Methode Champenoise, champagne method, but the French objected to this too. Eventually the Cape cellars settled on the term Methode Cap Classique. This was acceptable to France, and it can be applied only to wines made with the authentic champagne grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay, and by the authentic champagne method, the addition of sugar and yeast to still wine to produce the bubbles from a secondary fermentation in the bottle, a slow and expensive process.

About 40 Cape sparkling wines are Methode Cap Classique. More than twice that number are produced by other, lesser methods, including carbonation, the injection of fizz, rather like an old-fashioned soda syphon. The Methode Cap Classique wines are marked clearly on the label, are generally better and are more expensive, about R50 a bottle upward compared with maybe R25 to R30 for their humbler cousins. French champagne will cost you (in Durban) at least R250 a bottle and in some instances a lot more.

The best of the Methode Cap Classique wines are outstandingly good, and I think it’s a pity that they cannot be called Cape champagne. Alan Mullins, Cape wine master, buyer for Woolworths and one of the best judges in the business, says: “The Champagne climate is so different from South Africa’s. Robertson and Reims are poles apart, so to make such tasty examples here in the Cape is little short of miraculous”. Climatic differences or no, I have been involved in many blind tastings which suggest that even the experts have difficulty in distinguishing the best of the Cape products from authentic French champagne.

This year the annual Diners Club Awards have nominated Methode Cap Classique as the category from which to choose their Winemaker of the Year, and this cherished accolade has gone to a former Durban man, Pieter Ferreira, cellarmaster at the Graham Beck cellar at Robertson. The winning wine was Graham Beck 1999 Blanc de Blancs, made solely from chardonnay grapes. Half the base wine spent ten weeks in traditional Champenoise barrels and the wine had 48 months of bottle age to develop a depth, richness and creamy texture. Krug and Bollinger are the only two French champagne houses that use oak barrels to mature their base wine.

The prize-winning Graham Beck wine will cost you about R85 a bottle in Durban.

Graham Beck Wines was established 21 years ago by Graham Beck, a prominent businessman who is also well known in the racing world. Pieter Ferreira has been in charge of the cellar for the past 14 years, and he is nicknamed Bubbles because of his passion for Methode Cap Classique.

Juliet Cullinan of Johannesburg, who is well known as a wine connoisseur and publicist, sent me this engaging note: “A party animal, Ferreira surrounds himself with eager acolytes keen to sample a sizzling flute (the tall champagne glass) and savour his wife Ann’s cooking. I have fond memories of their kitchen in Robertson with salami and garlic suspended from the rafters and enticing odours emanating from pots. Many a happy evening has been spent sipping bubbly and munching morsels of ripe cheese in a riotous atmosphere”.

Ah, that’s the life, if you can get it. – Michael Green




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