Graham Beck: 30 Years of Icon

The one thing I remember about Graham Beck is this winery grabbing the imagination from that moment I first saw the green-roofed cellar going-up outside Robertson three decades ago. The building’s wavey top set in the heart of the country, ogled as I raced along the R60 en route to south Cape fishing waters, was cool as hell. Even more so when I found out this winery was destined to make Cap Classique, right here in a heartland of the local co-op wine culture. What’s more, the cellar and the idea of concocting bubbly wine in the sticks belonged to an English-speaking South African called Graham Beck.

Only a maverick could pull this stunt here in the platteland. I liked it.

The cellar was built, vineyards planted, and from its first Cap Classique release in 1991, Graham Beck has never looked back. Not the winery, the brand, the wines nor Beck himself, who passed on in 2010.

Pieter Ferreira

Today Graham Beck is synonymous with the values and soul of Cap Classique, and in 30 years – a nanosecond in the wine world – it has become one of the Cape brands to take ownership of the category. The power of the marque, the profound yet understated elegant marketing and the brilliance of Pieter Ferreira’s wines has made Graham Beck one of the most recognised names in the South African wine space.

The reflection on Graham Beck’s achievements over the past three decades was vividly expressed by a recent opportunity to taste four wines from the stable. Led on-line by Ferreira, the creator of bubbles there from day one, the tasting showcased the stature of the wines today coming from that same Robertson cellar. As well as allowing one to gain insight into the Graham Beck team’s absolute commitment to perfection from the chalky Robertson soils, and to the marriage between natural fermentation and the human skill required to pull it all together in 750ml of bottled sparkling wonder and joy.

All four wines were vintaged Cap Classiques, things kicking off with the Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé 2015. Easy and undemanding, I thought, a rosé being just the right way to get things going. But wow, did this wine throw a curve-ball at that idea.

Expecting a palate-jolting bit of fruity fun, this Cap Classique turned out to be one of my favourites of the four. Some 90% Pinot Noir, the wine has a 10% Chardonnay component which works fantastically well in scalping those assertive tannins the acidic base wine tends to draw from a Pinot component during the whole-bunch pressing. The wine spent 60 months on the lees. No-one quite knows what goes on during that secondary fermentation in the bottle. But when you taste a wine like this it is evident that, with respect to Monsieur Ferreira and his wingman Pierre de Klerk, there is a higher power at work during that process.

The Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé is extraordinarily perfect, as if the components had been put together by Steve Jobs and Einstein, with a bit of Elon Musk to add an untamed edgy eye seeking adventure of the other-worldly kind. The mousse is explosive and riveting. All the flavour one wants is there: berry and green apple, with mature lines of dry herb, clam brine and savoury. Once the bubbles dissipate in the mouth, the taste remains long and true, seamless and graceful and very, very impressive.

Next up was Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2016, this usually being my go-to Cap Classique on account of the full-blooded Chardonnay pedigree that always appeals. I was surprised, here. This vintage shows a more severely maritime dimension, of kelp and oyster-shell. Yes, the pleasurable sun-lit citrus and green pear zone remains in-tact, but tidal-pool air is evident, giving the fruit an added layer of complexity. It foamed and fizzed in the glass, and I drank it all.

The Graham Beck Brut Zero, I find, belongs in a lecture-room as well as in the glass and mouth. The lack of dosage shows the bottle-fermented sparkling wine in all its purity, which can be surprising to the uninitiated. An 85%-15% make-up between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively, the glass exudes an aroma of almost pure still-wine Chardonnay. This being to the wooding of the base wine. As its name implies, Brut Zero is dry as a banker’s wedding-speech, the mousse and froth making piercing stabs of sour-apple, green plum and sour-dough crust. It is a wine that re-calibrates the senses, extremely unique and very tasty in a thrillingly mysterious way. Great to eat with.

It was a real honour to have the Cuvée Clive 2015 in the line-up, the culmination of Pieter Ferreira’s dream for Cap Classique – up until now – and simply one of the most splendid wines from South Africa.

Full-on Chardonnay, most of the fruit is from limestone-heavy Robertson soils made calcareous by the remains of a gazillion pre-historic ocean creatures that swam there before that earth bled dry. The wine gets the full Monty, selecting only the first slight pressings and the base-wine laid-down in Champagne barrels. Five years on lees, in bottle, and it all comes together very finely indeed.

Through a mouthfeel of wet silk fluttering in a storm, it is as much flavour as it is sensation. White flowers. Key Lime. Honeysuckle. Sherbet. Loquat. All this and more, sent bursting and shuddering by a blast of sparkle encapsulating a wine that is as much the product of a lust for life as it is an expression of a real world wishing to get a glimpse of the surreal.

The dream is 30, long live the dream.

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