Cape Fizz at 50

Great are the trumpet noises that so often herald the fact that the South African wine industry began all of 362 years ago when Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck announced that the first wine grapes had been harvested and pressed at the Cape. The date was 2 February 1659, a timeline which is today tirelessly used to underscore the fact that as far as winemaking goes, we Saffers ain’t no Johnny-Come-Latelies.

The first juice might have flowed all those years ago, but the local industry was not that quick in terms of selecting a diverse planting of wine grapes to do justice to the incredible Cape terroir, nor the grasping of innovative winemaking techniques. For example, small oak barrels were only introduced into the mid-1970s and wine-lovers here had to wait until the 1980s for their nation’s wine producers to begin titillating the palates with successful modern varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The late Frans Malan, pioneer of Cap Classique.

And it was only in 1971 – 50 years ago this year – that a Cape wine farm began to experiment with the making of bottle-fermented sparkling wine, that is a fizzy wine made to the traditional method made famous by Champagne in France.

The farm was Simonsig in Stellenbosch. And after a visit to the Champagne region of France, Simonsig’s late patriarch Frans Malan decided it was time for South Africa to get its own version of Champagne.

The experiment of making a bottle-fermented sparkling wine turned to be a resounding success. Under the name Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel, Malan began a new chapter for Cape wine. The success of his maiden Kaapse Vonkel inspired other winemakers to take-up the challenge, and before you could say “pop that cork”, there were over 100 local versions of this sparkling wine known worldwide as Cap Classique.

Celebrating 50 years of Cap Classique, Simonsig is still one of the top brands in this wine category. And although the Kaapse Vonkel brand is very much alive, I only think it apt to toast this half-century with Simonsig’s other great bubbly, namely the stately Cuvée Royale. This is the estate’s blue-chip Cap Classique. Only one grape variety is used – Chardonnay. And the 48 months of lees-aging in the bottle elevates it into the category of luxury, excellence, premium and any other superlative of which any great sparkling wine is worthy.

The Cuvée Royale 2017 is currently on the market and coming from one of the best vintages for wine grapes in the past 20 years, this wine can pretty much close the book for anyone seeking that life-affirming, inspirational and joyous sensation a fine glass of ice-cold sparkling wine is known to offer.

For me, Chardonnay is just so much the go-to grape for Cap Classique or Champagne as its clear, zingy and citrus-driven purity enhances the overall sense of arousal evoked by the fizz and sparkle and foam. The base wine for the Simonsig Cuvée Royale goes into the bottle, where it undergoes that magical, mystical second fermentation. Here the 50 million bubbles found in every bottle of fizz is formed, while the 48 months spent in the glass allows the wine to draw an array of flavours and a collection of palate-pleasing textures from the lees (dead yeast cells).

It is a gorgeous wine, bubbles rising through the glass’s pale-straw, golden-sunset hue. Like a fine sparkling wine tends to do, the palate is alerted and wakened with the first sip of freshness and life. Then the flavours of citrus, honey-blossom and fennel take-over, ending with that beautiful waft of fresh brioche, a characteristic of any great sparkle.

I’ll raise this glass to Simonsig and 50 years of Cap Classique, and I shall drink it all.

No talk of Cap Classique is complete, however, without mentioning Graham Beck Wines, the sparkling  wine cellar which celebrated 30 years of business last year and is – like Simonsig – synonymous with Cape bubbly. A fantastic wine from that cellar currently out is the Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé 2015.

Expecting a palate-jolting bit of fruity fun, this Cap Classique turned out to be a seriously fine wine of statuesque structure. 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 Graham Beck cellarmaster Pieter 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.

Okay, not all sparkling wines are created equal, but most are – for me – deliciously drinkable. Take this Bullicante bubbly from Dalla Cia, the Stellenbosch operation where father Giorgio and son George Dalla Cia craft a substantial collection of wine, grappa and now sparkling wine.

The Bullicante, delightfully colourful and Italian modern in its packaging, is a no-nonsense affair made for easy-glugging fun yet still hits those spots the human frame reserves for wine enjoyment.

The name Bullicante derives from a technique used by the Murano Art Glass blowers in Venice, where layers of air bubbles are blown into thick glass and pulled with the blowpipe to form elongated depressions. In a similar way the Dalla Cias have added bubbles to this range using a very northern Italian cultivar, Pinot Grigio, not often used as a bubbly and a variety not all that widely planted in the Cape.

So, after fermenting, the wine gets its fizz through a process sending a burst of CO₂ bubbles into the wine. The result is a fun-to-drink bubbly, brim-full of melon and goose-berry notes with a palate firm enough to ensure the pleasure of every sip lasts long enough to ease you into the next one.

Whatever’s in your glass this year, make sure some of it sparkles. Heaven knows we’re worth it.

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