October 13 is an auspicious date for Charles and Zelda Fox. It was on this day in 2012 that they released their maiden Cap Classique and waited with bated breath to see if the years of hard work had paid off.
A decade later, Charles Fox Cap Classiques are considered some of the best bubbly, not only in South Africa, but internationally too. Last year, the well-respected Platter Wine Guide awarded coveted 5-star status to two of the estate’s Cap Classiques: the 2015 Cipher and the 2016 Blanc de Blancs, while in 2019, influential international critic Tim Atkin, a Master of Wine, rated the 2013 Charles Fox Cipher 94 points out of 100.
It’s a dream come true for this Elgin-based couple who will pop the corks and celebrate a decade of Charles Fox bubbly at an event on the anniversary date.
We caught up with Charles and Zelda who explained how it all started, the highs and lows encountered on their journey and what’s next for this iconic bubbly brand.
Zelda – how did it all start?
We were living in Johannesburg – Charles was working in various retail businesses – but we dreamed of having a wine farm and to get out of the city. After retiring early at 54, Charles took the plunge and decided to buy an old fruit farm in Elgin and start making Cap Classique because we love Champagne. We’d looked at several regions in the Cape, none really suited our preference of terroir. And one day when Charles was visiting his sister in Gansbaai he stopped in at Elgin and discovered what a fabulous area it was, entirely suitable for growing the grapes needed for our Cap Classique.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
Well, starting off as a city boy and trying to become a farmer … and a fruit farmer on top of that! We had to begin somewhere to sustain the business until we could start wine farming. Thank heavens we did, as we were terrible apple farmers! We had to get vines planted and growing, our first harvest and then the long agonising wait for the first release. We had an excellent, well-branded product, but we had to put on our marketing hats to have something that looked as good as it tasted. Probably the biggest hurdle was entering the market, which was already close to saturation point. But we elbowed our way in and built a distribution network, much of it by personally knocking on doors and persuading businesses to stock our bubbly.
How long did it take to produce your first cap Classique and what was it?
Five years! We planted our first vines in 2007. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier -which are the best grapes for bubbly. It took three years before we could harvest our first grapes and then we had another two years wait while the wine was maturing on the lees. Our first Cap Classique was released on 13 October 2012.
What has been your biggest triumph to date?
I think establishing our brand as one of the top-quality Cap Classiques. As members of the Cap Classique Association, we believe that Cap Classique has made huge inroads to becoming a competitor to Champagne which is naturally our greatest rival in the market.
Charles, you’ve been described as an “avid Francophile”. When did your love of French wine start and how has it influenced the wines you make?
This is a total cork dork question but has a really a simple answer. When I lived in the UK in the early ‘70s, I drank quite a lot of Champagne since it was relatively cheap then. Years later here in South Africa, our only choice was sparkling wine and expensive Champagne. Good quality Cap Classique was limited to a few producers and so the idea was born to make top notch Cap Classique in the traditional Champagne style.
Zelda, when, where and how did your talent for making Cap Classique begin?
It was a case of monkey see monkey do! We started in 2010 with Champagne consultant Nicolas Follet and our neighbour Justin Hoy. In 2013 when our cellar was complete and fully equipped, we had interns from France coming over for the harvest, with me assisting them and working with Nicolas for the rest of the year. In 2016, our intern let us down at the last minute and Charles said to me, “you always wanted to make the wine – now’s your opportunity.” I started that year working closely with Nicolas, really enjoying the harvest. Some days were exceptionally long but I thrived on the intensity of it all. Every now and then I’d get into a flat panic! Nicolas left to return to France at the start of 2021 and I continued as I have over the last few years, with extreme pre-planning and referring to my notes from previous years as well as assistance from fellow winemakers for advice when needed.
Can you tell us a bit more about the process – from harvest to product.
You can’t make good quality wine with bad grapes, so I rely on Charles and our staff for that. We do whole bunch gentle pressing, carefully separating the juice fractions into different tanks, which enables us to make our prestige cuvees as well as the reserve wines. Not that one fraction is superior to another – it’s just that one might need longer aging in the bottle than the other. The first fermentation is done in tanks with a small portion in a barrel. Once the first fermentation is complete, we taste all the different components and make up the blends. Our philosophy is to make the best quality blend for each of our ranges and to not compromise on anything. The next step is second fermentation. A small amount of sugar is added to the base wine blends and then filtration is done. We use cellulose or paper filter sheets and there are no animal products in our wines, so they are completely vegan friendly. Yeast is then added for the second fermentation, and we start bottling immediately as the yeast is active as soon as it’s included. The second fermentation is complete within three months – depending on the time of year – and then we leave the wine on the lees for aging. Different wines require different aging periods. At disgorgement we usually add a tiny amount of dosage, the cork is then placed in the bottle and then we wash, foil and label all under one roof. [Lees is the sediment made up of the dead yeast cells which also needs to be removed before final bottling. Otherwise, bubbly would be cloudy or murky rather than diamond bright and clear.]
Can you tell us about your range of Cap Classiques?
We’re a small estate and not everything is about money. Part of the enjoyment of what we do is to please other people; to see when they discover a wine that they love and the joy or surprise on their faces. We also try to accommodate a broad spectrum of people depending on their palate or taste as well as affordability or budget. We start off with the Reserve Brut, a nice easy drinking and affordable Cap Classique. Then comes the Reserve Rosé, which is light, easy and offering more berry flavours. The Reserve Gold is a lovely all day drinking wine which has a slightly higher residual sugar (but not sweet). The Vintage Brut is where we become more serious, where you can usually taste a little oak and vanilla.
This, along with the Vintage Rosé, gives you the longer aged or more mature taste which some people love. Our prestige Cuvees are in a league of their own. Not produced every year but made with selected fractions of our base wine for the greatest pleasure. The Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir and then as our special 10-year celebration The Coeur de Cuvee – meaning the heart of the Vintage. These we try to keep more than five years on the lees to have optimal balance. So, in a nutshell hopefully something for everyone. I’ve had some customers say they don’t like Cap Classique. My response is that they just haven’t found one they like yet. Just try it.
How do you think South African Cap Classique compares to Champagne?
Cap Classique has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 15 years. We think our entire range compares favourably – if not better than – many French Champagnes.
This October you celebrate 10 years since your first release. What are some of the highs and lows you have had in the last decade?
I think Covid was the lowest for everyone’s business over the last few years. It’s set us back somewhat, but we’re recovering. We’ve also had some international recognition and we export to a few countries without having to actively seek out markets. The most rewarding thing is that many have been by word-of-mouth. That’s the best endorsement possible! For the highs – we have had, from inception, good ratings from several platforms and the first two 5 stars from the Platter Guide. Two in one year – nothing like that to boost one’s ego!
What are your ambitions for the next 10 years?
In year one our production was 5 000 bottles and now 10 years later we’re producing 35 000. Our aim for the next decade is to grow the business but also maintain it as a family concern and to ensure we retain our quality, which is what gives us our motto: Consistent Quality.