In what has been a distressing and gloomy year for the South African wine industry, cause for celebrations has been scant. Yet, winemakers, restaurateurs, wine merchants, industry bodies and anyone who enjoys a sip of the elixir from the vine should harbour no reservations in celebrating the fact that this year recognises 50 years of the making of Méthode Cap Classique wines in South Africa. In 1971, the pioneering and adventurous owner of Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch, Frans Malan, set about doing what no local winemaker had done before — namely, to try his hand in producing a bottle-fermented sparkling wine using the same method the French Champagne-makers had been employing for centuries.
Our First Bubbly
And so in 1973 the first wine of its kind made locally was launched, the Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel — at the princely sum of R3 a bottle, which was quite a price for its time. It was made from Chenin Blanc grapes, the workhorse white variety of the Cape Winelands, far removed from the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes from which Champagne is made in its ancestral homeland.
According to Johan Malan, current owner-cellarmaster of Simonsig and son of Frans, the first venture into a traditional sparkling wine would ideally have been done with the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “But one has to remember that in 1971 the Cape was limited in its vineyard plantings, and you basically had to use what you could lay your hands-on,” he says. “Chardonnay, for example, only hit South Africa in the late 1970s. But as soon as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir became more readily available in the 1980s, the South African quest for making Cap Classique and introducing it to the market began in earnest.”
A Local Obsession
From the early pioneers of Simonsig, Boschendal, Krone, Villiera and Graham Beck, the Cape now has over 250 producers of Cap Classique wines, and the growth in the interest, as well as the offering of this category, has been two-fold.
Firstly, the availability of good plant material, planted in terroir suited to ripening grapes in the specific style and quality required for making a fine Cap Classique, has given winemakers a broad palette from which to craft these refined sparkling wines. The terroir, viticulture and geographical features are complemented by the obsession many local winemakers have with this magical sparkling wine. Pieter Ferreira from Graham Beck, Simonsig’s Johan Malan, Paul Gerber from Colmant, Steenberg’s Elunda Basson and Danielle Coetzee from Boschendal — to name a few — have not only created Cap Classiques that can stand next to the great Champagnes of France in terms of quality but continue to inspire a new generation of winemakers to ensure the legacy of this style of wine.
The second reason for the mercurial growth of Cap Classique is its popularity with the consumer. South Africans consume some 3.5m bottles of fizz annually — a figure which, incidentally, did not decrease during the four months of prohibition of wine sales due to Covid-19. And international wine consumers, too, are recognising Cap Classique’s quality, admiring the detail South African producers put into the making of this wine, as well as the way it expresses the sun, soil and energy of the Cape. They will all, no doubt, be popping a cork and raising a glass of sparkling beauty to 50 years of legendary Cap Classique.