Last Updated on May 12, 2022
Methode Traditionnelle fizz from South African vineyards
Growing up in the Western Cape region of South Africa – the heart of the country’s Winelands – I had the good fortune to celebrate many birthdays on local wine farms. Here, amongst the magnificent mountains and valleys carpeted with vineyards, are restaurants where the food is every bit as good as the wines that are produced mere steps away. At home we never drank French wines, rarely opened a bottle from Chile or the Napa Valley – we had a fabulous range of local wines of our own. Wonderful reds for the frequent barbecues, dry whites for the spectacular fish and seafood, and sparkling wines for special occasions. So how about a South African Cap Classique sparkling wine instead of champagne?
Methode Cap Classique refers to South African sparkling wines that are produced using the traditional Champenoise method, without the price tag while maintaining the quality. The term was first introduced in 1992 after a ban on using the term Champagne and Champenoise for any bottle-fermented wine produced outside the Champagne region in France. In South Africa, a group of sparkling winemakers came together to form the Cap Classique Producers Association in South Africa. That name is now well established, just as other countries have their own terms for regulated sparkling wines produced using the traditional method – Cava in Spain or Franciacorta in Italy for example.
South Africa also has a range of other sparkling wines but those wines that are labelled Methode Cap Classique, are a premium product that uses the classic traditional method and follows strict production guidelines. There has been an increase from 9 to 12 months for minimum ageing on the lees, or yeast. This is the second fermentation which is part of the method of producing Champagne and creates carbon dioxide and the bubbles associated with Champagne. Some spend longer maturing which takes place in the bottle. All Champagne must spend a minimum of 12 months in the bottle while the vintage Champagnes spend between 4 – 10 years maturing. Eventually, there is a process called disgorgement when the yeast is removed and the bottle quickly recorked. Most use two of the three grape varieties traditionally used in champagne production – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines range from Brut Nature (very dry) to Brut (dry) or Demi-Secs or Nectar (the sweeter varieties).
South Africa has a long history of winemaking and the Western Cape has the good fortune to lie between two oceans – with warm and cold currents – which produces a terroir beautifully suited to winemaking. During the 17th century, religious persecution of the Huguenots in France led to an influx of refugees to the Cape where French skills in winemaking took root locally. The first bottle-fermented methode champenoise wine in South Africa was first produced on the world-famous Simonsig estate in 1971. It followed winemaker, Frans Malan’s visit to France where his interest in Champagne was piqued and he returned home to develop a local product. It was marketed as Kaapse Vonkel which translates as Cape Sparkling.
The Cap Classique association has some 84 members with over 190 Cap Classiques produced every year. In 2018, 15 million bottles of Methode Cap Classique were produced which is a drop in the sparkling ocean compared to around 400 million bottles in France. While I would advise a trip to Cape Town to visit some of the wonderful farms that are producing these wines – 85 % of all Methode Cap Classique is sold locally – a second-best option is to buy a selection to taste at home or on the picnics we are all looking forward to this summer now that our social lives are re-opening. The UK is the largest export market of Cap Classique and the sale of these sparkling wines is increasing and are very affordable, beginning at around £10 per bottle. So pack a few bottles in your picnic basket and hope that the weather will be as good as a Cape Town summer day!
I made an early start to my tasting, having popped the cork on the first of several bottles on Valentine’s Day. This was perfect bubbly for Valentine’s because of its gorgeous pink hue. A 2020 Jacques Bruére Cuveé Rosé Brut, from the Bon Courage vineyard, this award-winning Cap Classique is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and has been left on the lees for over 60 months. It is therefore a full-bodied and aromatic Cap Classique. Poured into flutes, it not only looked romantic in the candlelight but paired beautifully with a dish of prawn and lobster linguine. I was informed that it also pairs really well with venison which is an idea I must try out.
The second bottle was opened to welcome South African guests who had only just arrived in the UK. What better than a taste of home, a familiar taste in a new environment? Graham Beck Cap Classique Brut is also made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and is a real classic in the South African Cap Classique canon. This time we enjoyed chilled flutes as an aperitif, used to toast the new adventure that our guests had embarked upon. The aroma is both lightly yeasty and has a touch of lime, the taste is crisp.
The third bottle was also enjoyed as an aperitif on Easter Sunday when the weather was finally warm enough to eat outdoors in the garden. Welcoming friends for a leisurely lunch is one of my favourite moments and opening a bottle of Cap Classique that has been chilling for the occasion never fails to relax the guests (and the host). This was a bottle of the 2017 Groot Constantia Brut Methode Cap Classique. This is from a wine farm I have visited on a number of occasions and it is a beautiful spot in a lush, green valley. Groot Constantia Brut, made with Chardonnay grapes, also serves up a crisp and fruity drink and is beautifully refreshing.
What I like most about Cap Classique as a brand, is that whether one is toasting friends, celebrating a special occasion or even pairing with a meal, it always feels special. There is always a heightened sense of anticipation about the ritual of popping the cork, the expectation of a good time to be had with friends and family gathered in gratitude that makes the drinking of Cap Classique quite different to any other wine experience. The Cap Classique has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary so I think that is worth celebrating with another few bottles.
A number of Cap Classique wines are available from major supermarkets. Otherwise, you will find a good selection in specialist wine shops. I tried out a company called Hometipple which delivered the Jacques Bruére Cuveé Rosé Brut to my door on a bicycle. Great delivery service plus eco-friendly too.