Extract: The wines of South Africa by Jim Clarke

21 January 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Wine styles in the Western Cape
Sparkling wines
South Africa is the first New World country to develop a designation for its traditional method sparkling wines that does not ride the coattails of Champagne. Today, Methode Cap Classique, or, more informally, MCC, is the fastest growing wine category in the country, doubling every five years. Not only is quality very high, especially in relation to price; bubbly is also more profitable for the country’s struggling wine growers. They can typically pick grapes for these wines earlier, pulling the maximum output from the vineyard when waiting longer might cost up to 10 percent in crop volume due to dehydration.

The history of sparkling wine production in South Africa is not a long one. The first example came from Frans Malan at Simonsig in 1971 (there are occasional mentions of “Champagne” earlier, and there were definitely sparkling wines of some sort, but there’s no evidence these were methode champenoise wines). In 1935 the so-called Crayfish Agreement with the French had forbidden the use of French wine terms on labels. Consequently, Simonsig called the wine “Kaapse Vonkel” – “Cape bubbles” in Afrikaans, expecting that this would become the accepted name for the category.

Simonsig and other estate producers were largely unconcerned with the export market at the time, so an Afrikaans name seemed reasonably marketable. Simonsig became more serious about bubbly production in 1978; Villiera and Boschendal followed, using the term methode champenoise, which they considered a description of the technique and not a geographical reference. By the time the French protested, more than a dozen producers were using the term. Export markets were just beginning to open when, in 1992, the Cap Classique Producers Association formed. South Africa’s bubblies gained a more marketable, romantic, and French name that also avoided the use of any protected French wine words.

There are over 200 producers making Methode Cap Classique wines, although many do so only in small amounts for wine club members, tasting room sales, and so forth. Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck estimates total production to be approximately 7.7 million bottles. As of 2021 using the designation requires 12 months of lees aging; association members are already adhering to that minimum, but changing the actual regulations has dragged on, so for now the legal requirement on the books is only nine months. Beyond that, prerequisites are fairly bare-bones: wines must contain at least three bars of pressure, and must go to market in the same bottle that the second fermentation occurred in. The association recommends the traditional Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, but other varieties are permitted. Several producers are making Chenin Blanc-based examples, and Pinotage makes an appearance in some examples such as Simonsig’s Brut Rosé.

Growth has presented challenges for the Cap Classique category. With many producers making bubbly but not specializing in it, some are concerned about consistency within the category. The Cap Classique Producers Association is working hard to encourage best practices in-cluding extended lees aging, hand-harvesting, and whole bunch pressing. There is also move-ment toward some sort of reserve designation. As imagined at the time of writing, this would prescribe a minimum 36 months on the lees and limit wines to the three traditional Cham-pagne varieties and possibly Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.

The success and quality of Cap Classique wines often surprises people who associate the style with Champagne’s cooler growing conditions. Ferreira says growing grapes for sparkling wine in warmer areas calls for carefully shading the grapes through row direction and canopy management. Robertson has become a key source for Cap Classique wine grapes, Chardonnay especially, thanks to its limestone soils and a good diurnal temperature shift. Franschhoek is also a leading source. Most of the more successful producers pull from those two districts and perhaps elsewhere. Charles Fox, which uses estate fruit from their farm in Elgin, would be a rare exception.

Vintage Methode Cape Classique is not necessarily a higher-tier product than non-vintage. Given that vintages are not as variable in South Africa as they are in Champagne, many pro-ducers don’t feel the need to blend vintages and choose to produce vintage-labeled wines as their mainstay. Some, however, such as Colmant, consider multi-vintage blending to be fun-damental to creating complex, consistent, high-quality bubblies; the reserve wine is not a tool to compensate for variation, but a flavor and textural component. Blancs de blancs of 100 percent Chardonnay are fairly common; blancs de noirs less so. In fact, the designation blanc de noirs under SAWIS regulations indicates a white wine of any sort made from red grapes, not just sparkling wines. On a related note, Boschendal introduced a still white/pale rosé Chardonnay–Pinot Noir blend, essentially a non-sparkling Cap Classique blend, in the early 1980s, and several other producers have also adopted the style.

Methode Cap Classique sweetness designations conform to E.U. standards; most are bruts. Outside of the Cap Classique category there are a large number of Charmat or force-carbonated wines, generally in more budget price ranges.

Sweet and fortified wines
South Africa’s most famous sweet wine, Constantia, has been resurrected by the producers in the ward of the same name. Klein Constantia introduced their recreation, the Vin de Con-stance, starting from the 1986 vintage. Groot Constantia followed with the Grand Constance from 2003. Despite its prominence, there is no regulated definition for the ward’s dessert wines. Both Klein and Groot Constantia use late harvest grapes, free from botrytis, but Groot Constantia uses red Muscat de Frontignan in its blend rather than just white, creating a clear contrast in color and aroma. Neither is fortified.

Today South Africa designates unfortified dessert wines (known as “natural sweet”) into a few categories. Aside from the late harvest wines exemplified by Constantia’s wines, botrytized, noble late harvest wines play an interesting historical role as well. Regulations dating from 1957 prohibited naturally sweet wines with more than 30 grams per liter of sugar, but Günter Brözel, the cellarmaster at Nederburg, was dead-set on making a botrytized wine akin to those he knew from his birthplace, Germany. Given the generally warm, dry conditions, botrytis is not a common occurrence in the Cape. Brözel proceeded anyhow, producing South Africa’s first botrytis wine in 1969. Named Edelkeur, it brought home more than a dozen gold medals in international competitions but could not be sold locally. The next vintage of the wine was 1972. Nederburg took sales into its own hands by founding the Nederburg Auction in 1975, sidestepping regulations and the regular retail market by using the auction to sell and highlight the wine. Much to Brözel’s dismay, the Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest sold for the same price as Lieberstein, the massive SFW off-dry Chenin blend, but soon the wine’s reputation took off. The wine has consistently been one of the most expensive items in the auction ever since. The auction itself, renamed in 2019 as the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, remains a stage for featuring some of the Cape’s most exclusive, high-end wines from Nederburg and the other producers invited to take part.
Today, a number of producers also make Noble Late Harvest wines, from several different grape varieties. Paul Cluver, in Elgin, makes a Riesling; Ken Forrester’s “T”, named for his wife Teresa, is a Chenin Blanc. South Africa’s final expression of natural sweet wines would be those made from grapes dried either on straw beds after picking, or desiccated on the vine by crimping the stems and leaving the bunches to hang. De Trafford’s Chenin Blanc Vin de Paille is a notable example.

Historically, fortified wines played a much bigger role in the industry than they do today, and made up the bulk of production until 1953, when natural (i.e. unfortified) wines caught up with them. The latter had begun to grow as early as the 1880s, aided by a burgeoning temper-ance movement that favored them. The Western Cape was the main consumer of the “newer” style of wine, suggesting that fortification was important at least in helping the wines travel well. Today, annual production of fortified wine hovers at just above one million liters per year, compared to over 500 million liters of still wine. Nonetheless, the history shines through in the quality established by long tradition.

Many of these fortified wines were long known by Iberian names – Port, Sherry, etc. – but in 2000 South Africa signed agreements with the E.U. to respect such terms; both “Port” and “Sherry” disappeared from South African exports in 2002, and from the domestic market a decade later. Today, the word “Cape” has, in essence, taken the place of “Port” on labels: a Cape Vintage is a vintage fortified wine, Cape Tawny has the maderized nutty taste one would expect, and so forth. Sherry-style wines bear the stylistic indicator – Amontillado, for example – without the geographically-specific word “Sherry”.

Fortified wines made from the various sorts of Muscat live their own lives, free from Europe-an naming controversies. They are labeled “Muscadel” if they are made from white or red Muscat de Frontignan, or “Hanepoot” if from Muscat d’Alexandrie. Jerepigo (or jerepiko) is unfermented but fortified grape juice, most commonly made from Muscat; it is typically very sweet and decidedly grapey.

Today Calitzdorp, in the Klein Karoo, is home to several producers who continue to offer Port-style wines that can compete with Iberia’s best; Boplaas, Bayly, and Axe Hill are all top examples. The Swartland is home to a few like-minded producers as well. The Muscat-based fortified wines are a specialty of many of the higher-yielding areas, including the Northern Cape. For many co-ops and large operations such as Badsberg or Orange River Cellars their perennial prize winner is a Hanepoot, Jerepigo, or Muscadel.

Sommeliers studying for their exams seem to obsess over the term “Boberg”, a W.O. once used to designate a fortified wine from Paarl, Franschhoek, Wellington, or Tulbagh. There have been preciously few of these since the 1970s, and the term was officially repealed in February 2019.

Extract from The wines of South Africa © Jim Clarke (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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