For the Love of Cap Classique Wines

September 1 is #CapClassiqueDay, a day set aside to celebrate South Africa’s premium sparkling wines. Cap Classique is made using Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) — the traditional method (as in Champagne) where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. These sparkling beauties are made in a variety of styles, from grape varieties that you might expect and a few that are particular to South Africa. They offer excellent quality for the price and every wine lover should become acquainted with them.

I recently discovered a series of podcasts produced by Wines of South Africa USA on a number of interesting topics. The very first episode, which just happens to be about MCC wines, debuted on May 1, 2020. Jim Clarke, US Marketing Manager for WOSA, hosts the podcast, which includes interviews with South African winemakers and winery owners. It filled in many details about MCC wines for me.

Simonsig Wine Estate made the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the Cape in 1971. Frans Malan called it Kaapse Vonkel, Afrikaans for sparkle of the Cape or Cape sparkle

Because of a 1935 import agreement with France, informally called the crawfish agreement because it referred to the import of South African seafood, French geographic terms were prohibited in labeling wine and other products in South Africa. For this reason méthode champenoise couldn’t be used to describe the traditional method used to make bottle-fermented sparkling wines.

In the 1980s Frans Malan began meeting with other makers of bottle-fermented sparkling wines in the Cape to compare winemaking notes. Through those collaborative tastings the term Méthode Cap Classique was adopted and in 1992 the Cap Classique Producers Association (CCPA) was formed to establish technical and tasting criteria for Cap Classique wines.

In addition to in-bottle fermentation Cap Classique wines must age on the lees for a minimum of 9 months, though most MCC wines far exceed this requirement. The aging minimum will increase to 12 months with the 2021 vintage. The finished wine must achieve a minimum pressure of 3 bars.

The CCPA recommends the use of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to make Cap Classique, but you will see varieties like Chenin Blanc and Pinotage that reflect South Africa’s history and make this delightful sparkling wine their own.

Our introduction to Cap Classique wines came via a wine tasting at a local wine shop years ago. Graham Beck Brut NV impressed with its lively flavors and acidity. And the price, around $20, didn’t hurt either. It was our gateway Cap Classique and encouraged us to visit Cap Classique wineries when we visited South Africa. With every visit to Cape Town we explore Cap Classique wineries that are new to us.

Krone

Krone MCC is made on the Twee Jonge Gezellen wine farm, which sits at the foot of Saronsberg mountain in Tulbagh. The view of vineyards reaching up the slopes of the mountain is breathtaking. The wine farm takes its name, Twee Jonge Gezellen (two young bachelors in Afrikaans), from the brothers that first settled the property around 1710. The brothers married sisters and until 2012 the farm remained in the hands of descendants of the founding families.

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We stepped into the cool dark of an underground wine cellar, the first built in South Africa, during our first visit to South Africa in 2014. It was a magical experience seeing all of those bottles of fermenting sparkling wine in riddling racks and others resting on their sides aging. And it smelled so good.

Twee Jonge Gezellen’s Krone Cap Classique wines are all vintage dated and made using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The first, Krone Borealis 1987 Vintage Cuvée Brut, was released in 1991.

Villiera Wines

Villiera is located in Stellenbosch and makes a range of still wines in addition to quite a few Cap Classique wines. The Grier family owns the winery and the name comes from earlier owners, the de Villiers.

We began a day of wine tasting in October 2018 with a seated tasting of six Cap Classique wines (oh yes we did!) With the exception of Villiera Starlight NV, which is aged on the lees for 12 months, all were aged a minimum of 18 months.

Villiera Cap Classique tasting photo
Villiera Cap Classique tasting

The wines I preferred were aged the longest. Villiera Natural NV is a natural ferment, no dosage, no sulfur added, 3 years on the lees was interesting. My favorite of the group was the Villiera Monro Brut 2011: 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, some oak aging of base wine, aged 6 years on the lees.

Charles Fox

Charles Fox is situated in cool-climate Elgin Valley. This picturesque region is home to apple and pear orchards as well as vineyards. The view from the Charles Fox tasting room is a perfect reflection of this mixed-agricultural region.

View of Elgin Valley from Charles Fox cellar door photo
View of Elgin Valley from Charles Fox cellar door

Charles and Zelda Fox purchased Furneaux farm in 2005 and built the wine cellar in 2010. The underground cellar has a storage capacity of 200,000 bottles.

Charles Fox specializes in Cap Classique wines and their annual production at the time of our visit in 2016 was about 30,000 bottles sourced entirely from estate vineyards planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. All three Cap Classique wines we tasted were vintage dated and outstanding.

Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne

We started a day of wine tasting in Franschhoek with a stop at the impossibly pretty Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne. We were charmed by these delicious, meticulously crafted Cap Classique wines. Jean-Philippe Colmant moved his family to Franschhoek from Belgium in 2002. He planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and built a wine cellar dedicated solely to making MCC wines.

His focus is on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and his wines are laser focused. I was absolutely charmed by the Colmant Absolu Zero Dosage NV and Pete’s choice was Colmant Brut NV, so a bottle of each came home with us. We recently opened the Absolu (the Brut having been enjoyed with friends long ago) and shared it along with the details of our visit to Colmant on the blog. It is one of our top wine tasting experiences in South Africa.

Le Lude

Franschhoek is home to another stellar maker of Cap Classique wines. It seems almost unfair to other wine regions that two such excellent makers of MCC should be so close together. These two wine farms alone make the trek to Franschhoek worthwhile.

Le Lude is the new kid on the block, having just released their first wines in 2015. They are a MCC-focused winery with a stellar reputation for their wines earned in a short period of time. The winemaker at the time of our visit was Paul Gerber, who as of early 2019 is the winemaker at Colmant. Le Lude is the first in South Africa to use cork, rather than a crown cap, to seal the bottle during the second fermentation. This method, called Agrafe®, which translates to staple – that’s how the cork is kept in the bottle, allows the wine to develop it a unique way.

The highlight of our tasting, in addition to the delicious wines, was a pairing of small bites. We started with a sip of Le Lude Brut NV and then tasted it with a cheese and spinach soufflé. So good! Actually, the soufflé was excellent with the Le Lude Brut Rosé NV and the Le Lude Vintage Cuvée as well. Then we were presented with a toasted coconut marshmallow and just wow! Sweet, soft, toasty and absolutely delicious.

Le Lude is also home to Orangerie Restaurant serving lunch and afternoon tea. I’ve made a note for our next visit to Franschhoek.

I hope this virtual tour has piqued your interest in Cap Classique wines. In our experience they are available in a variety of styles, are well made and attractively priced. Consider pairing them with a meal, not just with appetizers. A glass of Cap Classique can be just the thing to liven up a meal and raise your spirits. And the South African wine industry, which has been hit very hard by earlier bans on alcohol during the Covid pandemic, could use your support.

Cheers!

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