It used to be that you only needed 10 fingers and 10 toes to list the South African producers of sparkling wine made in the traditional French Champagne way. That was less than two decades ago. Now you’d have to rope in a few friends to harness their fingers and toes too!
At last count there were 84 members of the Cap Classique Producers’ Association, many of them specialists ONLY making sparkling wine. 20 years ago focussing solely on fizz was almost unthinkable. It would have been a recipe for financial ruin and disaster.
South Africa’s bubbly journey began in the early 1970’s when “Oom” Frans Malan of Simonsig decided to use the Champagne technique of a secondary ferment in a sealed bottle to create the first ever Kaapse Vonkel sparkling wine. 2021 sees South Africa mark its half century of cap classique production.
(In an interesting aside, the Malan family were quite happy for that term – Kaapse Vonkel – to become the descriptor for the South African “Champagne” because even then there was an appreciation for the fact that only Champagne could come from the French geographical region of the same name.)
However, méthode cap classique – or MCC was decided upon eventually by the handful of producers who formed the Cap Classique Association. In 2020 it was decided to refine that a bit further and simply refer to it as cap classique. (More about that in the story elsewhere in the magazine but I must admit that cap classique trips off the tongue a little more fluently than MCC.)
A recent report I read noted that cap classique is the fastest growing wine category in South Africa, and has been for some time. Each year there is an 18% increase in people making this style of bubbly wine – and the category effectively doubles every four to five years.
One of the most obvious reasons for the growth is that a bottle of fizz is no longer enjoyed only for celebrations such as weddings/engagements/anniversaries and the like. Bubbly has become ubiquitous as a welcome drink or an aperitif before lunch or dinner. It’s aspirational. One of the fastest growing individual brands in the past five years off a zero base is that of television presenter, socialite and media influencer Bonang Matheba. Seek it out, the House of BNG is really good!
Perhaps the biggest factor is simply that success breeds success. With individual producers focussing solely on bubbles and making a go of it (Le Lude, Colmant, Charles Fox, Genevieve, Tanzanite, Saltare and Domaine des Dieux) as well as the big daddy, Graham Beck investing R150 million and hiving off all its still wine brands some years back, there’s a lot going for this category.
And it’s not only South Africans enjoying popping corks; exports are rapidly rising too. Every year Graham Beck, for example, ships 34 000 cases – nearly a quarter of a million bottles! – to the United Kingdom alone. British wine lovers can scarcely believe the quality to price ratio of cap classique – and they do love a bargain …
Final quote from Graham Beck cellar master Pieter Ferreira: “We can come up with plenty more if necessary as we have 4.8 million bottles in storage at the winery.”