Those of you who have been following me for a while undoubtedly know my love of all things bubbly – sparkling wine, MCC, prosecco, champagne, you name it, if it has bubbles, I usually enjoy it. Obviously some more than others as you cannot compare a Dom Pérignon with a cheap prosecco. So, you can imagine my excitement when about 10 days before leaving France, I was googling wine farms in the Cape and wine festivals and anything wine related that we might be able to do while there, and I came across an article about a champagne festival. I quickly checked the dates – it was my last full day in Cape Town, tick, I checked the location, The Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, very near me, tick. I immediately sent off an email to book 3 places, Stuart, Nicole and myself, did the bank transfer for payment and waited for a response. Hopefully, there were still open spots. Apparently this is an annual event and a highlight on the Cape’s wine tasting calendar so there was the possibility that it was all booked. The following morning, I received my confirmation email – we were all set to go.
The event was held at The Vineyard Hotel in Newlands. The Vineyard Hotel is a 7-acre riverside garden estate on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, over the hill from the city. The Vineyard Story spans more than two centuries. The legendary founder, Lady Anne Barnard, built a country cottage here in 1799, and since then, as urban residence and 120 year-old hotel, it has welcomed statesmen, artists, celebrities, Nobel laureates and countless global visitors to this historic spot, and is today a 207-room luxury hotel.
A brief explanation of MCC:
In South Africa, a sparkling wine which is made in the traditional Champagne style is known as a Methode Cap Classique, or MCC. The most common wines to be used for this method are the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin Blanc, but it is also possible to use Chardonnay. For a darker, more original sparkling wine, Pinot Noir can be given the MCC treatment. The name Methode Cap Classique has been given to South African wines since the beginning of the 1990s.
The grapes used in the Methode Cap Classique design for sparkling wines are picked early, in order to ensure that the levels of sugar in the wine are low – sugar will be added during the MCC process. The juice of the grapes is quickly pressed in order to ensure that the white wine will have a clear colour, and not become yellow or gold. Once the grapes have been pressed, they are allowed to ferment in the same way as an ordinary still wine, producing alcohol and getting rid of carbon dioxide. This first stage creates a wine which will then be the basis for the sparkling wine.
This wine is often rather unpleasant, with a high acidity level and not much sugar. The wine is removed from the fermentation barrels, and blended together to produce the finished flavour of wine. Then, the Methode Cap Classique process can begin. The method of making sparkling wine in South Africa follows the Champagne method closely, so the next stage is to pour the wine into bottles. Once the wine is in the bottle, a small amount of yeast is added to the mix (the yeast can vary between producers), and this is followed by some sugar. The wine is then capped (hence the term Methode cap classique used in South Africa).
Once the yeast is sealed into the wine with the sugar, the second fermentation process begins. The bottle is placed horizontally in a wine cellar, usually for around one and a half years, although in some places this can extend to 5 years. As the yeast works on the sugar, released carbon dioxide is trapped inside the wine. The yeast at the bottom is known as the Lees, and this must eventually be removed. Bottles are placed upon racks which hold the neck of the bottle further down that the bottom. The bottles are turned regularly, and then raised slightly, so that after a fortnight the wine is upside-down, and the lees are lodged in the neck.
Once the yeast is in the neck, the wine-maker then has to remove the lees. This is done by taking off the original cap, and easing out the yeast. Sugar is put into the bottle if desired, and a cork is placed into the bottle. This keeps the sparkle in the wine, while removing the yeast and preventing the wine from becoming too pressurised. The Methode Cap Classique is the most common type of sparkling wine production in South Africa.
Now that you know all about MCC wines, let me get back to my perfect Sunday afternoon. Well almost perfect. The weather did play up towards the end of the afternoon and it became cool and cloudy with even a tiny sprinkle but that was as I mentioned at the end of the day, when we were among the very few left and after an afternoon, almost 3 hours of tasting bubbly, we did not mind too much. It was a sign that it was most probably time to move on.
We arrived at 3PM on the dot and I was surprised at how many people were already there, clearly people were afraid that their favourite bubbly might run out. On arrival we were given a glass and a list of all the wineries present. There were 18 suppliers offering their wine, each had a table set out in the beautiful gardens and we were free to have as much or as little as we desired. You could return to have seconds or thirds, stick to a few or taste them all. Wow! This was heaven. Most wineries had several wines to taste, a brut and a rosé, sometimes a vintage, a brut natural etc. etc.
The most difficult decision was where to begin. We decided to start anti clockwise and from the back but it would not have made a difference as even though there were a lot of people it was not crowded at all and at most I had to wait for 1 person to be served in front of me. All the reps were incredibly knowledgeable about their wines and I learnt quite a lot. Being able to compare a 100% Chardonnay MCC to a Pinot Noir MCC to a Sauvignon Blanc MCC to a blend MCC was fascinating. I tasted some from huge wineries and some from tiny producers. To rest inbetween the hectic work of tasting bubblies, there were beanbags scattered around the grounds and we nabbed two.
My favourite South African bubbly is and has been for many years, Graham Beck. I was planning on keeping those to taste for last but as we were sitting on our beanbags and relaxing in the glorious 26 C / 80 F day with light clouds for coolness, Nicole glanced at the list of suppliers and wines in the pamphlet and noticed that Graham Beck had 3 magnums of Brut NV 1994. Was it already too late? Had I missed out by not reading the pamphlet up front? Were the bottles finished by other lucky people? A mild panic was about to set in but before it could take hold, a very charming gentleman, who I recognised as Pieter Ferreira, Graham Beck’s Cap Classique Cellar Master and better known as “Mr Bubbles” was walking towards us carrying a very large bottle. (He’s been with the team from the very first vintage and has been instrumental in cementing Graham Beck as one of the world’s leading producers of premium Méthode Cap Classique style sparkling wines.) Could it be? He was carrying a magnum of the 1994 Brut NV.
The Graham Beck Brut NV is an all round crowd pleaser and extremely versatile bubbly crafted from a selection of the classic MCC varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I had never tasted one that was 22 years old though and often it is said that bubbly does not get better with age but this is one case where that would be completely incorrect. It had light yeasty brioche aromas and secondary tones of lime, ripe green apple and a hint of chalky minerality on the nose with rich creamy complexity on the palate. The exceptionally fine mousse contributes freshness and finesse. Compared to a recent vintage, this had more complexity and fullness, it short, it was excellent.
A little interesting factoid about this great MCC: In 1994 Graham Beck Brut NV was selected as the celebratory drink at the inauguration of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. More recently, after declaring his intention to run for president in February 2008, Barack Obama took his wife, Michelle, to one of their favourite restaurants in Chicago. The sommelier recommended two glasses of Graham Beck Brut NV to toast this auspicious occasion. The Obamas were so impressed with this bubbly that they ordered six bottles for the 4th November. The corks were then ceremoniously popped to celebrate the election of the 44th American president before Barack Obama addressed the world at Grant Park.
I continued my tastings, indulged in tasty hors d’oeuvres being passed around and had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. As the wineries began packing up and the elegantly dressed attendees leaving, the clouds rolled in and a few sprinkles came down but this was not going to dampen our spirits, especially as the servers began passing around the most delectable chocolate covered profiteroles. I walked over to the Graham Beck table to get my last sip, for the road, (do not worry – I was not driving) and the wonderful Mr Bubbles offered me a glass of the 1994 Brut that he had kept for the end. Well, how could I refuse. A perfect ending to my South African vacation!