South African Sparkling Wines Washington DC
Silver Spring, MD
Silver Spring, MD
Graham Beck: South Africa's Sparkling Wine King - International Wine Review
Most famous for its sparkling wines, Graham Beck is one of South Africa’s most modern wineries from vineyard management to winemaking and international marketing of its products. It is also one of the larger wineries, with 400 ha. of vines and producing 400 thousand cases per year. It is one of the few South African wineries to “crack” the US market, doing so in part by becoming its own importer. Beck, a South African entrepreneur who started life as a coalminer, began planting vines at his 1850 ha Madeba Valley farm outside Robertson in 1984 and built the Robertson winery and produced his first sparkling wine there in 1991. He has since added a second vineyard and winery in Franschoek and two other vineyard sites in cool, Somerset West--the Skoongesig and Vredenhof farms. These four vineyards provide Graham Beck with diverse terroir, allowing different varietals to be planted in the sites for which they are best suited.
While Graham Beck makes and markets a full line of wines made from several varietals sold at several different price points, sparkling wine is the winery’s flagship. It was the first wine produced in 1991, and it remains a significant and growing part of the business, aided recently no doubt by the revelation that it is a favorite of Barak Obama, who celebrated his 2008 election with a bottle of Graham Beck Rose Brut. Pieter Ferreira (shown here on the left with Don Winkler) is cellarmaster in charge of winemaking; he is also directly responsible for his first love in winemaking—sparkling wine, or Methode Cap Classique (MCC) as it is called in South Africa. We recently met up with Pieter at the Franschoek winery where he led us through the Graham Beck portfolio, with focus on those wines being exported to the US. We began, of course, with sparkling wines, and we had the opportunity to taste the new, unreleased tête de cuvée, Clive, named in honor of Graham Beck’s deceased, eldest son. Erika Obermeyer, recently elected South African Woman Winemaker of the Year, and Irene Waller are the winemaking team along with Pieter Ferreira.
Pieter Ferreira grew up in Durban in KwaZuluNatal, the son of a wine distributor. Pieter began making sparkling wine in 1984 at the Cabrière cellar, South Africa’s first MCC specialist. In 1990 he joined Graham Beck, with the objective of making the estate a world leader in sparkling wine production. Graham Beck, who does nothing by half measures, gave Pieter all the resources he would need, and the results are easy to see in our tasting notes. The base wine for MCC is grown at the Robertson estate, which has hot summer days but huge diurnal variations—as much as 15°C—due to the prevailing southerly winds. This produces good acidity, so essential to sparkling wine; the grapes are picked early, about 95 days after flowering. The most recent addition to the vineyard has been the planting of Cham...
South African Sparklers - International Wine Review
When the International Wine Review did its exhaustive tasting of sparkling wines from around the world for its December 2008 report, South Africa was poorly represented with just one—albeit very good—wine, the Graham Beck 2005 Brut, the sparkler Barak and Michelle Obama used to celebrate his election night victory. Hence, when I recently traveled to Cape Town I decided to attempt to correct this oversight. What I found was very encouraging, and in some ways surprising
South African sparkling wine, often called MCC for Method Cap Classique, South Africa’s name for methode champenoise, is of a quality level that favorably compares with the better sparklers from California and elsewhere. South African winemakers use traditional Champagne grape varieties, and the good quality sparklers reported on here are those which they keep on the lees for two to four years. MCCs are produced in different regions (WO or Wine of Origin), that range from cool, cool Elim to the relatively warmer parts of Stellenbosch, but even those from warmer microclimates display good acidity and freshness
The big surprise is the price of good quality sparkling wine in South Africa. I tasted nothing costing more than $17, and most good quality MCCs are in the range $10 - $12. These low prices to a very small extent reflect the growing strength of the dollar. Unfortunately for US consumers, many of these wines are produced by new and young producers in small quantities and are unlikely to leave South African shores. Still, there’s clearly an opportunity for some far-sighted negociant to begin marketing these wines to an international audience.
I tasted about 25 sparkling wines during my stay in Cape Town. Below, I report my evaluations of the nine best South African sparklers scoring 89 or above. I would like to thank the members of the South Africa wine trade who joined me in a blind tasting of some of these wines in a tasteoff between South Africa and other sparkling wine regions.. The other wines included the Roederer Estate 2000 L’Ermitage Brut, which showed an autolytic richness and complexity that the South African sparklers we tasted couldn’t match (but, then, neither can most non-vintage Champagne). Also included was the Bellavista NV Franciacorta Brut, which showed a level of refinement matched only by the very best South African MCCs. The International Wine Review’s evaluation of these wines are included in Issue #14: Sparkling Wines of the World . But the price difference is impressive. Both the L’Ermitage and the Bellavista sells for three times the price of the best South African MCCs.
Below I’ve listed my evaluations of the top nine South African MCCs that I tasted. It’s important to note that these wines represent the best of South African sparkling wine and not the full universe. Since some of these wines (as well as a large number of others not reported here), were ta...