South Africa had to wait nearly a decade for someone to follow in Frans Malan’s footsteps by adding to the Cap Classique portfolio. The next prophet of sparkling wine hit the Cape with a rebellious exuberance and revolutionary energy far removed from the careful manner and weighted observations of those at Simonsig. By Emile Joubert
The poet and a renegade with sparkle in his soul
With a history of viticulture and wine production going back to 1685, Boschendal’s modern venture into the South African wine industry began in 1975, after Anglo American Corporation purchased the Simondium property in 1969. Then, in 1978, the arrival of Achim von Arnim as cellar master propelled Boschendal onto the Cape’s relatively new scene of estate winemaking. A graduate of the prestigious Geisenheim Institute in Germany, Achim’s pioneering spirit and vision were almost equal to his skill as a crafter of wines.
One of the first projects he embarked on was to make a Boschendal Cap Classique. It was not a difficult decision, as for most of his life he had been infatuated with Champagne and sparkling wine. Achim had worked in the caves of Champagne during his time at Geisenheim, but even before then he was a convert to this style of wine. “Thanks to my mother, Theodora, I fell in love with Champagne before I was legally old enough to drink. She was a teacher at Silwood Kitchen, the famous cooking school in Cape Town, and here she became a friend of André Simon, a personality from the Champagne house Pommery who visited Silwood regularly,” he says.
“Before Geisenheim, I started my apprenticeship at EK Green, the South African wine negotiant, where there was a ‘Champagne department’. Although this was nowhere near Champagne or the traditional method, since the sparkle was induced through carbonation, this experience introduced me to the balance that wines of this style need to achieve. This is the holy trinity of acidity, residual sugar and volume alcohol, in conjunction with carbon dioxide. To achieve balance, you need a set of rules different from those that apply to making a still wine because, as I quickly realised, the carbon dioxide amplifies these elements within the wine.”
With a new farm, a winery and a range of still wines at his disposal on Boschendal, Achim’s toying with the idea of creating Cap Classique soon turned into reality. In January 1980, by incredible luck, a young man named Jean Louis Denois came knocking on Achim’s door, seeking employment and experience in the Cape wine industry. Jean Louis stayed with Achim and his wife, Hildegard, for six months and returned for the harvest of 1981. Achim grabbed the opportunity to produce a Cap Classique with Jean Louis’ practical help and, more importantly, the Frenchman’s in-depth knowledge. Jean Louis hails from a family of Champagne producers, so Achim could not have wished for a more able and inspirational assistant to realise his dream of creating his first Cap Classique.
Achim explains the initial Boschendal foray into Cap Classique as real ‘flying by the seat of your pants stuff’. Jean Louis’ experience and know-how couldn’t change the fact that the traditional grape varieties for Champagne – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – didn’t grow on Boschendal. So in 1980, Achim and his vineyard manager Herman Hanekom set about sourcing plant material to establish Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards on Boschendal. Their fruit was ready to be used for Cap Classique in the mid-1980s, marking the estate and Achim as two of the true pioneers of this style of wine at the Cape.
The first experimental Cap Classique in 1980, however, was made from whatever grapes were on the farm, including Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. These untraditional grape varieties notwithstanding, Achim’s first attempts at Cap Classique taught him that in making this style of wine, you are in trouble if you do not respect the rules. “The devil’s in the detail,” he says. “The production of Champagne and Cap Classique requires an initial fermentation to make a base wine, followed by a second fermentation in the bottle. The period that the base wine spends on the yeast in the bottle after the second fermentation gives the cellar master time to observe how the batch has evolved by analysing the wine and looking at its taste profile. An appropriate dosage [of a sugar liquor] is added to adjust the final product to improve balance, mouthfeel and overall structure. This is the art of assessing and achieving the full potential of the wine. Here, practice makes perfect – or at least an improvement.
“Working with Cap Classique, I just knew everything is amplified by the sparkle, so you have to clear the mind of what you are used to doing with still wine and start afresh. Cap Classique is a totally different animal.” Those first results exceeded expectations, convincing Achim that his future in the wine industry would centre on Cap Classique. “It’s a celebration of life,” he says.
Pierre Jourdan meets Mister Bubbles
Achim von Arnim’s bubbles were not only in the bottle, but in the blood too, where they still are today. This Champagne–Cap Classique DNA led to him purchasing the property Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek, which was initially to be committed to making the sparkling stuff under the proud name Pierre Jourdan, the farm’s initial French Huguenot owner who had acquired the land in 1694.
However, Achim was still tied to Boschendal. Enter a young blonde guy named Pieter Ferreira who had studied microbiology and plant science at the University of Pretoria. At home in Durban his father entertained members of the winemaking fraternity, including legendary Stellenbosch wine farmer Jan Boland Coetzee.
After graduating, Pieter was working for the Citrus Board in KwaZulu-Natal while in the Cape Winelands two people were talking behind his back. Achim von Arnim and his winemaking chum Boland Coetzee were discussing who could be appointed to make wine at Haute Cabrière while the owner was still obligated to Boschendal. The young Ferreira’s name came up, and in 1983, the Durban boy found himself in Franschhoek, learning the ways of the bubble under the steely eye of Achim. “I’ve been under the spell of the bubble ever since,” says Pieter. “Cabrière allowed me to focus on one wine, Cap Classique. Equipment was rudimentary, to say the least. We had a cloth filter and a press that looked like a Sputnik. But under Achim’s vision, it was about craftsmanship. Using the noble varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Blending base wines with a vision of what the final product may offer. Judging the ideal time the wine spends on the lees. Disgorging. And the elation at the final product. I was enthralled by Cap Classique from day one and remain so today – more than ever.”
Besides learning from the master, Pieter was afforded the opportunity to visit Champagne while employed at Cabrière, to work at the great houses of Mumm and Krug. Cabrière’s maiden Pierre Jourdan Brut was a 1984 vintage and, along with Achim’s association with the product, Pieter’s quiet studiousness and engaging personality were being noted in wine circles. Fortunes collided. Achim left Boschendal to settle down full-time at Cabrière, taking the Pierre Jourdan brand to the nation as a premier Cap Classique, a position it still holds today under the stewardship of Achim’s son Takuan.
For Pieter, another man arrived to mark the beginning of a new chapter in his relationship with Cap Classique. This man’s name was Graham Beck.
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