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.