50 years of Cap Classique: PART 3

In our final instalment of celebrating half a century of Cap Classique, we meet Mister Bubbles, aka Pieter Ferreira, find out how the Cap Classique Producers Association came into being, and Emile Joubert shares his passion for pairing Cap Classique with food.

Cap Classique
Known as Mister Bubbles for his way with sparkling wine, cellar master Pieter Ferreira has been capturing the stars in liquid form for close on four decades.

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.

Mining Cape Classique Greatness

In 1990, Pieter found himself in a room on Boland Coetzee’s Vriesenhof Estate as part of a gathering of various experts on matters of wine farming. Leading the conversation was the caller of the meeting, one Graham Beck, a mining and racehorse magnate who had bought a farm near Robertson nine years earlier. The farm was called Madeba and Graham had a simple yet ambitious message for the assembled group. “I want to make the best expression of sparkling wine in South Africa,” he told them.

Pieter was appointed as the guy responsible for the ‘making’. Others involved included Gary Baumgarten as head of production and wine-marketing supremo Jacques Roux, who had cut his teeth at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Douglas Green Bellingham, among others.

“That was part of the success: Graham knowing exactly what he wanted and appointing the right people,” says Jacques, who has just retired after 40 years in the industry. “Gary, a former KWV employee, made things happen on the production side, and I think he won’t be mad at me for saying the Cap Classique icon that is Pieter Ferreira began at Graham Beck. The label said Graham Beck, but once you popped the cork and the bubbles flowed it was all Pieter Ferreira.”

Pieter has been at the helm of Graham Beck since the first 1990 vintage and no other South African winemaker has become so inextricably linked to Cap Classique as he has. His exceptional knowledge of and experience with Cap Classique aside, the Graham Beck brand provided a sassy, fashionable marketing framework to endorse its talented vigneron in the cellar.

Throw in the opinions of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, both of whom selected the wine for celebratory occasions, and the fact that it features in modern James Bond novels, and the name Graham Beck has brought generations of new palates to Cap Classique. And played a huge role in the category’s strength that today sees the production of four million bottles annually.

Amorim Cork and the Producers Association

The major category that Cap Classique has become warrants an association of like-minded winemakers and one was formed in 1992. The Cap Classique Producers Association has helped to grow the success of our sparkling wines, marketing the vibrant Cap Classique lifestyle and informing the international market that Brand South African Wine also makes good bubbles.

Pieter Ferreira, the association’s current chairperson, says that over the past two decades the major reason for the increase in quality of Cap Classique has been the emphasis on the attention to detail shown by the country’s winemakers.

“Cap Classique does not make itself,” he says. “We respect the vineyard and the Cape’s exceptional pockets of terroir that produce the grapes for our sparkling wines. Cellar technology adapts every few years; new processes offer more refinement, more elegance, greater textural nuances. It’s been great to see winemakers embracing this, investigating, researching. That is one of the main tasks of the Cap Classique Producers Association: to provide a platform where we can share information.”

The excellence of Cap Classique is recognised each year in the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, a competition committed to rating Cap Classiques that the association started in 2002 with Amorim, a Portuguese company that has been producing and distributing cork stoppers to the global wine industry since 1870.

Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork South Africa, says the initial idea was to create a platform where Cap Classique producers could see how their wines measured up against those of their peers. “Amorim produces corks for the top Champagne houses of France and we pride ourselves on associations with wines that represent excellence,” he adds. “Excellence and Cap Classique go together; the quality of the wines, the people who make them, the image of the category as developed over the past 50 years. When the association began talking of a competition to select the top Cap Classique wines, Amorim jumped at the opportunity to be a partner.”

According to Heidi Duminy, Cape Wine Master and current head of the judging panel, Cap Classique is on the rise in all respects. “The past 10 years have shown an exciting progression in diversity and quality, particularly in balance and definition of style,” she says. “The category came of age when we stopped trying to be Champagne. Fifty vintages since the release of the first Cap Classique, there is a much better understanding of the complexities of the traditional process in a Cape context and how our vibrant fruit best responds to bottle fermentation. Experience has made all the difference, along with the collective focus lavished on the category by determined and curious producers who continuously experiment, share insights and drive improvements in quality. The future looks bright, with longer mandatory lees maturation time and the coming of age of more flagship prestige cuvées.”

With this year marking the 50-year celebration of Simonsig Estate making the first Cap Classique and the 20th Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, it is interesting to recall who was the overall winner of the very first Cap Classique Challenge. The answer: Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel.

Of wine and men: A gathering of Cap Classique Legends

Old Cap Classique makers never lose their sparkle: they just fizz with mature effervescence and pop louder. This showed at a milestone event this year hosted by Joaquim Sá of Amorim Cork that brought together the living-legend makers of Cap Classique wines at Stellenbosch’s Glenelly Estate for a lunch, a tasting of their older sparkling wines and, as could be expected from the human pedigree present, a log-book full of tales, stories and memories.

The stalwarts of Cap Classique - Stellenbosch Visio
The stalwarts of Cap Classique celebrate with their biggest fans. BACK: Nicky Krone, Johan Malan, Emile Joubert, Joaquim Sá, Frank Meaker and Jeff Grier. FRONT: Pieter Ferreira, Mike Graham and Achim von Arnim.

The A-team around the table read like the Who’s Who of South African sparkling wine:

  • Achim von Arnim, who made Boschendal Estate’s first Cap Classique in 1981 before Haute Cabrière, still one of the country’s founding Cap Classique names.
  • Jeff Grier, proprietor of Villiera, who released the winery’s first bottle-fermented wine in 1984.
  • Johan Malan from Simonsig, home to the first Cap Classique in 1971 and where Johan began making wine in 1982.
  • Nicky Krone, former head of Twee Jongegezellen in Tulbagh, whose Krone Borealis Cap Classique was a pioneering brand for this category throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Pieter Ferreira, chairman of the Cap Classique Association, who made his first Cap Classique at Haute Cabrière in 1984 before going on to head up Graham Beck and turning it into the leading winery and brand it is today.
  • Mike Graham, who launched Distillers’ Pongrácz brand in 1990.
  • Frank Meaker, who was one of the founding team that put JC le Roux Cap Classique on the map for what was then Distillers Corporation, where he made fizz between 1984 and 1988.

Joaquim, who organised the event with Pieter Ferreira, explains that it was Achim who had come up with the idea. “A wine writer who visited Achim some time ago told me of Achim’s wish to get the old hands of Cap Classique around a table,” he says. “And with this being the 50th year of celebrating Cap Classique, a category Amorim has been supporting for 20 years through the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, I immediately contacted Pieter, who didn’t hesitate to get the ball rolling.”

Mike Graham remembered the launch of the maiden Pongrácz vintage in 1990 also providing some gas. “It was a media launch and as usual the event was topped with a lunch at the old Doornbosch Restaurant in Stellenbosch. By the time the journalists – about 30 wine writers from all over the country – arrived at Doornbosch the obligatory sample bottles were already in their cars. Thing is, the bottle pressure of those samples was a bit excessive and while everyone was eating, drinking and toasting this new Pongrácz Cap Classique, outside in the parking bays the bottles were exploding in the cars. Long story short, it cost us more to clean the journalists’ cars than to throw the launch event itself.”

To add to the formidable presence of the Cap Classique makers around the table, Pieter Ferreira persuaded the gentlemen to bring along some rare older Cap Classique gems. Those lucky enough to be present agreed this year’s focus on 50 years of Cap Classique gained more importance at this lunch thanks to the quality of the older wines that were opened and poured.

These included Krone Borealis 1993; Villiera CWG 1987; Pierre Jourdan 1984 and 1985; Graham Beck 1991 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, 1993 Blanc de Blancs and 1994 Brut; and Simonsig Blanc de Blancs 2007.

These wines had drawn complexity from time in the bottle, developing intriguing flavours, luxurious palate weight and, like the legendary winemakers assembled for the auspicious occasion, they had not lost their sparkle.

Quoin Rock Cap Classique
Bubbly is the traditional drink of choice with oysters, but there’s no need to limit it to seafood or special occasions. Our experts suggest Cap Classique goes just as well with take-away pizza.

Fizz and the table

My association with Cap Classique and food has to do with James Bond and Villiera Estate, one of the Cap Classique pioneers from the mid-1980s. During a hot Cape Town summer’s day back in 1989, I was reading Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, one of the more famous Bond novels. There is a scene where Bond dines on the Miami beachfront with a man named Junius Du Pont, a wealthy gambler. I forgot what the two were talking about, so vivid and mouthwatering was the culinary decadence:

Mr Du Pont slapped his menu shut. He said to Bond, ‘Now, why don’t you just leave this to me? If there’s anything you don’t like, send it back.’ And to the head waiter, ‘Stone crabs. Not frozen. Fresh. Melted butter. Thick toast. Right? Two pints of pink champagne. The Pommery ‘50. Silver tankards. Right?’

The champagne seemed to have the faintest scent of strawberries. It was ice cold. After each helping of crab, the champagne cleaned the palate for the next.

After reading that scene, I dedicated the day to the procuring of a bottle of pink sparkling wine and Villiera’s Tradition Brut Rosé was the only Cap Classique of colour to be found. It also happened to be the first Cap Classique Rosé in the country and while perhaps not a Pommery Champagne 1950, it was a pretty delicious cool bottle of fizz for an impressionable youngster just beginning the immersion into wine.

And as it was affordable too, I developed a habit of making Villiera Tradition Rosé a drink of choice during mealtimes and ever since have regarded sparkling wine as a general anywhere, anytime lifestyle drinking wine not limited to revelries, weddings and the celebrating of business deals or legal victories – just as Cap Classique makers would want.

Having had the good fortune to dine at home with Pieter Ferreira and his wife Ann, who among other things owns the Cap Classique range named, well, Pieter Ferreira, I have experienced Cap Classique to be about as versatile a partner to food as Kate Winslet is to acting roles. At Casa Ferreira, bottles of Rosé will be gulped between salty, savoury bites of charcuterie meats such as salami, Spanish jamón and coppa. Braaied Karoo lamb chops and spicy boerewors get some boere chic with an icy bottle of Brut, and with the cheese selection the berry notes of a Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs is ideal.

“Yes, versatility is one of Cap Classique’s features as a wine for the table,” says Ann, a non-too-shabby cook herself. “It is, for example, great with a sharp cheese such as pecorino. And the texture of fizz and bubble make Cap Classique an ideal accompaniment to meat dishes with a cream-based sauce – I’m thinking blanquette de veau. But no rules; last weekend we made wood-fired pizzas at home and with a bottle of Blanc de Blancs they were excellent. We are all adults now and can make our own rules, which the versatility of Cap Classique most surely allows one to do.”

Sam Linsell, a food writer, stylist and photographer who is at the helm of www.drizzleanddip.com also subscribes to the theory of culinary versatility in Cap Classique. “It’s always a good time to drink Cap Classique, so a breakfast of Brut of Blanc de Blancs with eggs Benedict is a match made in heaven, as long as the dish is made with smoked salmon,” she says. “Being a cool, fun-to-drink wine with such fresh flavours, I’d also go as far as saying Cap Classique is great with a well-made hamburger. Of course, if there is a lobster roll going instead, that’ll do nicely.”

Wine writer and educator Cathy Marston brings her upbringing in Yorkshire to the fore when asked about her preferred match with Cap Classique. “The stuff is made to drink when you buy it, so why not a good plate of fish and chips?” she says. “Or a take-away pizza.”

As far as the professional chefs go, Jack Coetzee at Quoin Rock Winery, which also produces Cap Classique, says, “Our Black Series Cap Classique has a wonderfully complex acidity that is great for breaking down and balancing fatty dishes. It will go well with an oily fish or liver. The Blanc de Blancs has more toasted brioche notes, making it great for pairing with crustaceans, oysters and mussels. Seaweed complements the Cap Classique wonderfully.” James Bond and Du Pont should approve.