Half a century ago a few audacious winemakers started bottling the stars on local soil. Ever since, South Africa’s homegrown sparkling wine has been our favourite way to celebrate. In fact, opening a bottle is an occasion in itself. Stellenbosch Visio salutes the makers of Cap Classique and the bubbles that bring so much joy. By Emile Joubert
Sparkling wine made according to the traditional method of Champagne is arguably the most famous and revered style of wine the human race has conjured since it began fermenting grape juice in Georgia, at the intersection of Europe and Asia, 6,000 years ago. Champagne, the French region 140km east of Paris, might have ownership of and naming rights to the most famous of all sparkling wines, but other winemaking nations also craft sparkling elixirs in the Champagne tradition. And while such elixirs may never match the acclaim and quality of the originals from France, they do take pride of place among their respective countries’ wine offerings.
South Africa is a proud winemaking country whose history of vinous endeavours dates to 1659. But we had to wait a few centuries before seeing the first traditional sparkling wine made from grapes grown in Cape soils. It was only in 1971, a fleeting half-century ago, that a pioneering winemaker took it upon himself to attempt making a wine using that magical process initiated in Champagne. This process is where a specially made still wine, low in alcohol and high in acid, is re-fermented in the bottle, a process whereby the wine becomes infused with millions of bubbles and takes on a joyous, life-affirming flavour and spirited playfulness in the drinker’s mouth.
The man behind the birth of South Africa’s sparkling wine, today globally recognised as Cap Classique, was the late Frans Malan. As the proprietor of Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch, Frans was known for looking beyond the horizon of convention. It was he, too, who founded the idea of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes – also in 1971 – with a few like-minded wine farmers.
Frans was beguiled by what he experienced in the Champagne region during a visit to France in 1969. Entering the cellars of the great Champagne houses in Reims and Épernay and taking in the centuries-old culture of these great sparkling wines, their vineyards of origin and the sleight of human hand required to guide the raw young wines through a process of bubble-creating secondary fermentation, he was inspired. He returned to Simonsig committed to putting that name on the first bottle of Cape wine made by following the awe-inspiring methods of Champagne and bottling a semblance of a culture that began in France in the late 17th century.
Johan Malan, Frans’ son who today owns and farms Simonsig with his brother, Francois, says that while his father was obviously inspired by the romance of Champagne, the decision to make the first Cap Classique was the result of logic and the situation Cape wine farmers found themselves in 50 years ago. “In those days, South Africa’s offering of grape varieties was not nearly as diverse as it is today,” says Johan.
“White cultivars were grown in abundance, with Chenin Blanc, Crouchen Blanc (Cape Riesling), Colombard and Clairette Blanche being the only ones available. As an estate owner, my father had to find ways to add value to Simonsig’s wine offering, as there is only so much one could do with a limited selection of varieties. Plus, he realised that in this environment of the copious availability of semi-sweet, dry and sweet white wine, the consumer was ready for something different.”
Not that there weren’t sparkling wines on the market at the time. But all of these, like the ubiquitous Grand Mousseux, were mere white wines that had been gassed with carbon dioxide to force a wild, burpy sparkle. The nuances, complexity and texture of a true bottlefermented sparkling wine were not on offer, except to those fortunate enough to be able to afford imported Champagne. For Simonsig’s initial foray into the real sparkling deal, as it were, Frans selected Chenin Blanc for his cultivar of origin. “I was still a youngster but I remember those first steps into Cap Classique being a classic example of trial and error,” reminisces Johan.
“There were no references in South Africa for making traditional, bottle-fermented sparkling wine, so it was like aiming in the dark in terms of making the lower-alcohol, high-acid base wines, riddling the bottles to allow the lees to settle and concocting the dosage liquor to top up the finished wine. When it came to the equipment this process requires, well, in those first years of making Cap Classique, it was more carpentry and homemade engineering than winemaking. The wooden racks for holding the filled bottles during secondary fermentation, the containers for freezing the necks before disgorging, inserting those broad, bung-like Champagne corks – everything had to be thought out and built by ourselves.”
No wonder that when Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel 1971 – South Africa’s very first Cap Classique – hit the market in 1973, it came with thethen princely price tag of R3 a bottle. It was an immediate success, largely thanks to Simonsig’s savvy marketing efforts, which included mail-order lists and a personalised direct-marketing strategy. Maureen Joubert, a former editor of South African wine publication Wynboer, today known as Wineland, says that when Frans Malan did or said something about wine, people listened. “His infectious energy and enthusiasm for everything about Stellenbosch and South African wine made it impossible for us not to get caught up in what he was doing,” she says.
“Whether it was fighting for a South African Wine of Origin system to give the various Cape regions a vehicle for expressing their unique terroir or encouraging the wineries to get out of their shells and embrace visitors under wine tourism bodies, Frans was at the coalface of South African wine. At the beginning when he made our country’s first ‘Champagne’ using the traditional method, the wine industry and wine drinkers sat up and took notice. If Frans Malan did it, and he thought it worth introducing this wine style to South Africa, there had to be something about it worth taking notice of.”
Using the traditional style is one thing. But the Chenin Blanc grape is as far away from French Champagne as Tahiti is from Theuniskraal. “It was a question of plant material,” explains Johan. “In making the first Kaapse Vonkel, we could use only what was available in the vineyard. The true Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were just not available in South Africa; we planted Chardonnay at Simonsig only in 1978 and were one of the first farms to do so. But with Kaapse Vonkel hitting the spot, the next step was to indeed convert to the classic varieties this style of wine requires. In 1987 – 16 years after the first Cap Classique – Simonsig moved to a Kaapse Vonkel made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
Half a century later, Simonsig remains among the top Cap Classique offerings. And if you are going to toast this year’s 50th anniversary of a stunning South African wine category, make it a Kaapse Vonkel. The one that’s stood the test of time. And how.
Sipping stars with the best
AMORIM | BLAAUWKLIPPEN | BOSCHENDAL | GENEVIEVE | GRAHAM BECK | HAUTE CABRIÈRE | HAZENDAL | JORDAN | KLEINE ZALZE | KRONE | KWV | L’ORMARINS | LANZERAC | LE LUDE | LONGRIDGE | LOUISVALE | PONGRÁCZ | QUOIN ROCK | SIMONSIG | SPIER | STEENBERG | VILLIERA | VINOTÈQUE | WOOLWORTHS
Part 2 of our Cap Classique celebratory feature will appear in our 10 September 2021 newsletter.