There’s nothing like going out with a bang… Especially when that loud noise signals the ejection of a cork from a bottle, followed by a rush of bubbles. Sparkling wine and festive celebrations are synonymous, particularly at this time of year.
Nicky Krone of Twee Jonge Gezellen Estate used to tell a long, rather involved story about why the positively charged nature of bubbly was good for you. Sadly the story was followed by him liberally demonstrating his point and pouring quite a few glasses of older vintages of his Krone Borealis so the precise details will forever remain hazy…
South Africa’s history of making bubbly in the traditional French Champenoise method dates back to 1971, when Simonsig patriarch Frans Malan vinified the first-ever Kaapse Vonkel. He used the grapes he had available at the time – Chenin Blanc. Over the years his son and current cellarmaster Johan Malan refined the farm’s Méthode Cap Classique offering, utilising the classic Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
There’s no argument that South African bubbly quality has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 43 years. Witness the performance of Graham Beck and Silverthorn Wines’ sparklers on the international scene during 2014. Pieter Ferreira picked up the International Wine & Spirit Competition’s trophy for the best bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the world for the Graham Beck Blanc de Blanc 2009, the same wine which was honoured as the best Cap Classique at the inaugural Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship in the UK a month or two earlier.
John Loubser worked at Graham Beck’s Madeba bubbly cellar in Robertson more than a decade ago before moving on to Steenberg but kept his hand in with his own Silverthorn label. He flew to Australia in October to collect multiple trophies at the Six Nations Wine Challenge, where his Silverthorn Green Man Blanc de Blanc 2011 won best sparkling wine, best white wine overall and shared the honours as best wine overall with New Zealand’s Dog Point Pinot Noir 2012.
But referencing Frans Malan’s early pioneering work, there are some delightful bubblies being made from grapes other than the three traditional Champagne ones. Take Ken Forrester Wines’ Sparklehorse, for example. It debuted with the 2011 vintage and, as one would expect from perhaps the country’s most passionate advocate of Chenin Blanc, it is all Chenin. With its jewel-coloured carousel pony prancing merrily, the label alone has many people reaching for the bottle! The 2014 Platter Guide described it – a little uncharitably – as ‘Appletiser for grown-ups’. At a Women in Wine Exchange tasting alongside some Cremant de la Loire recently, the second edition from the 2012 vintage more than held its own.
Chenin Blanc isn’t the only grape adding interest to the sparkling wine scene. Pieter de Waal of Hermit on the Hill has made Starry Knight from Grenache Blanc, while Steenberg has capitalised on the massive increase in interest in bubbly by launching a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a grape the Constantia winery has a particular affinity with. Specialist sparkling wine producer The House of JC le Roux also does a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, which does very well commercially.
The bottom line and consumer preference – commercialism – is something which should not be underestimated. The festive season will see caseloads of commercial, somewhat sweeter styles of bubbly consumed. JC le Roux caters to those who enjoy sweeter, red bubbly in the form of La Chanson, which is made from Pinotage. Worcester producer Alvi’s Drift caters to the demand for fruity and sweet sparkling by using Muscat in its sparkling Naughty Girl range, as does the ever-popular Four Cousins range from Robertson producer Van Loveren. Nederburg Premier Cuvée Brut has in the past been fashioned from Chenin Blanc, Cape Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc but retains its crisp, green apple flavour.
Be it serious, bone dry and traditional from Chardonnay – or somewhat sweeter and more frivolous, given to good times and fun with friends – the message from all these producers is that there is a thirst for wine with a bubble that shows no sign of abating.
– Fiona McDonald