While we at The Vintner Project sip bubbly year-round, whether it’s New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, the birth of someone’s baby, or just a really good Tuesday morning, sparkling wines do tend to enjoy a little bit more attention on some of these celebratory occasions. Which is why we have bubbly on the brain right now in a big way. But not just any bubbly. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about one of our favorite regions for traditional method sparkling wine – South Africa.
Known as “Cap Classique,” this mouth-watering fizz is produced in the same way as Champagne; that is, with the secondary fermentation that creates those tingly bubbles taking place in the bottle. The name – decided in 1992 by a group of 14 likeminded South African producers that included Simonsig, Graham Beck, Villiera, Boschendal, Pierre Jourdan, and Pongracz that would become the Cap Classique Producers Association – refers to the Cape where the grapes are grown (“Cap”) and the “Classic” method with which the wines are produced.
“What sets us apart [as a sparkling wine category] is that we are uniquely South African,” says Pieter Feirrera, AKA “Mr. Bubbles,” Graham Beck’s founding cellar master and head of the Cap Classique Producers association. “In the rest of the world they chase ripeness, but in South Africa we chase the sun. Our weather patterns are so much more regular and constant, which gives our Cap Classiques a taste of sunshine in a glass.”
This “sunshine in a glass” – a description we hear often among Cap Classique producers – is largely a result of a diverse Mediterranean climate influenced by the cold Atlantic Ocean surrounding the Cape, as well as soils that are geologically some of the oldest vine growing soils in the world. And, of course, plenty of sunshine.
This combination of factors creates the ideal environment for the production of top-quality sparkling wines that reflect various growing conditions throughout the region. And, since Cap Classique can be produced in all of the various Wine of Origin regions throughout South Africa, a remarkable breadth and depth of style and flavor can be found among these sparkling wines.
“The Coastal Region in the Western Cape has some fantastic cool climate sites, unique not only for their topography, but also for the complexity that they provide in the final product due to soil, weather, and aspect of the vineyards,” says Boschendal’s winemaker Danielle Coetsee. “In the case of sites like Elgin, which has both proximity and elevation, we find grapes that not only have perfect pH and acid ratios – giving way to wines with age-ability and length – but that also have tremendous depth of flavor.”
In addition to classic sparkling wine grape varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, South Africa’s signature varieties – Chenin Blanc and Pinotage – are also permitted, which Johan Malan of Simonsig Wines thinks is the icing on the cake. “You have all the pieces of the puzzle to make high quality Cap Classique with a true South African personality and style,” he says.
So What’s the Bad News?
It’s hard to imagine drinking anything else when reading about these wines. And yet sparkling wines of South Africa remain relatively underrepresented among the bubbly consumption habits of American consumers.
According to Danielle, South Africa produces around 4% of all wine globally, and is ranked 8th internationally in terms of volume production. Cap Classique represents less than 1% of total wines exported from South Africa. Of that 1% exported, 17% saw the US markets in 2021-22. Compared to volumes of Prosecco and Champagne, roughly 600 million and 300 million bottles respectively, Cap Classique has only recently hit the 10 million bottle mark.
“Our focus for Cap Classique production has been quality first and foremost,” Danielle explains. “While we cannot compete on volume compared to other sparkling wine producing countries and styles, we trust quality above quantity will win over the hearts (and palates) of consumers.”
How does this underrepresented category begin to bridge the gap between the relative success of other sparkling wine regions, and its own potential for success? What needs to happen in order for wine consumers to reach for a bottle of Cap Classique instead of (or in addition to) their usual Prosecco or Cava selection?
“That Cap Classique is under the radar is an understatement,” echoes Pieter. “There are still very few Cap Classique wines that reach the American wine drinker, but at Graham Beck we are working on it. ‘Liquid-over-lips’ is the secret key to winning the US wine drinker over.”
Of course, as with many areas of the wine industry, education is a key component to awareness. But there are also several market forces that need to be overcome as well for these South African sparkling wines to become more widely available – and thus discoverable.
“Cap Classique needs a lot more exposure in the vast U.S. market, and doing that not only requires time, but also big investment in building the brand and a reputation for quality among American consumers,” says Johan. “We do not have the budget to achieve that on the required scale.”
For a country that proactively came together to not only discover the possibilities of traditional method sparkling wines but also to create a trade organization dedicated to promoting and preserving this category within South African wines speaks to the region’s ability to collaborate for the greater good, in a rising tide lifts all boats approach. Combined with the growth of direct-to-consumer channels and an interest in lesser represented regions among younger consumers, there is hope for the category. In fact, all wines referenced in this story are available through Wine.com and other online platforms, and retail for less than $25 per bottle.
“Cap Classique is not just for celebrations or special occasions… unless that special occasion is, perhaps, because it is a Tuesday,” says Danielle. “In all seriousness…producing the perfect bubble is my life’s pursuit. I don’t want to ‘convince’ people that it is good. I would just like for them to try it and then decide for themselves…Cap Classique is sunlight captured in a bottle and is (literally) the most alive that a bottle of wine can be.”
Begin Your Cap Classique Adventure
Curious about these traditional method sparkling wines of South Africa? Get to know these three key producers for an official start to your Cap Classique journey.
Perhaps the most recognized name among U.S. consumers, Graham Beck is located in Robertson Wine Valley, close to Cape Town. Focusing on minimal intervention, terroir-driven winemaking practices, Graham Beck has built out a portfolio entirely of Cap Classique wines ranging from sweeter “nectar” styles to ultra-brut.
“We are Cap Classique specialists,” says Pieter. “From grape to glass, the entire process of producing a Graham Beck Cap Classique relies on meticulous attention to detail, dedication to authenticity, precision timing, and plenty of patience. At Graham Beck, our team is passionately pursuing the perfect bubble – a golden thread of excellence runs throughout the entire process and portfolio.”
Wine to try: Graham Beck Brut Rosé, $22
The name Boschendal – Dutch for “bush and dale” – is a nod to this historic property’s identity as a model for “holistic country living.” Located between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, Boschendal is one of the oldest wine estates and farms in South Africa, boasting a history that spans nearly 340 years. It’s also a spectacular destination for sparkling wine grapes.
“We were the second producer in South Africa to make a traditional method sparkling,” says Danielle. “Furthermore, our focus is on producing ultra-premium wines from cool sites that showcase a sense of place and that are made in a way that is environmentally sustainable. For this, Boschendal was awarded as a WWF Champion, not only for the production of a wonderful product, but for the sustainable and ethical manner in which production takes place.”
Wine to try: Boschendal Brut Rosé, $20
“In 2021, we celebrated our 40-year milestone of Cap Classique production at Boschendal, which might seem relatively recent compared to the age of the estate,” says Danielle. “But we still have winemaker notes from the 80s for producing Cap Classique, which is tremendously special, both as a reference for winemaking, but even more so for the value it holds in seeing how far we have come in the last four decades of producing bubbles.”
Cap Classique likely wouldn’t exist as we know it today if it hadn’t been for the groundbreaking work of Simonsig Wine Estate, owned by the Malan family and located northwest of Stellenbosch. The late Frans Malan produced the first Cap Classique wine, called Kaapse Vonkel (Afrikaans for “Sparkle of the Cape”) in 1971, after visiting and being inspired by the Champagne region, setting in motion the beginnings of something truly special.
“In 2021 all the producers of Cap Classique joined in to celebrate not only 50 years of Kaapse Vonkel but also 50 years of Cap Classique,” says Johan. “It was a wonderful occasion because despite South Africa producing wine for 364 years, the modern era only started in the 1960s…. Our long history and knowledge of the soils of the estate are key ingredients in what it takes to create every bottle of Kaapse Vonkel.”