By Celia Strong
Sometimes, just for no reason at all, you fall in love with a wine. We all say things like that, but, as we all know, we are striving to learn what it is we like and don’t like about certain wines. With knowledge we can spend our money better and drink what we like more often than not. Correct terminology is also part of what we’re striving to learn. That way we can tell someone why we like our favorites. (Or, better yet, why our favorites are better than their favorites. Nothing like a war of words when you have the better words!) Anyhow, there are wines that we really do just like, from our very first taste of them. All we have to do is sound like we know what we’re talking about when we tell others about them. Our wine this week is a perfect example. I really like it because it tastes good. But, I have to sound more intelligent and professional about why. So, here we go with this week’s lesson.
We travel to South Africa. First of all, let’s just admit that after that long a plane ride, most any glass of wine would be greatly appreciated! (The reverse of that is that it takes a good wine to make the trip from there to here and still taste good.) The history of wine in South Africa dates back to 1659, when Constantia, a vineyard estate near Cape Town, was considered to be one of the greatest wine producers in the world. The country’s wine industry is still centered around Cape Town – major production centers being at Paarl, Stellenbosch and Worcester. In 1963, South African wine laws were established. These set up sixty appellations in a hierarchy of tiers of wines ranging from regions to districts to wards and, eventually, a few single vineyard designated wines. A “ward” is close to what a French appellation is because it reflects a distinctive soil type and climate in its grapes.
More important for us this week, though, is some information on Methode Cap Classique. Since the 1990’s, sparkling wine made in South Africa in the traditional Champagne way is known as Methode Cap Classique or MCC. The most common grape varieties used are Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (called Steen in South Africa). But, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can also be used – the two main grapes of the Champagne region of France. When making MCC wines, the grapes are harvested early. This is to make sure that the sugar levels are lower, because some sugar will be added later in the process. The juice of the grapes is pressed quickly, to make sure the finished wines are clear and bright, not yellow or gold. The first wines, meaning the one that is made from the first fermentation, are high in acidity and low in sugar. Not necessarily very pleasant. Then, the first wines are blended together, making a much nicer tasting still wine, and the MCC process is begun.
The blended still wine goes into bottles. A small amount of yeast is added, followed by a bit of sugar. Grape sugar. And the bottles are capped – closed tight. The yeast “eats” the sugar, produces a bit more alcohol and gives off carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is trapped inside the bottles, in the wine, and becomes the bubbles. A secondary fermentation, in the bottle, just like in Champagne. While this is taking place, the bottles lay on their sides in producers’ cellars for a year and a half. Actually, some wineries let them lay there for up to three years. “Lees,” the residue that settle out of the wines while going through their second fermentation, are removed at the end of this time – the cap is removed and “disgorging” is done. Then, the bottle is corked and ready for us. Methode Cap Classique is the most used process for making sparkling wines in South Africa. And there is an MCC association that oversees its members.
Graham Beck is the name of our winery this week. The founder, – yes, Graham Beck – was born in Cape Town and bought a farm called Madeba outside of the Western Cape town of Robertson, in 1983. His goal was to establish a world-class winery and tasting room. Which he apparently did very well. The success at Robertson led to a second property in the Fraanschhoek Valley. There were two philosophies guiding his business. “Great wine is made in the vineyard.” And, “Focus on getting the basics right the first time.” Easy to say, but harder to maintain. Consistently. Over the years, Graham Beck established a reputation as one of his country’s leading MCC producers. The production of their MCC wines is based in their Robertson facility, where they make a range of different sparkling wines. Ours is the Brut Non-Vintage. Made from fifty-three percent Chardonnay and forty-seven percent Pinot Noir, this bubbly is a genuine treat. And a nice surprise! Both grape varieties are hand picked. Chardonnay gives fruit and elegance to wine. Pinot Noir gives complexity and length. The grapes are fermented separately and then blended. Sometimes with a bit of reserve wine for the non-vintage. Really? Just like Champagne? The blend is bottled and cellared for fifteen to eighteen months of yeast contact before disgorging. The finished sparkling has apricot and mango aromas, hints of citrus peel in the flavors, lemon and lime, and a creamy texture. And, a bright, lively acidity. Delicious!
As you can see, there really are reasons why this wine is so good. Which means we, as trainees of wine-speak, can tell others why we like it. We like because it tastes good. But, at its $13.99 price, it tastes a whole lot better. See! Another technical reason we like this wine. The right price, the right flavors and textures, the right process to make it. For no reason at all and for all the right reasons. We win. Enjoy!