Photographs Annemieke Goldswain-Hein | Pixel Lounge
Luxury takes many forms and liquid in a bubbly bottle is right up there. Popping a cork and filling a flute brings about a feeling of spoiling. Quality fizz compels people to share and creates an occasion where there wasn’t one. Ever heard of a prestige cuvée? It should be first choice if you lust after labels or have high expectations. In Champagne terms it refers to the best of the best, a micro-selection of superior stuff. It’s usually a standout vintage involving extended time on the grape lees (the sediment). Prestige cuvée Champagnes – let’s call them PCs – include vintage Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer Cristal, labels with standing around the globe. Yet a handful of South African Méthode Cap Classique producers with a track record are quietly crafting elegant PCs too.
Cap Classique PCs are filling gaps in VIP gift lists, and filling flutes with class. You’ll spend upwards of R1 500 for PC Champagnes such as Dom P. “Cristal is a good wine, and so is Dom P. Unfortunately rappers and celebrities have elevated the brand equity of some popular Champagnes, which sometimes pushes prices to ridiculous levels,” says Roland Peens of Wine Cellar. These brands don’t only move because of what’s inside the bottle. “Prestige cuvées often sell because they have iconic branding. They’re easy to understand, very palatable and make consumers look credible – great bling drinking,” adds Peens. With Cap Classique PCs on the other hand, the bar is set high yet prices are refreshingly moderate. Locally made PCs from Simonsig, Krone, Villiera, Silverthorn, J.C. le Roux and Pongrácz average at around R250. The priciest, Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2007, sells at R475.
Perhaps you believe that Champagne is better. Not necessarily. With Champagne and Cap Classique PCs a key aspect is the lengthy time the wine is left on its lees compared to a non-vintage Brut. All MCCs featured here spent three to five years’ lees time or longer – a costly move for wineries that need to shift stock. The greatest offshoot is seen in the finer bubbles, enhanced complexity and delicacy in the glass. Local PC producers share a commitment to limited quantities, using only their best grapes (Champagne varieties), making vintage wines, and often partially barrel-fermenting Chardonnay for a richer textured result.
Although made in limited quantities, Simonsig’s crème de la crème Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs MCC 2007 (R205) has shown an increase in demand since the maiden 1991 vintage was launched on Table Mountain in 1999. Simonsig fans now ask for “the blue label”. The 2005 and 2007 vintages respectively won best Blanc de Blanc in the 2011 and 2012 Amorim Méthode Cap Classique Challenges, the 2005 was overall winner in 2011. Simonsig cellarmaster Johan Malan believes this Chardonnay-only vintage wine with a small barrel-fermented addition is an obvious fit for five years lees’ time – Chardonnay takes longer to reach its peak. Why make a PC though? “Because volumes are small, we can develop this wine to absolute perfection,” says Malan. Cuvée Royale is being sold in international duty-free stores this festive season. “We’re intentionally competing with imported Champagnes where we can offer the same quality. It’s different from anything else we do. It appeals to people who are after a dryer, more sophisticated bubbly,” Malan continues.
Villiera introduced SA’s first Cap Classique PC in the late 80s as Villiera Carte d’Or. The branding is now Villiera Monro Brut Prestige Cuvée 2007. The modestly priced (R150) vintage wine spends five years on its lees. Pinot Noir and Meunier combine with 50 percent Chardonnay, barrel fermentation enhancing creaminess. If medals matter, Jeff Grier reckons Villiera Monro Brut is the most internationally awarded PC – try a John Platter five star for 2005 and 2007, International Wine & Spirit Competition Gold and Best in class for 2006, Decanter regional trophy and Five Nations Wine Challenge trophy winner for 2007. “It’s the one bubbly we enter into every competition and invariably it wins something,” says Grier.
The same team produces Villiera “Black label” Vintage Reserve Brut 2007 for Woolworths (R110). This wine combines only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and took the Cap Classique trophy in the Old Mutual Trophy Show 2012. So who’s buying? “I don’t think people differentiate between a flagship Brut and a prestige cuvée. Ninety percent believe that bubbly is prestigious anyway by pulling out Cap Classique instead of carbonated on special occasions,” says Grier. “But the new black diamonds are more aware of the prestige aspect of things so there is a need to market differently.” Woolworths Black Label is sold in black gift packaging, while Monro Brut has a gift box option. Woolworths wine consultant Allan Mullins believes a PC is the bubbly that a Champagne house or MCC producer ‘puts their heart and soul into’. It should stand out from the crowd and be sold at a higher value, hence packaging should be special.
One richly elegant PC is an exception. It’s free of oak and isn’t a vintage wine. The thinking behind Krone Prestige Cuvée Nicholas Marque I Brut (R285) is “the best of the best” of 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages. Blended and bottled in 2004, the wine was kept on the lees for 7.5 years. “Krone focuses on bubbly so there are always one or two tanks where you park off, taste it and just go ‘ahh’. Yet usually that great stuff is blended away and lost,” explains winemaker Matthew Krone of the methodology. “Each vintage gives you something so special. So we decided to try to bottle this character, something different from the norm. We limit it to 5 000 bottles per time.” It’s been well received. “We regularly visit Champagne where we’re hosted by some of the big names in the business. One respected Frenchman gave me the biggest compliment of all: he said with this wine he wouldn’t be able to stop drinking.” The Krone is named in honour of Matthew’s winemaking grandfather Nicholas Charles, and his 62-year marriage to Veronique de la Marque Krone.
For Graham Beck, the creation of Cuvée Clive (R475) was about cherry-picking the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their Robertson farm. “Cuvée Clive remains our aspirational bubbly in the sense that we’re always in search of the perfect bubble. It’s the pinnacle made only in a year with a wow factor. It isn’t made according to a recipe,” says cellarmaster Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira. This stand-alone vintage wine made in exclusive quantities uses a portion of barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It’s the most luxuriously packaged PC of the Cap Classiques, reinforcing the handcrafted perception. “In my view to be a prestige cuvée the texture should be creamy, the bubble softer and there should be influence of time on cork. Anything under three years on the lees won’t cut it,” says Ferreira. This wine had five. Only 200 to 400 cases are made, spread by word of mouth or via selected upmarket restaurant wine lists. “We have one VIP client who serves Cuvée Clive when he entertains French visitors. All his mates drink Dom P and he can certainly afford to,” adds Ferreira. “But he thinks Clive is one of the best SA examples.”
Karen and John Loubser are the newest PC recruits, cutting their teeth on their Chardonnay-only Silverthorn Green Man Brut. For John a prestige cuvée should be “somebody’s statement” wine through limiting quantities, time on lees, plus barrel time for richness in the glass. Their maiden 3 300 bottles of Silverthorn Jewel Box 2009 PC Brut (R230) released in October achieves that goal with understated elegance. Old barrel-fermented Robertson Chardonnay is combined with Pinot Noir. The current 36 months’ lees time and three months on cork will be extended. This lean style fills out nicely when partnered with saltier dishes. Loubser believes the greatest Champagnes only come into their own after 25 years, hence making base wines as lean and crisp as possible is intentional.
The fluted bottle of Desiderius Pongrácz Brut 2003 (R235) is always distinctive. This Christmas it’s being packaged inside a gold and black “handbag”. But it’s the contents making it the bottle-fermented bubbly trophy winner of the 2012 International Wine & Spirit Competition. “We’ve seen a growth in Pongrácz internationally – Champagne is so pricy and this competes in a slightly lower category,” says winemaker Elunda Basson. She also makes J.C. Le Roux’s flagship Scintilla Brut 2003 (R150), a PC judged best MCC at the Amorim Méthode Cap Classique Challenge 2012. Unfortunately those luxe PC credentials are lost on some bubbly drinkers because J.C. le Roux is often perceived as a value buy in South Africa. Research suggests that few consumers even appreciate that Scintilla is an MCC and not a sparkling wine. “J.C. le Roux has a younger consumer in mind, while Pongrácz has a taste profile centred around a more mature consumer who has been exposed to Champagnes and MCCs,” says Basson. Both Scintilla and Desiderius are unoaked, Chardonnay-dominated vintage wines with Pinot Noir in the blend, plus five years or more on the lees. The differences? “Desiderius Pongrácz is the linear wine – upright, tighter and crisper in style. Scintilla is the horizontal full, broader wine – open and luscious earlier.”
John Newton of Champagne distributor Cuvées Classiques hasn’t compared Cap Classique PCs with Champagne PCs. But as a rule he feels Champagne has the upper hand due to its climate. For Peens it isn’t so clear cut. “Longer maturation time creates a finer mousse and more complexity. With local prestige cuvées the emphasis is on maturation and the quality of grapes, whereas a lot of Champagne is made from grapes with very high yields,” he says. But Peens does question whether local PCs have sufficient acidity to handle years of maturation on the lees. For Solly Kramer of Norman Goodfellows in Illovo it’s only about consumer perception. “Cap Classique prestige cuvées are not fighting at a Dom P level, even if they think they are,” he says. “Is somebody spending R500 going to buy Cuvée Clive, or Moët or Veuve at a similar price? It’s a no brainer. I’m not talking about quality in the bottle. It’s about branding and perception. The market is drinking international brands. That’s a very big thing.”
Opting for Cap Classique PC over Champagne has to be about choosing to support local. Ignoring the urge to splurge on a Jasper Morrison chair in favour of Gregor Jenkin’s superb South African designs. Or coveting signature jewellery by local talent Kirsten Goss instead of an imported Cartier watch. The skills involved in making South Africa’s superb bottle-fermented MCCs are on a par with those in Champagne, but there is more African sunshine infusing local fizz with flavour. You could do a lot worse than to give them a try.
Cap classique pcs
GRAHAM BECK CUVÉE CLIVE BRUT 2005 (current release 2007, R475) Happy and fresh, elegantly youthful. Baked Pink Lady apples over biscuit richness.
NICHOLAS KRONE GRAND MARQUE I BRUT NV (R285) Classy, mouth-filling elegance. Toasted hazelnuts over warm Golden Delicious apples.
PONGRÁCZ DESIDERIUS BRUT 2003 (R235) Brioche with cream cheese. Fuller-bodied, richer and bolder style.
SILVERTHORN THE JEWEL BOX BRUT 2009 (R230) White peach and minerality, delicate texture with medium-bodied elegance. Superb.
SIMONSIG CUVÉE ROYALE BLANC DE BLANCS BRUT 2007 (R205) Toasty brioche and straw, medium-bodied creamy texture with dry finish.
VILLIERA MONRO BRUT PRESTIGE CUVÉE 2007 (R150) Crowd pleaser, a big, well-made wine. Ground almonds in a sweet finish.
WOOLWORTHS VILLIERA ‘THE BLACK LABEL’ VINTAGE RESERVE BRUT 2007 (R110) Pear and nutty notes, medium-bodied, rich yet fairly straightforward.
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, Bollinger R.D. or Taittinger Comtes de Champagne offer great quality but local retailers say these PCs don’t move. Although not prestige cuvées, luxury Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee NV (R1 999) is popular, while Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Champagne 2002, from a Grand Cru single vineyard (R2 500) has a niche following. Find great value at Wine Cellar with Le Mesnil Cuvée Sublime Blanc de Blancs Prestige Cuvée 2002 (R595). This little-known Champagne is from a cooperative supplying Grand Cru Chardonnay to Grande Marques Champagne houses.
Champagne pcs that move
DOM PÉRIGNON 2003 (R1 500), DOM PÉRIGNON ROSÉ 2000 (R3 950), DRAPPIER GRANDE SENDRÉE 2004 (R580), DRAPPIER GRANDE SENDRÉE ROSÉ 2002 (R880), JACQUESSON PRESTIGE CUVÉE 2000 (R995), LALLIER ZÉRO DOSAGE PRESTIGE CUVÉE NV (R670), LOUIS ROEDERER CRISTAL 2004 (R2 999), LOUIS ROEDERER CRISTAL ROSÉ 2004 (R5 500), VEUVE CLICQUOT LA GRANDE DAME 2004 (R1 999).
Source: Winestyle Magazine