Surprising South African Sparklers

Boschendal Wine Estate photo by www.capetown.djWhen the International Wine Review did its exhaustive tasting of sparkling wines from around the world for its December 2008 report, South Africa was poorly represented with just one—albeit very good—wine, the Graham Beck 2005 Brut, the sparkler Barak and Michelle Obama used to celebrate his election night victory. Hence, when I recently traveled to Cape Town I decided to attempt to correct this oversight. What I found was very encouraging, and in some ways surprising

South African sparkling wine, often called MCC for Method Cap Classique, South Africa’s name for methode champenoise, is of a quality level that favorably compares with the better sparklers from California and elsewhere. South African winemakers use traditional Champagne grape varieties, and the good quality sparklers reported on here are those which they keep on the lees for two to four years. MCCs are produced in different regions (WO or Wine of Origin), that range from cool, cool Elim to the relatively warmer parts of Stellenbosch, but even those from warmer microclimates display good acidity and freshness

Sparkling WineThe big surprise is the price of good quality sparkling wine in South Africa. I tasted nothing costing more than $17, and most good quality MCCs are in the range $10 - $12. These low prices to a very small extent reflect the growing strength of the dollar. Unfortunately for US consumers, many of these wines are produced by new and young producers in small quantities and are unlikely to leave South African shores. Still, there’s clearly an opportunity for some far-sighted negociant to begin marketing these wines to an international audience.

I tasted about 25 sparkling wines during my stay in Cape Town. Below, I report my evaluations of the nine best South African sparklers scoring 89 or above. I would like to thank the members of the South Africa wine trade who joined me in a blind tasting of some of these wines in a tasteoff between South Africa and other sparkling wine regions.. The other wines included the Roederer Estate 2000 L’Ermitage Brut, which showed an autolytic richness and complexity that the South African sparklers we tasted couldn’t match (but, then, neither can most non-vintage Champagne). Also included was the Bellavista NV Franciacorta Brut, which showed a level of refinement matched only by the very best South African MCCs. The International Wine Review’s evaluation of these wines are included in Issue #14: Sparkling Wines of the World. But the price difference is impressive. Both the L’Ermitage and the Bellavista sells for three times the price of the best South African MCCs.

Below I’ve listed my evaluations of the top nine South African MCCs that I tasted. It’s important to note that these wines represent the best of South African sparkling wine and not the full universe. Since some of these wines (as well as a large number of others not reported here), were tasted by me alone and others with the help of a group of South African wine experts, I’ve decided to report only my evaluations for purposes of consistency. I’d like to thank Michael Bampfield-Duggan for arranging the tasting.

Unfortunately, the only producer of South Africa MCC currently represented in the American marketplace is Graham Beck, which isn’t a bad choice. But it’s a pity that more of these excellent wines aren’t available. A good on-line location for South African wines, including Graham Beck, can be found at www.southernwines.com.

Villiera 2003 Monro Brut Stellenbosch 91

What a charmer! There’s a mélange of nuts, caramel and citrus aromas on this 50/50 Pinot Noir - Chardonnay, medium straw colored sparkler that spends over three years on the lees. The palate is fresh and elegant with autolytic flavors of nuts and crème caramel. Finishes with crisp acidity and lingering notes of dulce de leche.

Graham Beck 2006 Brut Rose Robertson 91

This is an elegant, medium salmon colored, fine beaded sparkling wine with light cherry aromas accented by a touch of yeast. It’s very dry and creamy on the palate with notes of dried cherry, water biscuits, and almond--absolutely lovely, and difficult to stop drinking.

Importer: GBW LLC.

Ambeloui 2006 Olga Brut MCC Hout Bay 90

Garagiste Nick Christodoulou makes one of South Africa’s finer bubblies in the newly created Hout Bay wine appellation. The fruit comes from estate vineyards in Hout Bay, which produces fruit especially well suited for making sparkling wine. The 2006 Olga has a leesy, apple orchard nose and a lovely palate of fruit and toasty lees. This wine is both elegant and very flavorful.

Silverthorn 2006 The Green Man Brut Constantia 90

While Silverthorn wines is located in Robertson, a freak hailstorm there in 2006 forced winemaker John Loubser to buy fruit from the Constantia region, to no ill effect judging from the results. An exceptionally rich, clean nose of brioche, lemon curd, and nougat graces this light straw colored 100% Chardonnay bubbly that spends 20 months sur lies. It’s full-flavored, rich and creamy on a ripe apple and brioche palate with a long lemon finish.

Saltare 2005 Brut Stellenbosch 89

Winemaker Carla Pauw made her first MCC in 2003, so this is her third vintage. This is a very attractive, medium straw colored blend of 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir that spends two years on the less. It has lovely yeast and nut aromas with a creamy palate showing distinct hazelnut and lemon flavors.

Twee Jonge Gezellen 2002 Krone Rose Cuvee Brut Tulbagh 89

Medium salmon in color with a fine bead, this red berry scented sparkler spends over four years sur lies. A spritzy attack and light raspberry fruit on the palate lead to a quite dry finish with marzipan and mint notes. Finishes very strong and long.

Villiera 2004 Blanc de Blancs Brut Natural 89

Villiera is one of South Africa’s first wineries to specialize in sparkling wines. Winemaker Jeff Grier also produces wine at Domaine Grier in Roussillon. This is a 100% Chardonnay that spends two years on the lees with an intensely yeasty nose and an abundant fine bead. It’s creamy and dry on a refined palate with flavors of fresh baguette and pear fruit. Finishes very dry and crisp with lingering yeast and pear flavors.

Colmant NV Brut Tradition MCC Western Cape 88

Champagne producer Jean-Philippe Colmant makes this medium straw colored 52/48 blend of Pinot Noir and barrel fermented Chardonnay that spends two years on the lees. It shows a creamy mousse and an abundant fine bead with aromas of lees and pear and is beautifully balanced on a refined palate with flavors of water crackers and ripe apple, finishing long with brisk acidity.

Colmant NV Brut Rose MCC Western Cape 88

This medium salmon colored blend of 64% Pinot Noir and 36% barrel fermented Chardonnay with two years on the lees shows red berry fruit and yeast notes on the nose and lovely light red fruit on the palate. This is one of South Africa’s more successful rose sparklers.

Don Winkler, April 2009