Graham Beck: South Africa’s Sparkling Wine King

Graham Beck WinesMost famous for its sparkling wines, Graham Beck is one of South Africa’s most modern wineries from vineyard management to winemaking and international marketing of its products. It is also one of the larger wineries, with 400 ha. of vines and producing 400 thousand cases per year. It is one of the few South African wineries to “crack” the US market, doing so in part by becoming its own importer. Beck, a South African entrepreneur who started life as a coalminer, began planting vines at his 1850 ha Madeba Valley farm outside Robertson in 1984 and built the Robertson winery and produced his first sparkling wine there in 1991. He has since added a second vineyard and winery in Franschoek and two other vineyard sites in cool, Somerset West--the Skoongesig and Vredenhof farms. These four vineyards provide Graham Beck with diverse terroir, allowing different varietals to be planted in the sites for which they are best suited.

TastingWhile Graham Beck makes and markets a full line of wines made from several varietals sold at several different price points, sparkling wine is the winery’s flagship. It was the first wine produced in 1991, and it remains a significant and growing part of the business, aided recently no doubt by the revelation that it is a favorite of Barak Obama, who celebrated his 2008 election with a bottle of Graham Beck Rose Brut. Pieter Ferreira (shown here on the left with Don Winkler) is cellarmaster in charge of winemaking; he is also directly responsible for his first love in winemaking—sparkling wine, or Methode Cap Classique (MCC) as it is called in South Africa. We recently met up with Pieter at the Franschoek winery where he led us through the Graham Beck portfolio, with focus on those wines being exported to the US. We began, of course, with sparkling wines, and we had the opportunity to taste the new, unreleased tête de cuvée, Clive, named in honor of Graham Beck’s deceased, eldest son. Erika Obermeyer, recently elected South African Woman Winemaker of the Year, and Irene Waller are the winemaking team along with Pieter Ferreira.

Sparkling Wine.

Pieter Ferreira grew up in Durban in KwaZuluNatal, the son of a wine distributor. Pieter began making sparkling wine in 1984 at the Cabrière cellar, South Africa’s first MCC specialist. In 1990 he joined Graham Beck, with the objective of making the estate a world leader in sparkling wine production. Graham Beck, who does nothing by half measures, gave Pieter all the resources he would need, and the results are easy to see in our tasting notes. The base wine for MCC is grown at the Robertson estate, which has hot summer days but huge diurnal variations—as much as 15°C—due to the prevailing southerly winds. This produces good acidity, so essential to sparkling wine; the grapes are picked early, about 95 days after flowering. The most recent addition to the vineyard has been the planting of Champagne clones of Pinot Noir in 2002; these are just now coming into production.

Graham Beck NV Brut Chardonnay Pinot Noir Robertson ($15) 88

This is an amazingly good bubbly for the price. Half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir, it has a creamy mousse and fresh, ripe orchard fruit on the nose. On the palate, there’s good acidity, apple and soda cracker flavors, and a soft mouth feel. Spends about 18 months sur lie. Makes the perfect aperitif.

Graham Beck NV Brut Rose Chardonnay Pinot Noir ($15) 88

This is a very clean, fresh tasting sparkler that would be perfect for weddings, public receptions and the like. Light red cherry fruit shows on the nose and palate with a nice creamy mouthfeel and crisp acidity on the finish. Nothing complicated here but quite delicious nonetheless.

Blanc de BlancsGraham Beck 2006 Blanc de Blancs ($22) 91

With its aromas and flavors of brioche, lees, honeyed oak and citrus and its creamy texture, the Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs is a ringer for a non-vintage Champagne. Made of 100 percent Chardonnay aged three years on the lees. About 50 percent of the base wine is barrel fermented, with 5 percent new oak. Done in quite a modern style with a more fresh than oxidized character.

Graham Beck 2008 Brut Rose ($18) 91

This blend of 80 percent Pinot Noir and 20 percent Chardonnay is one of the sparkling wine world’s best values. Light strawberry, earth, and brioche notes appear on the nose and palate. Extended time on lees contributes to the creamy mouthfeel. The Pinot Noir for this cuvee comes from new 115 and 777 clones. This sparkler is gorgeous vintage after vintage.

Graham Beck 2003 Clive Cuvee ($65) 92

This will be (it’s not yet released) the maiden vintage of Graham Beck’s tête de cuvée, and it’s a beauty. The Clive is an 80/20 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir aged a minimum of five years on the lees. The nose is nutty and honeyed with distinct crème brulée notes. The palate shows oxidized notes and chalky minerals. Elegance, refinement, and balance are the appropriate descriptors of this great bubbly.

Table Wines

Graham Beck is almost alone among South African wineries in effectively competing in the American market across a wide range of price points. At the lower end, it produces a number of single varietals, all of which offer extremely good value. The wines are cleanly made, uncomplicated, easy to drink, and priced at $10 or less. Among the whites, we found both the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2009 Chardonnay-Viognier to be fresh and crisp and the kind of inexpensive wines we would have no reservations about serving to guests. Among the reds, Graham Beck offers several wines—Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz-Viognier, and Pinotage—that offer purity of black and red fruit on a soft palate. Like the whites, these entry level reds are fresh with some complexity from a gentle oak regime. The Pinotage is especially successful with fresh red fruit and sweet tannins partly coming from 30 percent aging in American oak. What a pleasant contrast to the coffee-mocha liqueur like Pinotages coming out of too many other wineries!

Graham Beck also produces excellent value wines at the premium level. These include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Red Blends. These wines are reviewed below. Of special note is the line of wines labeled “The Game Reserve”. For every hectare of grapes used to produce these wines, Graham Beck preserves four hectares of the indigenous vegetation called “fynbos”. Finally, Graham Beck’s first “icon” wine—Raconteur—will soon be released. This is a superb rich and layered wine that is likely to be priced right, like the rest of the Graham Beck portfolio. Only the prices of wines exported to the US are given below.

Graham Beck 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Region ($15) 88

Made in a popular style, this pale straw Sauvignon Blanc shows plenty of ripe melon and lychee fruit with green bean notes on the nose followed by a soft, round richly-fruited palate. The fruit is a blend from seven different parcels located in Darling, Durbanville, and Stellenbosch with three different pickings over ten days to lend complexity.

Graham Beck 2009 Pheasant’s Run Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Region ($NA) 91

Erika ObermeyerVery aromatic orchard fruit and green herb scents waft from the glass of this beautifully balanced wine sourced from selected parcels of very low yielding (42 hl/ha) mostly bush vines from a single vineyard in the Darling area. The vineyard is picked at three different times to give a mix of fruit of different ripeness and character. The nose and palate show minerals, gooseberry and tropical flavors with the kind of crisp, natural acidity one expects from a top notch South African Sauvignon Blanc. Erika Obermeyer (pictured here) makes the Sauvignon Blanc.

Graham Beck 2009
The Gamekeeper Reserve Chenin Blanc Coastal Region ($16) 88

This easily accessible Chenin Blanc shows light honeysuckle and peach aromas on the nose and lychee and white peach on the soft, clean palate. Shows lovely purity of fruit and a pleasantly brisk finish. About 15 percent of the wine is fermented in oak, the rest in stainless steel. The fruit comes from 40+ year dry-farmed bush vines.

Graham Beck 2008 Bowed Head Chenin Blanc Coastal Region ($NA) 90

This is the maiden release of this premium Chenin Blanc made from 40+ year old bush vines. It shows somewhat riper fruit than the Game Reserve Chenin Blanc and more toasty oak, reflecting barrel fermentation and 8 months’ aging in 100 percent new French oak. The nose and palate show toasty oak, honey and apricot with some additional nut and spice notes on the palate. Future vintages are likely to show more subtle oak flavors as the percent of new oak declines (down to 25 percent in 2010).

Red Wines

Graham Beck 2009 Pinotage Coastal Region ($15) 88

This is the fresh, red fruit style of Pinotage, as opposed to the over-extracted, coffee-flavored style much in vogue these days. The nose is redolent of red raspberries, and the palate also shows nice, spicy red berry fruit. The tannins are sweet, and there’s a light vanilla note coming from the 30 percent of the wine aged in American oak.

Graham Beck 2006 Shiraz Coastal Region ($15) 89

The 2006 Shiraz shows sweet vanilla and dark fruit on the nose and a very nicely balanced palate of spicy black and red fruit. This wine continues in the house style of Graham Beck – purity of fruit, a balanced palate, and a long flavorful finish. An excellent value! The fruit comes from the Stellenbosch and Franschoek vineyards.

Graham Beck 2008
The Gamekeeper Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Robertson ($17) 88+

This is an amazingly good Cabernet Sauvignon for the price, showing cedar and cassis on the nose with an addition of tobacco notes on the palate. Cleanly made with good intensity of fruit and integrated oak. About half the wine is aged in used French and American oak barrels. Another excellent value.

Graham Beck 2006 The William Coastal Region ($17) 90

The William Coastal RegionThis is a very successful Cape Blend, containing 56 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Pinotage, and 14 percent Petit Verdot. Dark ruby in color, there are aromas of earth, cedar, and smoke and flavors of dark berries, red plum, and forest floor. The Cabernet and Pinotage were aged in 30 percent new oak for over 15 months, while the Petit Verdot saw 13 months in all used French oak. An exceptionally nice wine for the price and one well-suited for modern, spicy fare.

Graham Beck 2006 The Ridge Syrah Robertson ($20) 91

Sourced from a micro-managed, single vineyard (The Ridge) of clay and shale in Robertson. Grapes are harvested in three separate passes through the vineyard over a period of three weeks, and the wines from the different parcels in the vineyard are kept separate until the final blend. There are earth, meat and blackberry aromas on the nose and a squeaky clean integrated palate showing notes of violets and black pepper. Aged 16 months in in 80 percent French, 20 percent American oak. Exceptionally well-priced given the quality.

Graham Beck 2007 Raconteur Stellenbosch ($NA) 92

Raconteur is Graham Beck’s new flagship wine, which is about to be released. Semi-opaque ruby in color, it’s a barrel selection blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coffeestone Vineyard and Syrah from a special block of 38 year old bush vines. At the moment, this is a very young wine, but it has tremendous potential. Spice, black fruit and pencil shaving show on the nose with gobs of cassis fruit, violets and notes of earth and chocolate on a velvety lush palate. This is a delicious wine that merits its flagship status. Aged 27 months in 100 percent new French oak.

Written by Don Winkler, May 2010