Cap Classique: 50 years of sparkle for a South African legend

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Article

The South African wine industry will in 2021 reach a milestone in its history of over 360 years when it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Cap Classique category, the Cape’s famous bottle-fermented sparkling wines. From modest beginnings, based more on hopes and dreams than anything else, Cap Classique has grown to become one of South Africa’s leading wine sectors, in terms of both quality and market-demand.

Although carbon dioxide-injected sparkling wine had been made in South Africa for decades, it was not until legendary Stellenbosch winemaker Frans Malan visited the Champagne region of France in 1968 that any producer had considered giving their wine a sparkle through the age-old classical method of Champagne. Malan, owner of the famous Simonsig Estate in Stellenbosch, was infatuated by the processes he saw in the Champagne cellars. Especially as he was an expert in chemistry, finding the magic of secondary fermentation in the bottle and the creation of bubbles nothing short of magic.

Upon his return to South Africa he procured rudimentary equipment, built his own riddling racks, and from the Simonsig harvest of 1971 single-handedly made a natural bottle-fermented sparkling wine. The grape variety? Chenin Blanc, at that time by far the most prolific white variety to be found in the Cape vineyards.

This first Cap Classique, released in 1973 by Simonsig under the name Kaapse Vonkel (“Cape Sparkle”) was the catalyst for a movement that today has over 250 South African producers throughout the Cape winelands crafting this exuberant wine style.

Initially based on Chenin Blanc, the majority of today’s Cap Classiques are made using the classic varieties for this wine style: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The wines express a variety of different terroirs, geographical diversity being one of the Cape’s calling cards. From the limestone rich soils of Robertson, the mountains of Stellenbosch and cool maritime regions of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, Cap Classique wines offer an enticing array of terroir expressions.

This is also reflected in the stylistic expression. Cap Classique wines range from those with 12 months’ lees contact to rich, complex wines lying in the bottle for 60 months and more. Wines can be dry, demi-sec and zero-dosage, while the offerings of sparkling rosés grow exponentially.

With more than three million bottles produced annually, Cap Classique has built a strong presence in the South African wine industry as these sparkling wines are enjoyed as much in the country’s export markets as they are in their home country.

That’s why the bottles are already on ice, the tributes being written and the excitement growing for 2021 and the celebration of 50 years of Cap Classique.

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