Like bubbles rising in a flute, Cap Classique is on the ascent. Here are the latest trends and why South Africans are loving it so much.
Not too long ago, we knew it as Methode Cap Classique, but after a strategic name update to strengthen its positioning and ease of recall, the Cap Classique category was reborn and has emerged stronger than ever.
While many of us use terms like bubbly, Champagne, MCC and sparkling wine interchangeably, Cap Classique is not to be confused with the rest. Typically, sparkling wine is carbonated using a gassy production method not too far removed from a household SodaStream. What distinguishes Cap Classique is the careful process of fermentation in the bottle and the long period of time needed – usually a minimum of 12 months – for naturally occurring bubbles to form.
Caroline van Schalkwyk, Marketing Manager for the Cap Classique Association, stresses the element of time in the making of fine South African Cap Classique: ‘It’s an important differentiator because it recognises the additional investment producers make in the pursuit of higher quality,’ she says.
In short, it takes a lot more work and technical ability to produce a Cap Classique, which is why wines in this category generally command higher prices than sparkling wine.
Cap Classique is produced in the traditional method employed by the French, although it is not to be confused with Champagne, which hails only from the Champagne region in France. The two share a preference for the same types of grapes: most South African Cap Classique is made from a blend of chardonnay and Pinot noir; a minority of winemakers include Pinot Meunier; and then there are those who choose to make a Cap Classique from non-Champagne varieties like chenin blanc or even Shiraz.
It’s feasible for a well-made Cap Classique to prove more enjoyable than entry-level Champagne, argues Niël van Velden, an Export Manager at leading wine distribution company Vinimark. ‘But Champagne is not the competition,’ he adds. ‘It is the door-opener for us to move our own Cap Classique into more premium categories. The excitement for me is where we are taking it…’
It would be foolish to disregard 700 years of French Champagne-making history and its influence on our industry. South Africans only started making Cap Classique about 50 years ago, with forward-thinking entrepreneur Frans Malan of Simonsig releasing the pioneering Kaapse Vonkel in 1971, after an inspiring visit to France.
Interestingly, Champagne is on the decline among the younger generation within France itself, as youthful drinkers are preferring trendy bottled water, craft beer, gin and cocktails to the traditional tipple favoured by their grandparents. But this is not so in the global market, where Champagne sales far outstrip those of competitors like Spanish Cava.
The converse is true for Cap Classique, where local sales are on the rise, with slower penetration on the international front. There are exceptions, of course, with the odd brand having made substantial inroads into the export market.
Globally, quality perception around Cap Classique is also improving: among South Africa’s 15 gold medals at the 2023 International Wine Challenge was one for a Cap Classique, the Krone Borealis 2021.
Budding export opportunities aside, on our home shores, certain styles of Cap Classique are proving increasingly popular. The most growth potential is evident in demi-sec (semi-sweet) sales, according to Vinimark’s Business & Insights Advisor Oelof Weideman. This preference in a new demographic of drinker for sweeter styles is a marked swing away from the historic liking for brut (dry). Brut continues to dominate the market in the off consumption trade – in the 12 months up to October 2022, South Africans purchased R121-million worth of brut and R114-million worth of demi-sec – but it might soon be surpassed.
However, it’s worth emphasising that the demi-sec and nectar market is growing at a much faster rate, despite brut having nearly double the number of products on shelf. The number of producers choosing to label their products as nectar is increasing, as this nomenclature frees winemakers from the stricter confines of demi-sec, which is closely defined as containing 32-50 grams of sugar per litre. Recognising the gap in the market, many more wine farms are bringing out a demi-sec or nectar. Krone winemaker Stephan de Beer acknowledges, ‘We started making demi-sec in 2016 due to the demand in the market and the category just exploded.’
According to Ginette de Fleuriot, Vinimark’s Wine Education and Training Manager, ‘Demi-sec and nectar lend themselves to being served “on ice” or as a base for cocktails, and were developed in France in the hope of regaining that younger market. While the nectar range did not really work in France, it has worked in Africa. Here, we’re seeing a new generation of aspirational and younger Cap Classique drinkers who are starting off in the sweeter category, and this is particularly prevalent among urban black consumers. We see the same trajectory with still wines, as many people start off with the sweeter, fruitier wines before maturing to the crisp acidity of a sauvignon blanc.’
What is also assisting the rapid uptake of Cap Classique is the attractive pricing of some of the entry-level products – as little as R109 per bottle on promotion – which, despite being on the cheaper end of the range, are still coupled with the notion of quality. An entry-level brand winner like Miss Molly makes substantial sales in this category.
Prestige is also a factor, with many consumers craving the allure and luxurious glamour of Champagne and finding an answer in a delicious local counterpart that supports the growth of the industry here. Celebrities like Bonang Matheba have succeeded in this area, with her collaboration with Western Cape winemaker Jeff Grier on House of BNG Cap Classique, one of the country’s top sellers.
The flourishing of the Cap Classique category has encouraged innovation among winemakers. Experimentation in the use of fermentation vessels is a trend to watch, with winemakers bringing in anything from large foudres (casks for maturing, storing and transporting wine) to clay pots and amphoras to create flavour complexity and other advantages.
One example is the use of clay amphoras, which have been part of winemaking since ancient times. These vessels are making a comeback thanks to the greater structural stability they create in the final product. Kleine Zalze is producing Cap Classique in terracotta amphoras imported from Italy, and Krone’s comparative offering, the unmistakably titled Amphora Blanc de Blancs, has notably been listed by the world’s best chef Massimo Bottura in his Gucci Osteria restaurant.
Single-vintage and site-specific Cap Classique are gaining momentum. In 2016, local market leader Krone broke new ground by releasing South Africa’s very first site-specific Cap Classique, the Krone Kaaimansgat Blanc de Blancs, drawn from one of the Cape’s oldest chardonnay vineyards in Elandskloof. In late 2023, Krone released its Site Specific Series, comprising the Kaaimansgat Site Specific Blanc de Blancs 2020; the Koelfontein Site Specific Blanc de Blancs 2020, hailing from the Ceres plateau; and the Twee Jonge Gezellen Site Specific Blanc de Blancs 2020, from Krone’s own Tulbagh farm.
Rare aged vintages are also coming to the fore. Some bottles have spent an impressively extended period on the lees, sometimes as long as 124 months – 10 years. Cellarmaster Jacques Bruwer from Robertson’s famed Bon Courage Estate dedicates an extraordinary period of time to their internationally recognised vintage Cap Classiques, each aged for a minimum of 48 months’ yeast contact before disgorgement. To make the classy Jacques Bruére Brut Reserve, initially, the base wine is kept on the lees for eight months during the first fermentation, and 10% of the chardonnay is barrel fermented. The ‘magic of the bubbles’ begins during the second fermentation, which occurs in the bottle, thereby extending the maturation on the lees for 96 months. This results in very delicate, all-the-more prized bubbles.
Spier recently disgorged (RD) a 2013 vintage that had spent 84 months on the lees. This Spier RD Brut is a limited edition that stands out in the Spier range for its artisanal production.
When it comes to these aged vintages, some knowledge of the nature of the product helps in their appreciation, explains De Fleuriot. ‘For many people, the bubbles are the barometer. For them, an aged Cap Classique might be disappointing, as it is less tactile because the bubbles are softer and smaller. With Cap Classique that has spent only about 12 months on the lees, there is a wonderful tactility in the bubbles, which are energetically effervescent. This exciting mouthfeel is what most people enjoy and know. But with an aged vintage, the bubbles can become softer and more mellow, the wine has complexity, and the colour will have deepened, and this may be disconcerting to some drinkers.’
In the brut rosé category, colour is a deciding factor when it comes to both winemaker and consumer preferences. Cellarmasters are shunning the conventionally pretty pinks for golden apricot hues that have an onion-skin clarity. The perception that rosé is crafted more for the female-identified drinker does tend to persist, despite the colour shift being observed. The pinks remain perennially popular and a wine that is more pink than salmon is still considered a safer commercial bet. But, on the whole, rosé still remains less popular than the traditional whites. Regardless of hue, what applies for any successful Cap Classique is the enduring need for luminosity – the appearance of life in the wine.
This visual connection to liveliness and joie de vivre is a subtle yet important cue in a drink firmly associated with celebratory occasions. If market indicators are anything to go by, many South Africans will be raising glasses of Cap Classique as its reputation strengthens, and this would have been especially the case over the recent festive season.