While many a glass of MCC will have raised over the weekend in South Africa, as the Springboks narrowly beat the Lions, it is actually in the UK where we have been falling in love with South Africa’s sparkling wine. Fifty years old this year, MCC is the fastest-growing category in South Africa and, for a top producer like Graham Beck, the UK accounts for over half of its export sales. On a recent trip to South Africa Geoffrey Dean spoke to Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, Beck’s cellar master, along with Rollo Gabb, MD at Journey’s End that is set to release its first ever MCC wine this year, and caught up with their new wines (along with Kleine Zalze) at a recent SA mini-tasting.
“This year sees the 50th anniversary of the first MCC wines in South Africa. To coincide with it, Journey’s End, which is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding as a winery, is releasing its first MCC wine in the autumn.”
Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, who has been Graham Beck’s cellar master for over 30 years, is in little doubt that the pandemic is the main reason for the sparkling wines producer’s 28% growth in exports to the UK last year. Widely regarded as the king of South African bubblies – hence his affectionate nickname – Ferreira revealed that the UK is Graham Beck’s number one export market, taking nearly half of all the company’s exports.
“Sales have been brilliant in Majestic and Waitrose, and doing well in the indies,” Ferreira told The Buyer, praising Bibendum which has been Graham Beck’s importers for nearly 25 years. “We’re sending 34,000 cases a year to the UK, and can come up with plenty more if necessary as we have 4.8 million bottles in storage here at the winery.”
Every one of those bottles has been made by the traditional method – or méthode cap classique (MCC) as it is known in South Africa. Graham Beck’s decision to focus production entirely on MCC sparkling wines was an inspired one, for MCC is the fastest-growing category in South Africa, expanding at 18% per annum and doubling every 4-5 years.
As many as five of Graham Beck’s labels were on show at a recent London tasting of the three South African winery clients of R&R Teamwork Drink & Food PR. The quintet range in price from £15.99 to £25.50, with both North & South Wines and Simply Wines Direct stocking all five. The Brut NV (half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir), which spent 20 months on the lees, is value with its persistent mousse, fresh acidity (pH 3.2) and creamy mid-palate.
“I’m always in pursuit of the perfect bubbly,” Ferreira professed. “I’d like to include some Pinot Meunier but the clone of it we have is no good. Happily though, we’re getting a new clone and planting vines from it next year. As for the Brut Rosé NV, which is two the-thirds Pinot Noir and a third Chardonnay, the depth of texture is the key.”
The three vintage sparklings all showed very well. The Blanc de Blancs 2016 (RRP £19.50), which was disgorged in September 2020, spent four years and three months on the lees, helping to compress and refine the mousse’s bubbles, which were small and long-lasting. The wine, which saw 50% oaking in old barrels, had fabulous length and freshness, with more ripe citrus than lime zest. Dosage was 5g/l.
The Pinot Noir Rosé 2015 (which contained 6% Chardonnay, which was co-vinified) spent even longer on the lees – 4 years and six months, with 6g/l dosage. Multi-layered, fresh and with notable length, this was an “exceptional” vintage in Ferreira’s view. “Just like the standout year of 2009 while 2017 was also fantastic,” he added. “Lots of brightness is the key in the 2015.”
The Ultra Brut 2015 (formerly known as Brut Zero up until 2014) has zero dosage, being 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. This wine always spends a minimum of five years on the lees, giving it greater expression. Elegant, complex and very long, with a fine mousse, this was the most expensive of the quintet at £25.50.
Journey’s End: flexibility is key
This year sees the 50th anniversary of the first MCC wines in South Africa. To coincide with it, Journey’s End, which is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding as a winery, are releasing its first MCC wine in the autumn. Rollo Gabb, who is managing director of the Helderburg estate, revealed he will be focussing on independents like Tanners and the on-trade. Bibendum is also the importer for Journey’s End.
“The idea is that we will be working with Graham Beck to help build the MCC category further in the UK,” he told The Buyer. “We’ll be careful not to compete with them. It’ll be a small high quality production.”
The wide Journey’s End range impressed at the R&R tasting, supporting Gabb’s assertion that “the key hallmark of our winery is our flexibility and ability to deliver a broad range from super-premium single vineyard labels like Cape Doctor to entry-level Weather Man Sauvignon Blanc.” The Co-op sells 200 cases per annum of the latter, which at around £6 RRP, is a humdinger in terms of value.
The Identity Sauvignon Blanc 2020 (RRP £7) has sold well in Sainsbury’s and Asda, with the 2021 vintage available from late August. Gabb added that sales of the Queen Bee Viognier 2021 (RRP 10.99) were “going bananas at Laithwaites, who can’t get enough of it.” By picking early, cellar master Leon Esterhuizen has retained zippy freshness in the wine as well as keeping the abv down to 12.8% for a grape naturally high in alcohol.
As many as six Chardonnay labels from Journey’s End were on display, ranging from their Fairtrade Winemaker’s Reserve 2020 (£10) to the impressive premium Destination 2018 (£21.50). The former, with its pretty green apple citrus fruit, was superb value. So too was the Mount Rozier Red Snapper Cinsault 2020, available in Sainsbury’s for a bargain £6, and the M&S Classics Pinotage 2020 (£8). Bags of flavour from the latter’s juicy blackcurrant and cherry fruit, as well as good length, make that price a steal.
The two top Journey’s End reds completed a worthy lineup. Their V5 Cabernet Franc 2018 (punching well above its weight at £15) is a small production of three 300 litre barrels (all new), and combines minerality, savoury spice and coastal freshness. The Cape Doctor Bordeaux Blend 2016 (£22) also sees 100% new oak, which it effortlessly absorbs, and has glorious fruit with opulent cassis, graphite and mint notes.
Kleine Zalze: pure, naked Chenin Blanc
Making up R&R’s stellar South African triumvirate were Kleine Zalze, the leading Stellenbosch winery. The prolific producer has 75 SKUs, including a fine MCC, and makes 4.5 million bottles per year, although wines on display were restricted to four of its Chenin Blanc labels. The two mid-market ones offered value at £10-11: the Zalze Bush Vine 2020 being packed with zesty peach and pear fruit, and the Cellar Selection Bush Vines 2020 being a pure naked expression of Chenin Blanc.
The excellent Vineyard Selection 2020 (RRP £17.60) came from ten different parcels that were planted between 15 and 30 years ago according to cellarmaster Alastair Rimmer. “We had to add some acid, typically 0.5g/l, to some parcels as it was a very hot year and we had high sugar levels,” he said. “The fruit was mainly barrel-fermented in old 400-litre oak, with a tiny bit in clay amphorae, which is helping to add a very important saline component.” Beautiful citrus peel pithiness was a feature of this wine, which is in balance with a pH of 3.22 and abv of 13.7%.
The Family Reserve 2019 (RRP £24.80) is one of South Africa’s top Chenins. “2019 is one of Kleine Zalze’s great white vintages,” Rimmer declared. From low-yielding, old vines of between 37 and 47 years in age, it spent up to eight months in second, third, fourth and fifth fill oak, and then five months in tank. Beautifully lean and angular, with freshness and stoney minerality, this has a lovely mix of lemon, apricot, melon and honey. It also has the structure to last, and was awarded 5 stars by Platter’s Wine Guide, the celebrated South African annual publication, which nominated Kleine Zalze at its Top Performing Winery of the Year 2021.