Fizzing over the Basics of Cap Classique

Cap Classique, previously known as Methodé Cap Classique, is South Africa’s term for sparkling wine,  It is made using the Traditional Method.  Most people have heard of Cap Classique, but few know the details around just how tricky, and time consuming, the winemaking process is to use this prestigious title.  To see the full picture, we need to understand the Traditional Method or Methodé Champenoise.

 

The Traditional Method was pioneered in Champagne to produce… Champagne.  This begins with a primary fermentation to produce a still ‘base wine’.  During the bottling process, a liquer de tirage (a solution of wine or unfermented grape juice with sugar, cultured yeasts, yeast nutrients, and a clarifying agent) is added to the base wine to begin the second fermentation.  The wine must undergo a second fermentation in the same bottle, sealed with a crown cap (like on a beer bottle), that it will go to market in.

 

During this second fermentation the yeast coverts sugar to alcohol and creates a biproduct of carbon dioxide.  The resulting wine at the end of this fermentation is dry as the yeast will have fermented all the sugars present.  The carbon dioxide that is produced as a biproduct of fermentation cannot escape the sealed bottle.  Thus, it is forced to dissolve into the wine creating pressure and effervescence.  Incredibly, the pressure of some sparkling wines can reach six bar (or six times the pressure of the atmosphere at sea level).  Compare this to the fact that a car’s tyre pressure is roughly two bar…  Unbelievable!

 

In Champagne, the second fermentation is often called the prise de mousse which means ‘capturing the sparkle’.  For those who love a romantic wine story, the French seemed have mastered this romance right down to the names of winemaking techniques.

 

After the second fermentation, the bottles will undergo lees aging, which is a period spent in contact with the dead yeast cells that die off after they finish their nutrients in the bottle.  Lees aging is also common in the production of still wines.  It creates complexity in the form of savoury, biscuity flavours, and a more textured mouthfeel.

 

Ridding Bottles of Champagne in Pupitres at Pol Roger

The bottles will then be placed at a slight upside-down angle into racks (or “pupitres”) for hand riddling.  The riddling process entails slowly moving the bottles to a steeper position with the aim of getting all the lees and sediment to the neck of the bottle ready for disgorgement.  This can take many weeks if done manually.  It is a highly respected position of any cellar employee!  Larger producers that don’t have the time for hand riddling will use “gyropalettes”, a mechanical device that can imitate a riddling movement.  The length of time that the wine needs to be in contact with the lees is regulated according to the country’s appropriate wine law.

 

Lees and Sediment Collection in Preparation for Disgorgement at Pol Roger

Once all the lees and sediment has collected in the neck of the bottle, it will be time to remove it – this process is known as “disgorgement”.  The neck is immersed in a frozen brine solution until the sediment turns into a solid plug.  The bottle will then be turned upright, whilst simultaneously removing the crown cap, and the pressure inside the bottle will push out the frozen yeast plug.  Next, the dosage will be added to the wine.  This is a mixture of wine and sugar and will ultimately determine the final sweetness of the wine.  Some Traditional Method wines are bottled with “zero dosage”, meaning that they will be bone dry.  The final step of the process is to seal the bottle with a cork, “cage”, and foil.

 

In South Africa, to be able to call your sparkling wine Cap Classique, it must be made according to the Traditional Method explained above.  The minimum time spent on the lees is twelve (12) months, although many producers will extend this to maximise on the complex savoury aromas that lees aging contributes to a wine.  For example, Pieter Ferreira Blanc des Blancs spends 6 years on the lees, and is then corked and laid down for a further 6 months of maturation.  It starts to become very apparent why premium quality sparkling wine commands the price it does – and this excludes the countless hours spend in the vineyard carefully growing the grapes!  Can you taste the premium flavour?

Pieter Ferreira, Blanc de Blancs 2016

 

Initially, Cap Classique was based on Chenin Blanc, but today, most is made using more classic varieties for this wine style such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in some blends. There are also examples of the use of Shiraz and Pinotage.  Give them a try.

Pieter Ferreira, Extra Brut 2017

Paul René, Chardonnay Brut 2019

De Grendel, Proposal Hill Brut Rosé MCC 2017

 

Grapes for Cap Classique are picked relatively early, before still wine grapes.  This is because it is imperative that these grapes have a vibrant high acidity, and a more neutral phenolic composition.  Especially if the winemaker wants to lees age the wine for extended periods – overpowering ripe fruit flavours will obscure the delicate yeasty, biscuit aromas that winemakers aim to produce in Cap Classique.  Depending on the area in which the grapes are grown the style of Cap Classique will differ slightly.  Sites with cooler climates will show slightly less developed and leaner fruit flavours, for example, green apple and pear instead of yellow apple and citrus.  Us wine nerds get very excited when we get to talk or write in-depth about climate and site analysis and how it affects the final wine produced, but this would need to be a dissertation to properly dive into that topic!

 

Just remember, not all sparkling wine from South Africa is Cap Classique!  There are other methods to make sparkling wine, some as simple as the carbonation of a still wine.  Naturally this will not possess the complexity and flair of a traditional method sparkling wine. To ensure you are getting the product you are looking for you it is imperative to check the label of the bottle.  Cap Classique will be stated as such on the bottle.

 

This blog was edited and posted by Digital Squeak.