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Making Waves: The Meteoric Rise Of MCC


24 October 2017  -  Graham Howe

“We’ve come a long way over the years” declares Johan Malan, cellar master of Simonsig, the Stellenbosch cellar which pioneered Kaapse Vonkel, the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine in South Africa in 1971.

In the early days we first had to find a proper champagne bottle to get Consol to make the mould”. Five decades on, Simonsig is a leading brand of Méthode Cap Classique - four-time winner of the Amorim MCC Challenge since 2002, most recently as best MCC producer in 2017.

At a tasting to celebrate winning both best MCC producer, the Rosé and Blanc de Blanc categories at the MCC challenge 2017, media were treated to vertical flights of winning vintages of Kaapse Vonkel from 1999 to 2015 and Cuvée Royale from 2005 to 2012. Johan says, “These wines age beautifully. The first Kaapse Vonkel we made sold for R3 per bottle, and was the most expensive wine made in South Africa at the time! My father Frans said, ‘If we ever drown let it be in deep waters!” In 2018 Simonsig celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its first wine vintage made in 1968.

“The wine tells you how much dosage is good for it - and the recent vintages are our driest ever with the lowest dosage. My Eureka moment in making MCC came at a tasting in Champagne in 1997 - when I was blown away by the fruity character of the base wine. At Simonsig we started picking our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir later and riper. Adding Pinot Meunier was another big learning curve. We pick it earlier for tight acidity. It takes time to develop in the tank - and matures quicker compared to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It mostly goes into non-vintage blends in France.” While Kaapse Vonkel expresses the primary flavours of the grapes, Cuvee Royale develops secondary and tertiary bottle-age character, taking years to express its full potential”.

The convenors of the Amorim MCC Challenge 2017 describe the rise of MCC as meteoric. Amorim SA MD Joaquim Sá says the number of MCC producers in South Africa has grown from around 50 in the inaugural MCC Challenge in 2002 to 220 MCC producers today with some 300 MCC labels on the market. Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, chairperson of the Cap Classique Association, cellar master at Graham Beck, the leading MCC brand - has seen the category grow meteorically since he started making bubbly for Beck in 1990. Sales of MCC at 4,4m bottles in 2016, show 24,5% annual growth on 2015 - competing with booming champagne, cava and prosecco imports into SA - and MCC exports to Africa, the Far East and USA are growing.

“There’s lots of growth potential out there” says Pieter who believes “Time on the lees is the essence”. In March 2018, the Cap Classique Association intends to rewrite the laws governing the making of MCC. After a four-year Winetech study they will increase the minimum time on the lees for MCC from nine to twelve months, certify all MCCs, launch a certified MCC course as a platform for educators and sommeliers - and a Cap Classique Tasting Academy. The judges commented that the blended Brut vintage and non-vintage class performed best at the Amorim MCC Challenge 2017 - out of 97 total entries in the brut (won by Claudia 2011 from Domaine des Dieux), blanc de blanc, rosé and museum classes (won by Graham Beck Brut Zero 2005).

Judge Heidi Duminy, CWM, commented, “Across the styles, time on lees was the common thread that set the ordinary apart from the outstanding. The top scoring wines displayed purity of fruit and deft use of varieties, outstanding balance, complexity, freshness and harmony. There is tangible evidence of a better understanding of the intricacies of fruit quality, more strategic intent in blending of cuvees, the role of varieties, careful use of oak and restraint of dosage.” Talking of time on lees, I spent time talking to winemaker Hannes Nel whose Lourensford Cuvée 89 2007 - was released recently after spending an incredible 89 months on the lees.  

A flagship MCC in your cellar’s portfolio is de rigueur these days - along with craft gin, craft beer and potstill brandy. At the inaugural Wade Bales Cap Classique & Gin Affair at the V&A Waterfront in October, twenty top MCC producers offered tastings at the sell-out two-night show on the beach. Hundreds of consumers enjoyed one-on-one tastings with leading MCC winemakers like Jeff Grier of Villiera (a taste of five bubblies, including Brut Natural and Monro Brut), John Loubser of Silverthorn (his family’s own specialist MCC label from Robertson), Jacques Bruwer of Bon Courage, Graham Beck, Krone, Pongracz and Steenberg - and superb boutique MCC producers from Domaine des Dieux and De Wetshof to Genevieve, Paul Renè and Saltare.

Most tastings on the wine circuit these days seem to start with a maiden bubbly - or a new flagship MCC extending the tiers of an existing MCC range. At a recent tasting of new vintage releases at Tokara, winemaker Miles Mossop unveiled the cellar’s rich maiden MCC Blanc de Blanc 2011 - in a stylish imported Italian sparkling wine bottle. Making bubbly takes time and precision. Made from barrel-fermented Chardonnay grown in Tokara’s Elgin vineyards, the base wine spent 15 months in barrel, 48 months on its lees in bottle and 17 months on cork after disgorgement. This limited edition of 3000 bottles - made in a natural style with minimum sulphur and low dosage of a wooded Chardonnay component - will sell at R650 when released.    

At the Amorim MCC Challenge 2017 I sat next to one of the Cape’s leading producers of MCC - owner cellar master Jean-Philippe Colmant of Franschhoek. Celebrating their tenth vintage in 2017, they have renovated the tasting centre and opened a restaurant headed up by renowned winelands chef Duncan Doherty. Pioneered by The House of JC le Roux, the concept of a specialist Cap Classique cellar is a relatively new trend in the winelands. Helping to build the MCC brand are specialist cellars and labels like Ambeloui, Charles Fox, Colmant, Domaine des Dieux, Huis van Chevallerie, Le Lude (with Orangerie restaurant), Morena, Paul Renè and Saltare. The Franschhoek Cap Classique route now has some twenty members.

At the forefront of this wave of MCC cellars is Graham Beck in Robertson - a valley renowned for MCC from Bon courage to Weltevrede - which divested its still wine brands to focus on its MCC portfolio. The pioneers of MCC such as Boschendal and Haute Cabrière - where Achim von Arnim turned the art of sabrage into a tourism attraction over tastings of his acclaimed Pierre Jourdan range of MCC - and started the revolution which made Cap Classique the regional hero of the Franschhoek Wine Valley, now home to the annual Cap Classique Festival in December every year.

Everyone’s making MCC from Constantia and Durbanville - I tried the newest MCC in the valley from Groot Phesantekraal, a superb blanc de blanc style Cap Classique made by consultant Etienne Louw - to Elgin, Cederberg, Walker Bay and Plettenberg.

Watch out for a range of other categories of sparkling wine. An exciting emerging trend on the MCC scene is the use of non-champagne varieties to make sparkling wine including Chenin Blanc MCC (Perdeberg, DeMorgenzon and Ken Forrester’s Sparklehorse), Sauvignon Blanc (Steenberg comes to mind), Merlot and Shiraz - as well as the new méthode ancestrale sparkling wines of Scali, Vondeling and others.

Peter Clarke, Peter Ferreira, Sharon Parnell, Hannes Meyer, Pierre de Klerk