From grape to glass the entire process of producing a Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) relies on meticulous attention to detail, dedication to authenticity, precision timing and plenty of patience. At Graham Beck our team is passionately pursuing the perfect bubble – a golden thread of excellence runs throughout the entire process and portfolio.
The term Cap Classique has been used in South Africa since 1992. The name is derived from the fact that, by law, sparkling wines are not allowed to be called “Champagnes” in SA, although we use exactly the same methods as in France – giving rise to: Cap (Cape) Classique (classic French method).It has become a prestigious category that’s exclusive to South Africa.
Our Graham Beck bubblies have received numerous awards and accolades both locally and abroad, testimony to the fact that they are serious contenders in the international arena, often setting the quality benchmark in terms of forging a unique style and unmistakable identity.
With its natural limestone deposits and huge diurnal temperature shifts between day and night Robertson is one of the most important wine regions for base wines and the making of Cap Classique. 80% of all fruit comes from Graham Beck’s own estate. The balance of the grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) is sourced from seven other geographical areas including areas renowned for their cool climate and close proximity to the oceans. This assists in pursuing consistency and continuity.
The two classic varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used. Chardonnay, considered to be the noblest of all white grapes, with its traditional flinty character often produces buttery, lemon flavours, (occasionally nutty flavours), often with a strong hint of tropical fruit. This cultivar contributes to finesse and elegance with the brightness of acidity.
Pinot Noir (predominantly raspberry and strawberry flavours, with a hint of cherries) lends mouthfeel, palate weight and texture. Intensive work is done on clonal selections for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Chardonnay clones are planted for their ability to express unique aromatic and palate profiles. Some clones that are specifically earmarked as sparkling wine clones originate from Champagne, in France. Our Chardonnay clones therefore contribute specific aromas and structures to the different styles of Cap Classique we make. They display consistency year on year, and are only influenced by vintage. The Chardonnay clones that the team prefers are Clone 548, 277 CY5, 95 & 96.
When selecting Pinot Noir clones they enjoy working with Clone PN52, 777, 113 & 115. These different clones contribute different flavour profiles and aromas with some of them even a contributing a little colour, with is ideal for their Rosé program.
The key to quality here is the final preparation done by the viticultural team and the winemakers when deciding on exactly the precise time to harvest the perfectly ‘ripe’ grapes. The team is adamant that no blocks are harvested before they have walked through them, and tasted the grapes.
One of the vital and pivotal elements ensuring quality. Each bunch is carefully selected and picked by hand to avoid any damage. The hours are long and picking in the extreme heat of the day is avoided. The grapes are then transported to the winery where they begin their winemaking journey. Entire grape bunches are pressed very gently to extract the juice. This minimizes the amount of harsh malic acid and astringent tannins that naturally exist in the skins, seeds and stems. The difference is that the winemaking team can separate the cuvee fraction from the press fraction, as the juice is gently pressed in the press.
Whole bunches are taken directly into PERA presses for immediate extremely gentle pressing. At this point the Cuvee (highest quality) juice is separated from the press fraction. The first Cuvee is 450 l/t and the balance of pressings is 200 l/t. Depending on each press cycle the team will decide where this fraction is used. Should the press fraction of 200 l/t be too coarse or have phenolics they don’t like, it will not be used in any of the bubbly base wines. The fractions are then cold-settled overnight in stainless steel tanks before racking them for fermentation.
Various specially selected yeast strains are used for the primary fermentation at controlled temperatures in stainless steel tanks. The team prefers to have a cool and clean fermentation and temperatures of between 14° and 16° C. Most of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir components are fermented separately. Once the fermentation is completed (between 10 and 18 days) the tanks will be filled to capacity and the cooling is switched on to cold settle at 10° C. The base wines will remain on the fermentation lees for up to three months. A portion of Chardonnay is fermented in Piece Champenoise barrel (French oak). The contribution from the barrels is a unique signature of the Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs style of bubbly.
Piece Champenoise – a French oak wine barrel holding only 205 litres –is very special and originated in Champagne as a traditional measuring ‘tool’ used during pressing. The Champenoise were allowed to extract 13 Pieces from 4 000 kg of grapes. The first 10 barrels is the cuvee juice, barrel number 11 is the Premiere Taille and barrels 12 & 13 are called the Deuxieme Taille. Today only 3 000 barrels are made in the Champagne region and Graham Beck is fortunate to receive a small allocation each year. At Graham Beck a barrel can be utilized for as many as 20 years. More recently the 2000 litre Foudre has also been included for fermentation. With the introduction of the Foudre the volume of wine to the volume of oak contact is found to be more subtle and this has introduced an element of creaminess.
This is a true form of art. Consistency and continuity is crucial for the Graham Beck house style. Blending is rarely the work of a single person, usually reflecting the combined talents of a team. It does, however, rely on the sensory experience and memory of each individual team member. The taster must predict the future development of each wine in turn, drawing on the sensory impressions stored in the brain as memory, together with their impressions of the particular growing conditions that year.
The actual blending process can take from a few days to several weeks, bench-testing several combinations before assembling the definitive blend. The art of blending is vital and it can take up to three months after fermentation to get to the final blends. For the Graham Beck Non Vintage collection some reserve wines (from previous vintages) may be added to ensure consistency. In a normal year Graham Beck could have up to 120 different parcels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They represent an array of different sites on their Estate and also of other geographical areas. A super selection (cherry picking) is applied for the Vintage and Icon blends. Only the very best of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will be selected to express them as Vintage and Icon.
Non-Vintage: By combining wines with different sensory characteristics (colours, aromas, flavours) the winemaking team looks to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts – one with a carefully balanced harmony of notes in which no one note is dominant. The ultimate Non-Vintage objective is the same today as it has always been: to create a sense of balance that is not found naturally and could not exist without human intervention. It is the signature of the house of Graham Beck.
Vintage: The winemaking team brings together contrasting base wines to create a vintage cuvee that is different every time and distinctly superior in quality to the sum of its parts that will express the very best the vintage has to offer in the tier of Vintage and Icon Cap Classique.
When the final blends are made up, the base wine blends are stabilized and prepared for the secondary fermentation. The tirage (the mixture of base blend, sugar and yeast) is then bottled with a temporary crown cap. This seals the mixture in the bottle and the secondary fermentation takes place inside the same bottle you eventually see on the shelf.
This is where the yeast goes to work and converts the sugar to alcohol and the magical bubbles (effervescence) develop. This takes 6 – 12 weeks to complete adding approximately 1,2 % of alcohol and producing 6 atmospheres of pressure – the equivalent of 49 million bubbles in a bottle.
The bubbles or ‘bead’ of a Cap Classique are a clear indication of its pedigree – the finer and more delicate the mousse or bubble, the better the overall quality of the wine. We’re sure you’ll agree our tiny pin-prick bubbles denote a fizz with superior flair! Considering that a glass-pour in Champagne terms is 110 ml, you should get six glasses to a bottle. The average number of bubbles in a 750ml bottle is 49 million once opened. This will mean that a glass of bubbly will contain approximately 7 million bubbles!
A crucial time for each product to maximize the quality while the wine is in contact with the yeast cells (the lees). The lees mainly consist of yeasts that have multiplied in the bottle and formed a deposit. By the end of second fermentation, all of the sugars have been consumed and the yeasts gradually die and decompose. This process is known as autolysis, releasing molecules that are slowly transformed as they interact with those in the wine. During this time the wine develops its own unique character as well as texture and complexity. Typical time on the lees for the NV collection is 15 months, the Vintage collection 40 months and the Icon 60 months. According to MCC legislation the minimum time that a MCC must spend on the lees is 9 months.
Once the optimum yeast contact time has been achieved, the bottles are transferred to gyropallets for the riddling process. Automated remuage is now much more common, using a machine called a ‘gyropalette’ that can process 500 bottles in a single operation. Gyropalettes work 24 hours a day and take a fraction of the time (one week instead of six), although not at the expense of quality. This involves turning the horizontal bottles slowly to a vertical (upside down) position. This moves the yeast to the neck of the bottle, ready to be removed in a process called disgorging. This process takes seven days to be completed.
The purpose of disgorgement is to eliminate the deposit that has collected in the neck of the bottle as a result of the remuage process. The upside-down bottles are placed in a neck freezing bath that will freeze the dead yeast cells and a small portion of the wine above the yeast. Now the crown cap can be removed and the ice-plug will shoot out. At this point the dosage (a mixture of wine and sugar) is added to finish the wine and then it is finally corked and wired.
This is a very vital component of the end result. A few months before the dosage is added, the winemaking team experiments with different dosages, finally selecting the one with the most complementary characteristics to give harmony and balance. The role of dosage in the wine’s sensory development varies according to the style of our various Cap Classiques.
If the winemaking team is happy with the wine as it stands, the liqueur de dosage will consist of a mixture of sugar and the same wine as the bottle holds. Alternatively, if a final additional touch of aroma is thought desirable, the liqueur de dosage may be made with a reserve wine and set aside for long aging in casks, barrels or even magnums. These add an extra dimension to the winemaker’s repertoire of flavours, creating a palette of flavours from which to choose the perfect finishing touch.
The following sugar levels are an international ruling for any sparkling wine:
Brut Nature or Brut Zero: 0 – 3 grams per litre
Extra Brut: 6 grams of sugar per litre
Brut: 12 grams of sugar per litre
Extra Dry: 17 grams of sugar per litre
Sec: 32 grams of sugar per litre
Demi-Sec: 50 grams of sugar per litre
Doux: more than 50 grams of sugar per litre
After disgorgement the bottles will rest for a couple of weeks before they are finally labeled. All Graham Beck MCC’s have the date of disgorging on the back label, informing the consumer and wine experts alike of the character of each of the Cap Classiques and the time they are on the final cork.