Graham Beck and the quest for the perfect bubble

Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles! I love sparkling wines. There are so many wonderful sparkling wines made around the world and one of the places to be on the look out for are sparkling wines, called Cap Classique, from South Africa. Just in time for the second annual #CapClassiqueDay, I met Graham Beck winemaker Pieter Ferreira, also known as “Mr. Bubbles.” I had the pleasure to enjoy the three vintage sparkling wines which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

Sparkling wine is made around the world. For regions that produce sparkling wine in the traditional method, like Champagne, they have specific names for this style of wine. In Spain, there is Cava; in Italy, there is Franciacorta; in South Africa, there is Méthode Cap Classique.

In 1992, South Africa adopted the term Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) in reference to South African sparkling wines made in the traditional method. And on Sept. 1, Méthode Cap Classique was celebrated with the second annual #CapClassiqueDay.

Méthode Cap Classique is the fastest-growing category in the South African wine industry. The first bottle of Cap Classique was produced in 1971. It has doubled in production every five years and it is estimated that 10.5 million bottles are produced yearly. There are 257 producers of Méthode Cap Classique with approximately 400 skus but most do not export their wines.

One of the leading producers of Méthode Cap Classique wines, and one that exports more than 50 percent of their production to 40 countries, is Graham Beck. Founded in 1983 by namesake Graham Beck, the winery is located in the Western Cape, where 95 percent of all South African wines are produced. Graham Roberts purchased land called Madeba farm in Robertson, South Africa, located two hours east of Cape Town.

While the Western Cape has two maritime influences, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Atlantic to the west, Robertson is on a continental shelf. It draws in the air from the cold winds from the ocean. Days are moderately warm and there is a lot of fog in the summer months. More importantly, there is a huge diurnal shift of 30 degrees Fahrenheit at night. And there is a lot of limestone in the soils. Sunshine, a high incidence of natural limestone, and big diurnal temperature shifts are three keys to this region.

Pieter Ferreira, also known as “Mr. Bubbles”, has had has had a lifelong journey with the Graham Beck family. Pieter has been part of the team since the first vintage. When he started making wine at Graham Beck, there were 17 different grape varieties planted. Despite trying different varieties, they realized that nothing was quite as interesting as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In 2016, Graham Beck decided to focus and be a traditional sparkling wine house. They produce only bottle fermented Cap Classique wines and are a leading South African producer.

“Mr. Bubbles,” is also the chairman of the Cap Classique Association in South Africa. He, and his team, have received numerous international awards for his extraordinary dedication to craft sparkling wines of authenticity, consistency, and elegance.

Pieter says he is on a “tireless quest for the perfect bubble.” In doing so, he abides by three pillars: quality, people and nature. With regard to quality, the entire process, from grape to glass, requires meticulous attention.

With regard to people, Pieter guides with integrity and has great assistance from winemaker Pierre De Klerk, Pieter’s described “right and left hand.”

With regard to nature, Graham Beck has established numerous sustainable initiatives in order to preserve and conserve their natural heritage. They recycle water and have reduced energy reduction through an extensive solar system. They use minimal intervention through state-of-the-art technology. They promote conservation awareness. Home to special species of plants grown nowhere else in the world, Graham Beck is the second South African winery appointed by World Wildlife Foundation as a conservation champion for biodiversity. And, for every hectare they use for agricultural or living and wine-producing activities, they conserve eight hectares of natural vegetation.

Ultimately, the goal is to produce environmentally and ethically responsible Méthode Cap Classique. Graham Beck sources from nine other geographical areas, some closer to the ocean, but has full autonomy on vineyards that they manage for additional fruit. But 70-75 percent of the fruit comes from the estate property in Robertson.

Graham Beck produces three lines of Méthode Cap Classique. The Non-Vintage Collection, typically a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Vintage Collection, and Cuvée Clive, the pinnacle line.

I tasted the three vintage wines produced by Graham Beck during a virtual tasting with “Mr. Bubbles.” The grapes are all harvested by hand over a 21-day period. The grapes are gently pressed in pneumatic presses. In a single vintage, there will be a minimum of 140 individual components to consider for blending. Once bottled, the bottles ferment and mature in cool, dark cellars for a minimum of twelve months. This minimum of 12 months was recently increased from nine months, as it was agreed that the extended lees time improves the quality and character of the wine. At Graham Beck, all three vintage wines spent seven years on the lees and then one year in the bottle after disgorgement. The date of disgorgement is written on the bottle of each wine.

— Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012 ($30) — 77 percent Pinot Noir, 23 percent Chardonnay (both grapes pressed on same day), Residual Sugar 2.5 g/l, Alcohol 12.10%, Total Acid 7.7 grams per liter

The Brut Zero, which has no sugar added, spent seven years on the lees. The extended time on lees shows real purity of wine. The shimmering copper color of the wine is extremely inviting. While this wine is not a rosé, the slight pink hue expresses the Pinot Noir. Red fruit, stone fruit and chalk notes are on the nose. The wine is clean, crisp, tart, and lively on the palate and would pair well with sushi or shellfish.

— Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2015 ($30) — 100 percent estate Chardonnay, Residual Sugar 4.1% g/l, Alcohol 12.62%, Total Acid 7.8 g/l, pH 3.27

Fifty percent of the Chardonnay is fermented in neutral barrel. After fermentation, the wine was aged in barrels for three months and then selectively blended with other parcels of the best wine fermented in stainless steel. The Blanc de Blancs is a bright pale-yellow color with aromas of lime and apricot. Tangerine citrus notes come through on the palate. An elegant wine, it is delicate but creamy and would be delicious with fried chicken or fish and French fries or potato chips.

— Graham Beck Brut Rose 2014 ($30) — 85 percent Pinot Noir, 15 percent Chardonnay, Residual Sugar 7.4 g/l, Alcohol 12.17%, Total Acid 7.7 g/l, pH 3.08

The Pinot Noir grows in decomposed granite from coastal vineyards near False Bay outside Stellenbosch and the Chardonnay grows in limestone in the estate vineyard. There is no oak influence in this wine. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are picked and pressed together. The wine is a salmon pink hue with aromas of strawberries, raspberries, plum, ripe blueberry, and white floral notes. There is a lovely savory element to this creamy yet crisp wine that can handle being paired with meat dishes.

As a lover of sparkling wines, I fell in love with the Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Vintage wines and for the price, they cannot be beat. “Mr. Bubbles” may be on the tireless quest to create ‘the perfect bubble’ and I would say he is the right path.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.