Everything You Need to Know About Cap Classique Wines

What's the difference between Cap Classique, Sparkling Wine and Champagne? We unpack the answer to this much-asked question, and more.

Everything You Need to Know About Cap Classique Wines

Nothing signifies celebration more definitively than the sound of a popping cork. So it’s no surprise that South African sparkling wines have become a wine of choice for toasting special occasions and celebrations. We even created Cap Classique Day on 1 September to give us one more reason to enjoy our bubbly.

But how come we don’t call our local bubbly Champagne? And why are some sparkling wines called Cap Classique? Read on for answers to these and other frequently asked questions...

 

The History of Cap Classique

To get a full picture of the history of Cap Classique, we should briefly touch on the history of Champagne. Reportedly first made in 1697 by the French monk Dom Perignon, Champagne became associated with royalty as the French monarchy had ties to the Champagne region. It’s interesting to note that it was a group of trailblazing women – Clicquot, Pommery, Bollinger – who marketed Champagne so well that, ultimately, it became the belle of the global sparkling wine ball.

Today, there are few words that can conjure up an image of sophisticated celebration in the way that “Champagne” does.

So it’s not surprising that winemakers everywhere have sought to emulate Champagne’s bubbly effect. In South Africa, we have Frans Malan to thank for establishing a local Champagne-style wine. In 1971, he visited the Champagne region in France, home to the world’s naturally fermented sparkling wine method (Méthode Champenoise) He applied this technique in South Africa and so the great Simonsig Cap Classique was born.

South African Méthode Cap Classique has become the fastest-growing wine category in the country. Along with this, the quality of Cap Classique and its popularity among wine lovers has increased significantly.

 

Is Cap Classique the Same as Champagne?

In fact, the answer to this question is yes, and no. Yes, it’s the same method, but no, it’s not the same wine. In later years, Champagne (the region) restricted the use of the term “Champagne” to only apply to those wines produced in the region with this method. In other words, wine can only be labelled and called Champagne if the grapes are harvested in Champagne.

So while the method (Méthode Cap Classique) used to produce South African Cap Classique is the same, the grapes of origin are South African, making Cap Classique unique to our wine region.

More recently, it was decided by the Cap Classique Association to reposition SA premium Sparkling Wine. To help simplify matters and create a stronger positioning in the industry, there was a move away from labelling it Méthode Cap Classique to straight Cap Classique. In addition, there was a legislated move from nine months to 12 months on the lees*, which came into effect from the 2021 vintage. Therefore consumers will know that when a bottle carries the Cap Classique name, it has indeed been “perfected by time”.

For more information on how Cap Classique is made, our friends over at winefolly have come up with this great infographic.

* To clarify the term “lees”: these are residual yeast particles left over from the fermentation process used to make wine. Sparkling Wines are aged on the lees to add richer textures, depth and complexity of flavour.

 

Is Cap Classique the Same As Sparkling Wine?

Simply put, all Cap Classique wines are Sparkling Wines, but not all Sparkling Wines are Cap Classiques.

Cap Classique is the premium category of Sparkling Wine in South Africa. Here are a few defining differences:

 

Sparkling Wines

  • A wine impregnated with CO2 bubbles is termed Sparkling Wine; the production process is quick and affordable - avoiding the long time and manual processes required in the production of Cap Classiques.
  • The limited lees contact typically means that these wines showcase a fresh, uncomplicated and lighter flavor profile.
  • Typically these wines have coarser, larger bubbles. However innovative wineries are producing high quality Sparkling wines that challenge this statement.

 

Cap Classique Wines

  • Undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, which creates the bubbles;
  • Undergoes “riddling” - where the wines lie with their lees in the bottle and are turned and lifted gently by hand in small degrees over a 12-36 month period to get the lees into the neck of the bottle before final bottling and packaging. This is a far longer, more complicated and costly process.
  • typically showcase refined effervescence with tiny bubbles.
  • the lees contact makes for a richer, fuller flavour profile.
  • As well as being an indicator of higher quality wine, these wines are typically more expensive than their regular sparkling count.

 

 

The Characteristics of Cap Classique Wines

Although any white grapes can be used here in South Africa, the classic bubbly grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; In South Africa the use of Chenin Blanc is also increasing in popularity.

The majority of Cap Classiques produced are dry or brut (the French word for dry). Brut is classified by containing 12 g/l of sugar or less. Sweeter counterparts like “sec” contain between 17 and 32 g/l, “demi-sec” between 32 and 50 g/l of sugar, with “doux” bubbly being the sweetest at over 50g/l of sugar.

A perfect example of a dry, brut-style Cap Classique is Alvi’s Drift Brut Cap Classique, which launched in 2021 and was recently honoured with a Double Gold Award in the NWC Top 100.

For those who look for even less sugar, there are a few brave winemakers who produce what the french call “Champagne without makeup” where dosage* is omitted and the wine is bottled as a true expression of what the grapes produced. These wines can be called “Zero Dosage”, ”Brut Zero”, “Brut Nature” or “Extra Brut” - a classic example of this is the Alvi’s Drift Brut Nature Cap Classique, recently being recognised as one of the best sparkling wines in the country and picking up 92points from the renowned Tim Atkin.

 

“At Alvi’s Drift, we have a very strong focus on producing Cap Classique and sparkling wines that are not sweet. Our dosage is actually extra brut. We just feel that this offers more of a crispness, and makes for more elegant wines,” says wine master Junel van der Merwe.

 

The wine is youthful in character with a refreshing bouquet of citrus, creamy lemon and just a hint of almond. The palate delivers crisp acidity, a lovely, creamy texture, a good mid-palate depth, and a deliciously lingering aftertaste.

*Dosage is part of the traditional Champagne process which entails adding a mixture of wine and sugar or grape must (juice) at the end of the second fermentation. Dosage is essential because the acidity in sparkling wines is so high, it can be undrinkable - sweetness and acidity balance each other out in a good wine.

 

The Aromas of Cap Classique

The aromas you can expect will vary depending on the grapes used to produce the wine and the time on the lees. They can range from fresh primary notes of Granny Smith apple and citrus to baked brioche and nougat.

 

The Flavours and Styles

Flavours can also vary due to the grape varietal, terroir, climate and style of wine. You can experience a range from fresh apple and citrus flavours from Chardonnay to Strawberry notes from the Pinot Noir to oaked buttery richness on the palate from the lees contact.

Cap Classique wines are usually brut, sec, or demi-sec and produced in a variety of styles.

 

Vintage Versus Non-Vintage

Vintage Cap Classique is made from a single harvest, while non-vintage bubbly is made from a blend of a few different harvests. Contrary to popular belief, Vintage does not necessarily mean “better”. Some of the best Champagne houses maintain libraries of previous vintages which allow them to consistently produce some of the best wines in the world.

 

Blanc de Blancs

A dry Blanc de Blanc (meaning “white from white) style Cap Classique is made from 100% Chardonnay, giving them an elegant, subtle flavour.

 

Rosé

Rosé styles of Cap Classique tend to vary, as does the dosage. Keep a keen eye on the bottle for guidance on whether to expect something sweet (sec, doux) or dry (brut). The grapes used are predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but a small percentage of Pinotage can sometimes be used.

 

Prestige Cuvées

Prestige Cuvées are produced using the best grapes from a specific varietal, and most have elevated time on the lees. In addition, the base wines often have wood contact. They are also more expensive than your standard Cap Classiques.

 

Nectar

Nectar is an emerging category of Cap Classique, also known as demi-sec. Nectar is aimed at a sparkling wine drinker who prefers a sweeter style but is still looking for premium wine.

 

Blends

Cap Classique blends usually contain Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and, with growing frequency, Pinot Meunier however, not being governed by the strict rules of Champagne we are seeing Pinotage, Chenin and Sauvignon blanc entering the fray.

 

How to Serve Cap Classique, and Classic Food Pairings

The recommended temperature to serve Cap Classique is between 6°C and 8°C. Anything warmer and it will likely lose its flavour and delicate bubbles.

Correct stemware choice is also essential. While coupe glasses are back in fashion, the general preference is to serve bubbly in a flute or a tulip-shaped glass to fully appreciate the aromas and flavours of the wine.

Bubbly is a highly versatile wine and can be served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Classic food pairings include seafood and shellfish such as oysters and prawns, as well as sushi. This wine is also the perfect partner for a dessert course such as fresh strawberries and cream or a chocolate fondant.

 

Shop Award-winning Wines Online From Alvi’s Drift

Browse the Alvi’s Drift online shop for a variety of Cap Classique and Sparkling wines, ranging from Brut Rose to a premium Brut Nature Cap Classique.

FIONA ROSSITER

Founder of www.inspiredlivingsa.co.za, Fiona loves sharing her wine knowledge with others. One of her favourite quotes, "Life is too short to drink bad wine" sums it up perfectly. Living in South Africa, she is fortunate to have access to one of the world's best wine regions.

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