An epic tasting of MCC

By Jamie Goode | 20 July 2017

MCC, Methode Cap Classique

On a recent trip to South Africa, I was treated to a remarkable, one-off tasting. It was of Mèthode Cap Classique (MCC), which is the South African name for bottle-fermented sparkling wines. Canadian wine journalist Treve Ring, who I was travelling with, has a keen interest in sparkling wine, as do I, and so we were thrilled when WOSA managed to get word out that we wanted to do a serious, in-depth deep-dive into MCC, to see how things are going with sparkling wines here.


MCC is one of the most exciting categories in South Africa, currently growing at 15% per year, and we tasted the wines along with two of the top experts: Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck, and Paul Gerber of Le Lude. Both Pieter and Paul are specialists, and I have the impression that if you want to make great sparkling wine, it has to be a real focus, not something you do on the side. The four of us had 72 wines to taste, which were broken into five flights. As professionals, it's not unusual to taste this many wines in one sitting, but we wanted to take our time and have some discussion, which made this quite a mammoth session. More on this later.


MCC is an official designation, but currently the rule is that the wines must be bottle fermented with a minimum of 9 months on the lees. For the benefit of those less familiar with how Champagne and sparkling wine, some explanation is needed. (If you are an expert already, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph.) What this means is that winemakers first make a base wine (called a vin clair in Champagne), and a good base wine shouldn't taste too nice: it has to have quite high acidity and an alcohol level of around 10 or 11%, but ideally it should have some ripe and not unripe fruit flavours. Then this base wine is bottled with the addition of some sugar and yeast (the liqueur de tirage), and the bottle is sealed (usually with a crown cap, but in exceptional cases with a cork held in place with a clip called an agafe) for the secondary fermentation to take place. This is what creates the bubbles, and the interaction of the wine with the dead yeast cells (called lees) in the bottle after the second fermentation takes place adds flavour. After a period – which as mentioned has to be a minimum of 9 months for MCC – the bottle is riddled, which is a way of getting the dead yeast cells into a plug in the base of the neck of the upside-down bottle. The bottle neck is then frozen, the cap or cork is removed, and the yeast plug is ejected in a process called disgorgement. Then the wine is topped up with the liqueur, which is wine-based and often contains a bit of sugar (known as dosage), and the cork is applied.


There are moves afoot by the MCC association – of which Pieter is the chair – to make the authorities change this rule to a minimum time on lees 12 months. And there's talk of creating a new, high-end vintage category. Currently, any wine from a single year can be called vintage, but in Champagne it's an elite designation and vintage Champagnes are only released in good years, and they attract a price premium. It would be good to see this second tier for exceptional MCCs from good years.


One of the problems for MCC is the large number of cheap sparklers being made in South Africa which are tank fermented and then injected with carbon dioxide: there are around 12.5 million litres of these sparklers produced each year. And there are also non-MCC bottle-fermented wines that spend just 3 months on lees which can also confuse consumers, because they can still claim to be bottle fermented.


We began with a flight of 11 'others'. These were wines made from non-classic varieties, or with these non-classic grapes in the blend. The classic varieties of Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – are used the world over for making fizz because they just seem to work so well. In this flight we saw some Chenin Blanc, some Sauvignon Blanc and even Pinotage. 'I have my doubts that some of these varieties are suited to express the magic of secondary fermentation,' says Pieter Ferreira. I agree, but I quite liked three Chenin Blancs:


Perderberg Winery Brut Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012 Paarl

Sparklehorse Chenin Blanc 2014 Stellenbosch

Filia Chenin Blanc Brut Nature 2014 Swartland


Then it was time for one of the star flights: 23 Blanc de Blancs. 'Chardonnay is the ultimate grape to make sparkling wine from,' says Paul. 'In this flight, its purity and elegance were seen often.' Pieter agreed. 'I believe that Chardonnay has a great future in sparkling wine production in South Africa. There is diversity across the different wine regions and Chardonnay expresses this diversity well. It is the style of Cap Classique that we can take anywhere and it will find a good audience.' He finished by stating, 'At the end of the day, Chardonnay should speak elegance and finesse.'


Some of my favourites:


Waterkloof Moon and Stars Astraeus Chardonnay NV

Saronsberg Brut 2014 Tulbagh
Cederberg Blanc de Blancs Brut 2012 Cederberg
Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2012 Robertson
Simonsig Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs 2012 Stellenbosch
L'Ormarins Blanc de Blancs 2012 Western Cape
Genevieve Blanc de Blancs 2012 Overberg
La Bri Sauvage La Bri 2011 Franschhoek


The third flight was 21 blends, usually of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but sometimes also with Pinot Meunier in some cases. 'There's a wonderful diversity,' says Paul Gerber. 'It's good to see terroir differences and also a variety of philosophies.' Pieter thinks that while the Blanc de Blancs were wines that could develop in the future, these blends were more market ready. 'This is the time to drink them.'


My picks were:


L'Ormarins Brut Classique NV Western Cape
Thelema Brut 2013 Elgin
Graham Beck Brut NV Western Cape
Kaapzicht Celebration 2011 Stellenbosch
Le Lude Brut Reserve NV Western Cape
Longridge Vintage Reserve Brut 2009 Western Cape
Tanzanite Brut NV

Spier Signature 2014 Coastal Region
Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel 2012


Then it was time for something different: a flight of 10 rosé wines. There were three that stood out to me:


Waterkloof Astraeus Pinot Noir NV Elgin
Le Lude Rosé NV Western Cape
Graham Beck Brut Rosé 2011 Western Cape

And then we ran out of time. Our venue was closing and we had to leave. No worries. We decamped down the road into Stellenbosch and an oyster bar, where we tasted the seven prestige cuvées. This worked perfectly. Seven isn't too many to taste without spitting, and top quality fizz and oysters is a great combination.


How do you define prestige? 'I think its aspirational,' says Pieter. 'If you want to be a serious producer of MCC you have to remain aspirational. I think for all of us the divine inspiration will come from Champagne. We need to understand the philosophy of Champagne houses, and the prestige cuvées create a halo, and this halo drives everything.'  


'I think prestige cuvées are about the perceived elegance of ageing and blending, creating wines that you can drink now or in 7-10 years,' says Paul.


The prestige cuvées were quite lovely. The 2011 Graham Beck Cuvée Clive is a special wine, as is the still unreleased Le Lude Tête de Cuvée, which is aged under cork. I was also really impressed with the Pongcracz Desiderius 2009, which spent 89 months on its lees. These are the wines that show the potential of MCC in South Africa. It's no wonder its such a rapidly growing category.  

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