Bubbly, fizz, Méthode Cap Classique, sparkling wine (in the UK), Méthode Traditionelle, Champagne – whatever the name of the wine which gains its effervescence from a second fermentation in the bottle and is poured to mark every occasion from birth to death, it remains something of an enigma. In this day and age, when all the talk is of a sense of place and minimal intervention, here we have a wine which is one of the most manipulated of any style, of which blending across sites, even regions, is part.
So, if you’re not buying a vin de terroir or one that falls into trendy ‘hands-off’ genre, what is it that makes this style of bubbly such a premium product?
I was thinking about this at what will surely be one of if not the media event of 2015: Graham Beck Wines 25th anniversary celebrations, held at their Robertson cellar, hub of Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira and his long-serving team’s search for the perfect bubble.
Ferreira is one of a rare breed outside of family-owned farms, a winemaker who’s been at the same cellar since day one and 25 years is no small achievement. But, as he reminded us, in the greater scheme of things, 25 years is a very short time in wine.
This was best illustrated in the mini-vertical of the GB Blanc de Blancs, covering the years 1997, 2002, 2007, 08, 09 and the current 10. A greater and innate freshness was evident from 08 on, not just because they were younger, that year marked the introduction of newer chardonnay clones.
We were privy to several of the experiments that have been ongoing since that first vintage during an instructive and well-illustrated walk-around, starting with 2015 base wines (Ferreira had 72 (!) components to juggle with this year, mainly but not exclusively from their own Robertson and Firgrove vineyards) and ending with the still sparkling 1991 Blanc de Blancs. The effect of dosage might sound quite straight forward, but tasting Graham Beck NV Brut with 18 months on lees, at four different levels: no dosage, 7.5 g/l (the standard level in the market), 3 g/l and 5 g/l, it was surprising how the 5 g/l was the most lacking in expression, whereas 7.5 g/l dosage provides the perfect balance.
Then would you imagine that, post-disgorging, storing the wine on cork vertically and horizontally would make much difference? It most certainly does. The same 2012 bottling under the same producer’s cork (Trafinos) stored vertically had rich aromatics and a creamy mousse, whereas the horizontal version was much less aromatic, fresher but with a less persistent bubble. Fascinating.
How about the difference between a wine left 17 years on cork as opposed to the same time on crown cap and lees? Again, a dramatically different pair: 1993 Blanc de Blancs aged on cork was all toasty honeycomb; on lees the wine was much fresher and less developed.
This exercise culminated in two versions of that maiden 1991 ‘made under the stars’, as Ferreira told us (wrong if you thought it was a romantic notion – the cellar building wasn’t finished!) One, six years on lees, 19 on cork had delicious toasty development energised by a fine, lazy but persistent bead; the second, disgorged the day before our visit, was much more vigorous but also a creaminess and length which placed it on a different quality level from the RD ’93.
Those six years on lees nearly resulted in Blanc de Blancs being a three vintage wonder. Ever the businessman, Graham Beck couldn’t live with the idea of sitting on the wine for that time without any sales, so you won’t find any 1994 or 1995 Blanc de Blancs. On release, the 1991 sold so well, Beck asked Ferreira why he’d stopped making it for those two years! Not exactly the same story, but shades of Max Schubert and Grange!
This thoroughly enjoyable travel through 25 years of Beck bubbly and the valuable insights it gave was followed by insights of a different kind. Rarely does one hear or read about MCC or others of that ilk, with food, let alone a whole meal.
The brilliant Margo Janse of Le Quartier Francais took on that challenge for all four courses of our lunch and the preceding Canapés. It was no surprise she more than rose to the occasion with great imagination, even when the wines she was asked to match were by no means the current vintage: Brut NV Magnum (1994), Cuvée Clive 2009, Bruz Zero 2005, Brut 1991 (maiden vintage) – degorged à la volée by some brave souls after the second course – and Brut Rosé 2006 to finish. Bubbly, young or especially older has far more going for it with food than as an aperitif.
To return to my question about what is it that makes MCC and others in this style such a premium product. Branding, marketing – both play important roles in creating the luxury image, but what Pieter Ferreira and his team showed us is that with their dedication and attention to detail, the wine can age beautifully and with complexity; their search for the perfect bubble becomes more exciting every year. Roll on the next 25 years!