Were I to ask which category of South African wine is most in need of some smart marketing, how many would suggest Méthode Cap Classique? Many would express a sense of disbelief: ‘Bubbly? Everyone loves bubbly, surely there’s no image difficulty there?
But that MCC does need some effective generic marketing was the concern Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork in South Africa, confided to me prior to a tasting of the top MCCs at the Amorim-sponsored Méthode Cap Classique Challenge. Of course, this traditionally-made fizz is popular, but oddly, that’s part of the problem. It’s a category that grows exponentially; my guess is there are currently around 200 producers of MCC, some making more than one style, some every conceivable style. So, every year, the number of MCC producers increases as does the spectrum of their bubbly range, simply because of supply and demand. A few are specialists, more make MCC an add-on to their range.
For anyone who’s been lucky enough to attend an MCC tasting where specialists such as Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck, Jeff Grier of Villiera, Johan Malan of Simonsig or Paul Gerber of newcomer, Le Lude, among others, have presented, it’s clear there’s much more to MCC than getting a few thousand bubbles into the bottle. Technical expertise is – I was about to say ‘all’ but that usual edge of unbridled enthusiasm is equally important. Technically, MCC is one of the most demanding styles, the search for the perfect bubble always the ultimate goal.
Villiera and Simonsig are notable exceptions to a list of MCC specialists and a quality range of still wines. Villiera is particularly notable as bubbly supplier to Woolworths from the start and, with this retailer, have moved with the times: catering for the calorie and sugar-conscious, there’s a new MCC Light (under 10% alcohol), Brut Nature (no dosage added, so bone dry) and, daringly, a new NV Demi-Sec with 33 grams of residual sugar. Don’t think of Demi-Sec as cheap and cheerful; in Woolies’ case, it’s rich rather than sweet, with enough acid to lend good verve and a quality wine like the other MCCs. Another plus is that it is the perfect style to partner with food; Asian or spicy dishes or fresh fruit.
In a recent article on the UK website, http://www.drinksbusiness.com, Anne Malassagne, co-owner of Champagne producer, AR Leonble, affirms; ‘In order to make an interesting demi-sec the sugars need to be well integrate into the wine – if you don’t give it enough time after disgorgement then the sugar stands out. Our 1996 was rested for a further four years after disgorgement before release.’
Apart from broadening the style spectrum to meet the change in consumer tastes, Woolies and Villiera, as well as the other long-time top specialist producers have remained remarkably consistent. Not so all of the other 200-odd producers and neither are many members of the MCC Association, founded in 1992, which is a pity as members get together annually to taste and discuss their base wines before they undergo their second fermentation in bottle. This is a valuable exercise focusing on one of the most important parts of making a quality MCC, where balance and finesse are so necessary. Finesse means a lack of phenolics or bitterness/tannins, one source of which can be too hard a pressing of the grapes. As our grapes will be riper than those harvested in Champagne (the MCCs taste that much fruitier too), a gentle pressing is even more necessary.
No wonder I was puzzled when I discerned a distinct bitterness on the aftertaste of the latest Moët et Chandon vintage, 2006 during a recent (and informative) presentation by Chef de Cave, Benoit Gouez. He cheerfully admitted this unusual element was deliberate, using the comparison of ice skating figures, those for vintage being freestyle and non vintage, compulsory. An appealing analogy, the ‘freestyle’ of the vintage extending to the entirely non-classic label, the design based on painted boards recording the place of each vintage in the cellar.
Non vintage, which Gouez likens to the ‘compulsory’ figures in ice skating, establishes the overall house style and quality, for MCC too. Consider that Moët NV accounts 90% of production – no actual figures divulged – with the company’s own 1200 ha of vineyards supplying a quarter of their needs – admiration for quality and consistency is matched by quantity.
It’s a good starting point for all local MCC producers, also I’d suggest is becoming part of the Producers’ Association. Maybe such a united body would also raise the image and appreciation of the style generally.