The word Champagne conjures up images of celebration and glasses filled with thousands of sparkling bubbles. Did you know that Champagne and Cap Classique (previously known as Method Cap Classique or MCC) are the names of a specific wine and not a style? Today, the 22nd of October we celebrate Champagne Day, let’s have a closer look at the similarities and differences of these beautiful wines.
As with any well-made wine, Champagne and Cap Classique are an expression of the terroir. Grapes are specifically grown where ripening is slow to retain acidity while allowing fruit character to develop. The acidity is the backbone that will keep the wine balanced.
Champagne is a region in France, northeast of Paris, where the terroir is a magical combination of chalky soils and cooler temperatures that sometimes keeps growing grapes on a knife edge. The French wine industry is steeped in tradition and guarded with strict regulations on what varietals can be grown where and how the wines are made. Champagne is no exception, the primary varietals are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with secondary varietals of Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc which are quite uncommon.
Did you know? Ken Forrester became the official importer of Billecart-Salmon Champagne in South Africa in 2001 and continues to quench the thirst of Champagne-lovers all over the country. A specially chosen selection of the finest Billecart bubblies are available at our Wine Lounge and our online shop.
Founded in 1818 by husband and wife Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, the Billecart-Salmon House is rich with history. For nearly two hundred years, the Billecart family has been handing down the secrets to making exceptional Champagne from generation to generation.
Cap Classique is South Africa’s answer to making bubbly. In 1935 South African signed the Crayfish agreement where a commitment was made to not use any of the traditional French wine industry names and France will ensure that South African Crayfish will be labelled as such. SA’s first official bottle was made in 1971 by Simonsig, which was made from Chenin Blanc, making 2021 the 50th anniversary of Cap Classique in South Africa. Winemakers are not regulated to where or what to grow. However, to achieve the slow ripening that maintains the critical acidity, care is taken to identify varietals and cooler climate parcels of vines.
Both wines are made using the same method where once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the cellar where the core process of wine making is followed, with variation based on the winemaker’s skill within strict regulations.
The juice is extracted from the grapes and then undergoes its first fermentation mostly in a barrel, stainless steel tank, or a combination of both. Once the fermentation is complete, the wine is left with dead yeast cells to start developing secondary characteristics, this is called being left on the lees. When the winemaker is satisfied with the first fermentation, called the still base wine, the wine is transferred to the bottle that will be its final home. Each bottle receives a dose of wine mixed with yeast and sugar, called tirage, to start the second fermentation. The bottle is then closed with a metal crown cap, much like a beer bottle cap, while the magic starts to happen. During the second fermentation carbon dioxide (CO2) is released and since the bottle is sealed, the CO2 is dissolved into the liquid which gives the final wine its captivating fizz. Once the yeast has done its job the old yeast cells settle and impart additional characteristics while the bottles are stored on their sides for varying lengths of time, this is called being left sur lattes. This length of time allows the dissolved CO2 to develop into the fine bubbles we dream of. Once the winemaker is satisfied with the development of character, the bottles are prepared to have the lees removed. This involves moving the bottle gently vertical with the crown cap pointing down and the lees settles against it. Traditionally this is done by hand in wooden racks in a process called riddling. The top of the bottle is chilled then opened and the pressure inside pushes out the lees plug, called disgorgement, and the bottle is either topped up with more of the same wine or a mixture of wine and sugar, called dosage, depending on the final wine the winemaker has in mind. Finally, the bottle receives its final closure of cork, and a wire cage called the muselet.
Both bubbly wines can be made from a single year’s harvest or a blend of years to achieve a consistent product, called non-vintage or vintage respectively. The wine can also be made as a blend of varietals, blending can happen before the first fermentation or after with the still base wine.
Another key regulation is how long the wines are aged sur lattes. For Champagne non-vintage it is a minimum of 15 months, and 36 months for vintage wines. While Cap Classique requires a minimum of 12 months, previously 9 months for wines before the 2021 harvest.
Ken Forrester offers Sparkle Horse, a Cap Classique made from Chenin Blanc which is a wonderful link to the very first South African bubbly. The vines are carefully selected from cool climate vineyards in the Helderberg, planted in 1975. The still base wine is left on the lees for 7 months and then left sur lattes for 28 months, allowing the creaminess and fine mousse to develop while still maintaining bright, fresh apple, pear and quince aromas. Whether sipping while taking in a beautiful sunset or complimenting light creamy chicken and fish dishes, this is a perfect bubbly to lift any moment in time to a celebration of friends and family.