Although South Africa’s winemaking history stretches back 350+ years, its regenesis is actually more recent than that. While most people will circle 1991 as the year in which things within the local wine industry started changing significantly because it coincided with Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom after nearly three decades of incarceration, there were pioneering winemakers who altered the face of the local landscape some decades before.
The late Frans Malan was one such pioneer who launched Kaapse Vonkel, initially made from Chenin Blanc, in 1971. At the time, sweeter carbonated sparkling wines were popular – Grand Mousseaux or Grandma’s Socks as Francois Malan recounted. “I was 15 when my dad did the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine,” he said, recalling that it was the most expensive local wine in the country at a whopping R3 a bottle. “Each bottle was sold with a little pamphlet explaining the style and process involved.” Educating local consumers about the South African wine with a French tradition was core to the success of Kaapse Vonkel although the first few years were tough.
There were a few tribulations along the way – including the quality of the bottles used. Bottles, commonly used for German sekt wines, were imported but were quite dangerous, being thinner and less able to withstand the pressure of the second fermentation. “We had to equip cellar workers with thick gloves, aprons and face masks because the bottles often exploded,” he said. His brother Johan, now the cellarmaster, also had a few colourful tales of his boyhood spent in the cellar. One tale involved him miscuing a catch from someone on a stack of bins – with the consequence that the bubbly bottle hit him on the head! Like the mythical Dom P monk, he too saw stars…
The foundations of the current Methode Cap Classique Association – the first producer organisation in the country – are also rooted in the groundwork which Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel laid. Simonsig soldiered on alone for around 10 years before Boschendal produced a bottle fermented bubbly and other producers slowly took up the challenge.
Nowadays, Methode Cap Classique production is on a steep and steady rise, driven by producers’ desire to extend their ranges and ride the wave of popularity among consumers. MCC is no longer just a celebratory drink for weddings, engagements, birthdays and anniversaries. It’s common to enjoy a glass of fizz as an aperitif – at braais, before rugby or simply because it’s a Saturday or Sunday and the sun is shining.
Kaapse Vonkel has changed over the years. In 1985 Pinotage was added to the Chardonnay in an attempt to add red grape character. “It worked but it wasn’t the answer,” admitted Johan. Two years later Pinot Noir joined Chardonnay in the classic Champenoise tradition. The Malans even went so far as to plant the third traditional Champagne grape, Pinot Meunier, on Simonsig, specifically for use in their MCCs.
At the recent 40th anniversary celebrations Johan recounted that a base wine tasting during a visit to Moët & Chandon in 1990 was a revelation. “The base wines were so much fruitier than I expected. We’d always worked on the principle that they should be neutral and not display varietal character.” That led to a change in harvesting at the Stellenbosch farm: nowadays they pick underripe, not unripe and as a consequence the base wines display more fruit.
Malan also said that the dosage used in Kaapse Vonkel had changed over the years. Initially it had to be sweeter to provide more roundness and commercial appeal but this had been reversed in the past few years “as consumers understand the styles of MCC and appreciate dryness more”.
With volumes of Kaapse Vonkel having doubled in the past five years and the bulk of production being exported, the Malans of Simonsig are asking themselves how big they want this wine to get. After revealing that the redesigned Kaapse Vonkel packaging took a year to perfect, Johan Malan’s parting shot was that life begins at 40…