Greg Sherwood MW: Time for Cap Classique exports to go big

By , 14 July 2021

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In 2007, I passed my Master of Wine studies when my dissertation, the final piece of the elaborate MW jigsaw, titled “Method Cap Classique Production in Constantia Valley” was passed by the Institute of Masters of Wine examination panel. Being relieved does not even come close to describing the feeling of finally completing this most gruelling and sapping endeavour. While what was learnt during the long, arduous hours of theory and practical study will obviously remain with me for the rest of my life, one particular facet of my dissertation study still resonates with me today, one which has probably never ever been more pertinent – profitability in winemaking and how it can be improved.

One of my eye-opening discoveries was that despite the incredibly cash- and stock-intensive nature of Cap Classique production, it was possible for a Constantia winery to pick their Chardonnay or Pinot Noir fruit in early January and make thrilling base wines suitable for secondary fermentation in bottle which could eventually sell for R250 to R350 and more per bottle on release (at the time in 2007) versus making a still wine that would in all likelihood require some additional expensive oak ageing and then would still only sell for R80 to R120 a bottle in the local market. The concept of adding value to the raw material really started to ring home. If a producer could manage the weight of not seeing the cashflow from their MCC for two to three years, the rewards could also be so much greater.

As we now find ourselves in the 50th Anniversary year of Cap Classique, as first produced by the Malans of Simonsig in 1971, which also happens to be my birth year, there can be no denying the success this category has experienced over the past decade. Incremental growth year on year has come easily and quite organically, with more and more producers deciding to create their own bubbly brands whether for internal winery functions and celebrations of for full on local and export sales. The popularity and enthusiasm with which the category has grown has made it one of the true success stories of the modern Cape wine industry both on the local consumer market among hot, sweaty and thirsty summer tourists to the Cape as well as globally in a fast-evolving marketplace that has learnt to embraced not only Prosecco, Cava and Cap Classiqe but also alternative sparkling wine products like Crémant and Francia Corta from Italy. Champagne, meanwhile, has turned its eyes and ambitions towards more super premium categories of sparkling wine consumers.

With the Decanter World Wine Awards 2021 results still fresh on peoples’ minds and in the marketplace, I was so pleased to see the Laborie Blanc de Blancs 2015 from the KWV stable garner a spectacular gold medal at the event. I remember tasting the specific flight blind and recall thinking how exceptional many of the Cap Classique wines were. While the others may not have won Gold Medals, an amazing four wines from Graham Beck, Paul René, Kleine Zalze and Pierre Jourdaan all cracked impressive Silver Medals, which means the wines could have scored as highly as 94/100 points which still represents a massive achievement.

Looking back on my immediate years after graduating my Master of Wine, given the expertise I gained studying and researching my dissertation topic, I now somewhat regret not making more of an effort to become more of a Cape wine industry pinup and mouthpiece for the incredible Cap Classique category. Fortunately, in hindsight, I can admit that they didn’t need my help to realise much of their ongoing success. But what all producers as well as the whole industry certainly does still need, is more impetus, encouragement and self-inspection to help find greater profitability within the confines of their current wine ranges. Here in the UK, the thirst for South African wines continues across multiple category and styles and if the supermarket Sainsbury’s latest sales figures revealed this week showing Rosé Champagne sales up +188%, sparkling Rosé sales up +38% and sparkling Prosecco Rosé sales up +50% in the past year says anything, it tells me there is undoubtedly another massive opportunity for the Cap Classique category to step in and claim some of this action in the UK.

Admittedly, supermarket sales figures do not necessarily represent the full spectrum of the UK wine trade including high street wine chains, independent retailers and premium retail merchants, but the figures do usually suggest anecdotally broader retail trends happening across all strata of the wine trade. While I don’t currently have specific growth figures for sales of Cao Classique and Cap Classique Rosé wines at my own business, I do know that I too have expanded my range and re-ordering and restocking from all suppliers is definitely happening on a much more frequent basis. Fizz is fun but Rosé fizz is even more fun and with the UK emerging out of lockdown and casting off its last shackles of restrictions on the 19 July, savvy South African producers and exporters would do well to pay attention to the growing Cap Classique category in the UK and maybe divert some of their stocks that international tourists would have been drinking in the Cape and use it to spearhead a new, revitalised push into the UK off-trade market. The Covid-19 pandemic may well have dampened some of the planned 50th Anniversary Cap Classique celebrations planned for South Africa and internationally, but there is still plenty of deep-seated excitement surrounding the category and of course this historic landmark that has been reached.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.

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  • PK14 July 2021

    Great bit on MCC Greg. Just wanted to make mention that MCC does find itself in very competitive waters in terms of pricing in the off trade, when it comes to UK market. The likes of Cava, Prosecco, Sekt, Cremant, not to mention New World rivals the likes of Tasmania and now some smart kit from the States as well. Thought it would be useful to mention that, as the punter on the street may just misinterpret the piece and think the MCC guys should just aim their focus to the UK market, as there is a huge gap waiting to be taken. Agree with you there is an opportunity, but homework needs to be done and very savvy sales and marketing needed in order to conquer.

    Just my humble opinion.

    • Greg+Sherwood+MW14 July 2021

      Agree fully that launching into a new market with a new brand, you need to do your homework. But I would add that the market has changed and is changing, partly thanks to English Sparkling Wine, that has broken the mind set of consumers that only Champagne is worth spending more than a few pounds on. Champagne is actually struggling at lower price points and many or most are focusing on premiumisation. But there is still a very active volume category in the UK in the £12 – £20 retail per bottle MCC and for people like Graham Beck, their sales are growing at around +25% per year in the UK … and they are certainly not giving away their wines. No wine market anywhere is particularly easy to crack, but we are definitely seeing strong demand growth amongst consumers in the UK. Fortune favours the savvy producers making great wine and who do their market homework.

  • Greg+Sherwood+MW14 July 2021

    Fair enough… but I was only referring to one specific flight that I remembered tasting (blind)… as I tasted almost 800 SA wines over the course of the competition as Panel Chair.

    As I said, all the MCC wines were very good and impressed as a category. Please go to the DWWAs website if you want a full list of the medal winners.

    As far as I can see, between Silver and the one Platinum, there are around 14 award winners. Think there are also around 11 excellent Bronze medal winners.

    Anyway, the point of my commentary was not to dwell on the DWWAs but to acknowledge the quality and strength of the entire category.

  • Top Wine SA14 July 2021

    Why highlight the gold for Laborie MCC but not the golds for Babylonstoren and Boschendal MCCs? Why no mention of platinum for Quoin Rock MCC? And no, delicious as they might be, the silver medal winners you highlight scored below 94 points. What’s up?!

    • Christian Eedes14 July 2021

      For the record, here are the platinum, gold and silver medal winners (plus scores) in the Cap Classique category from DWWA 2021:

      Quoin Rock Black Series Brut 2014 – Platinum and 97
      Boschendal Jean Le Long Prestige Cuvée 2000 – Gold and 96
      Laborie Blanc de Blancs 2015 – Gold and 95
      Babylonstoren Sprankel Brut 2015 – Gold and 95
      Le Lude Venus Brut Nature 2014 – Silver and 94
      Boschendal Brut NV – Silver and 92
      Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs Brut 2016 – Silver and 92
      Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2015 – Silver and 92
      Graham Beck Ultra Brut 2015 – Silver and 92
      Tokara Blanc de Blancs 2013 – Silver and 92
      Boschendal Grand Cuvée Brut 2015 – Silver and 90
      Kleine Zalze MCC Rosé Brut NV – Silver and 90
      Paul René Pinot Noir-Chardonnay Rosé Brut 2018 – Silver and 90
      Pierre Jourdan Belle Rosé NV – Silver and 90

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