Melvyn Minnaar: The aesthetics of Cap Classique

By , 2 February 2022

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The inevitable sentimentality of a year and more that passed in a kind of blur and the optimism and promise of a new one could well be the reason. Or it may be that a solitary lockdown brought on by the constantly mystifying virus focused my mind (again) on the unnerving pleasure of the finest bottle-fermented wine. Because it is not just an easy pleasure. Because it can be deeply satisfying – and challenging.

Note: the ‘finest’ – not all – and certainly, for all the fun of fizz, many that don’t deserve a second sip of serious consideration.

The popular image of sparkling wine is that of celebration, excess and wealth (nothing demonstrates this more horribly than the magnums sprayed at F1 and other podiums). But the greatest of these wines need the closest of consideration for their craft and complexity. And bubbly-unfolding potential.

This is the paradoxical set-up of Cap Classique as it stands now: bubbly has general, cheerful appeal; it can be flogged for good money (if you get the branding and packaging right); it takes skill to control and execute the complicated methodology (but is not unduly difficult in the modern cellar); yet the outcome is never quite guaranteed; yet the pursuit for the ultimate sparkle remains a process; yet the experience and essence of the resulting wine is seldom easy to define, describe or – and this is a key point – to judge.

This is what I call the aesthetics of bubbly: the convoluted journey from vineyard to glass, with no warranty of the outcome and yet all the expectation of a wine that may affect the way the drinker enjoys it, thinks about it and remembers it. It is easy to see that this is contra-formulaic, perhaps even, to be romantic, a tad alchemistic.

Yes, I am an unabashed admirer of the art that made Champagne famous, and a weak-in-the-knee follower of those who pursue that passion in South Africa, I believe that this kind of wine is the ultimate test of the winemaker as craftsman, visionary and, yes, artist. So many things need to come together. And often judges get it wrong. (I have a theory that this is because they may not always understand the aesthetics at play in the artwork in their glasses.)

Like in all art, superficial charm can take you a long way, but the meaningful and rewarding kind has the ability to take its experience beyond, even change one in perception and thought. One way of thinking about it, is the beauty of its structure.   

Decades ago my literature studies (under one of the great Afrikaans poets of the time) hooked on a simple formula which since has stood up well in just about any aesthetic evaluation: “the amount and diversity of material integrated” and the rather lovely phrase “imaginative integration” (yes, Wellek and Warren’s 1949 Theory of Literature).

This was very much on my mind after opening a bottle of John and Karen Loubser’s Silverthorn Jewel Box 2017 and poured a sensible amount in the ordinary, slightly-tulliped wine glass that I prefer for bubbly.

First there is the sight and charm of the seemingly endless minute bubbles rising from a mysterious place. Then the cool whiff as the bubble makes its presence known to the nose, followed by the aromatics, the buzz on the tongue, then the teasing taste – the sensorial climax when the brain takes over to check the experience, based on previous familiarity, future expectation of simply a tabula rasa for the “imaginative integration’ that had started with a 2017 harvest of Robertson grapes.

In enjoying the wine, the tease to understand it, to fully evaluate what it tries to express, is, to my mind, a process of exploration and discovery. The engagement of an artwork that might alter the way you contemplate wine and the world.

The finest bottle-fermented wine crafters will tell you the journey to the perfect bubbly is never reached. How could it be when there are so many unknowns at play? And can and should it be judged?

There are but a few Cap Classique wines that push these boundaries (and may, by doing so, just be outside of the usual judging expertise). I’ll include Colmant, Graham Beck Cuvée Clive, Pieter Ferreira, Le Lude Agrafe and Newstead among those pushing the aesthetic, sensual and intellectual experience.

The enterprising Cap Classique association has finally made a move to increase professional understanding of the intrinsic issues at play in great sparkling wine. The new Cap Classique Academy will kick off soon under the auspices of the Cape Wine Academy. And I say “All hail to that”.

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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