On Tuesday last week a gathering of wine writers was spoilt with an invitation to taste the portfolio of seven Graham Beck Wines MCCs at The Westin Cape Town, followed by a sparkling lunch in the hotel’s Executive Club, pairing the MCCs and delectable dishes prepared by Chef Johann Breedt and his team.
Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira is synonymous with Graham Beck’s MCCs, having started with the company at its inception 24 years ago. He quickly earned the nickname ‘Bubbles‘, given to him by wine writer Melvyn Minnaar, and now wears the ‘branded’ shirt with his name on it! He truly is a bubbly character, and the passion for his seven MCCs comes to the fore when he speaks about them. The pay-off line for the MCC range has been ‘In Pursuit of the Perfect Bubble’, and is printed on the marketing collateral, representing Pieter’s quest to make the ultimate MCC. The brand has received outstanding international publicity as being the preferred sparkling wine of royals (served at the wedding of Swedish Princess Madeleine) and politicians such as the Obamas, who drank it on the eve of the President’s inauguration, and with President Zuma when the Obamas visited Pretoria ten days ago. In June Michelle Obama was spoilt with the bubbly, being on the menu for her lunch with Bono in his home town of Dalkey in Ireland. It was served at the inauguration of former President Nelson Mandela too. Prince Harry toasted his Sentebale Trust with Graham Beck earlier this year. Given the publicity, which was achieved without paying a cent for it, and the brand being the preference of such sterling customers, the pay-off line used now for the MCCs is ‘Graham Beck: The Crown of Celebration’. A crown has been added to the Graham Beck logo for the MCC range, looking as if it has always been there.
Pieter told us that 85 % of the grapes for the MCC production come from the company’s wine farms in Robertson and Stellenbosch, being Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The balance comes from pockets of vineyards with an average temperature in February of 17 – 19°C, including Durbanville, the Hemel & Aarde valley, Stanford, Bonnievale, and Elgin. Since 2012 they have been using Pinot Meunier as the third grape variety, commonly used in Champagne. They have found that the Pinot Meunier does not make the bubblies more complex than what they already achieve with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They will try it out for the next three years. The successful bubbly is one that is consistent and continuous, and this is influenced by how the grapes are handled from picking to creating the juice. French oak barrels are made by Tonnelleri Artisanale from Champagne, and they buy fifteen per year. Only 5% of the wine is exposed to new wood, Pieter said. From the proceeds of the sale of the Franschhoek property last year, they have used some of the monies to invest in a five year plan of expanding their capacity, now being able to keep their MCCs on the lees for a minimum of 18 months. Pieter said that they have invested in the best equipment for disgorgement, describing it as the ‘Rolls Royce‘, from Champagne. Graham Beck has informal links with champagne producers, and it was said that they ‘do not yet’ own a piece of land in Champagne!
In pairing MCCs with food, there is no right or wrong, Pieter said. He gets excited in challenging chefs to come up with creative pairings. I spoke to Chris du Toit, the CEO of Graham Beck Wines, and he said that despite the excellent publicity for the brand, price is still a purchase barrier in overseas markets, Champagne costing double the overseas prices of Graham Beck MCCs, even though the quality is judged to be as good as the French equivalent. The international exposure will help the brand to command a better price, the non-vintage MCCs costing R105 at the cellar door, the vintage Rosé and Blanc de Blancs costing R205, Brut Zero costing R220, and Cuvée Clive costs R480. MCCs form 68% of the Graham Beck Wines exports, and 60% of the company’s total production, being 1 million bottles of MCC per year. The company is investigating a Fairtrade or similar accreditation, important to the Swedish market in particular. It is WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association) accredited.
Each of the seven MCCs in the Graham Beck Wines range was paired with a delicious complex creation by The Westin Executive Club Chef Johann Breedt, who was a contestant in Kokkedoor, the Afrikaans TV reality food show which focused on our country’s heritage food. Pastry appears to be his particular passion. He likes to prepare traditional South African dishes and give them ‘a spin, adding caviar or foam’. He has been with The Westin for about four years, having previously worked at the Twelve Apostles, the Lanzerac Hotel, and The Ritz London. Chef Johann brainstormed the pairings with Pieter, The Westin Executive Chef Grant Cullingworth, and his team. Commendable was the amount of detail provided on the menu as to the ingredients of each of the dishes. The view from the 19th floor restaurant onto Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Table Bay is exceptional:
* Brut Zero 2008 was the welcome drink, made from 87% Chardonnay and 13% Pinot Noir, only containing fructose, with 1,22g per litre residual sugar. No dosage and no added sugar creates a MCC in its ‘purest form‘, 72 months on the lees. Pieter referred to it as ‘Brut Zero is the Hero‘!
* Cuvée Clive 2007 is the flagship of the Graham Beck MCC range, and is named after the late son of the late Mr Beck. It is only made in years of exceptional ‘cherry picking‘ grape quality, from 81% Chardonnay and 19% Pinot Noir grapes, spending 60 months on the lees. There are no rules for its production, excellence being the only benchmark. They have made two 2009 vintages, and a 2011 and a 2012 vintage will be released in future. Residual sugar is 5,6g per litre. A quail salami, with Black Forest ham, pistachio nuts, shiitake and porcini mushrooms, hazelnuts, brandy and sumac, placed on earth truffle, was topped with Crème Brûlee and cauliflower chips. This delectable MCC was also the closing bubbly served with a melt-in-the-mouth truffle and caramel crumble.
* Blanc de Blancs 2009 is the royal MCC, having been served at the Swedish royal wedding. It is 100% Chardonnay based, only the cuvée juice being fermented, half of it in Piece Champenoise barrels. 36 months on the lees, and 7,12 g per litre residual sugar. This MCC was served with a West Coast oyster broth, with straw, lemon grass, roasted chili, pickled calamari, steamed ginger buckwheat brioche, and topped with naartjie foam.
* Brut NV is the presidential bubbly, chosen by the Obamas and for Mr Mandela, as well as for Prince Harry. It is made from a blend of 53% Chardonnay and 47% Pinot Noir. Whole bunch pressed and fermented separately, and then blended with reserve wine if necessary. 18 months on the lees.7,6 g per litre residual sugar. The palate cleanser of Baked Poire William Crumble pie, pecan nut, honey, and lemon was paired with this MCC.
* Brut Rosé 2009 is a blend of about 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, jointly pressed, unique in this country, with 36 months on the lees, and 8,84 g per litre residual sugar. A dish of Hunter’s Rabbit, consisting of braised rabbit chasseur and loin, was served with poached langoustine, celery infused potato, a parmesan crisp, button mushroom a la Grecque, battered onion ring, an unusual popcorn vinaigrette, and pea shoot.
* Brut Rosé NV is a blend of equal quantities of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with residual sugar of 8,8g per litre. This silver-pink bubbly was served with an unusual cheese platter of brie, mascarpone, coco butter, Greek candied tomato, confit roasted macadamia nut, chili, a lightly smoked olive smear, and a vanilla coconut ash, inspired by Modernist Cuisine, Chef Johann said.
* Bliss Demi Sec NV is very much sweeter than the other MCCs at a residual sugar of 39,4g per litre, and is entry level for entrants to the bubbly market once they leave JC le Roux, especially in Soweto, Pieter said in reply to a question by Neil Pendock. The five-fold sugar content differentiates this MCC from the Brut NV. On the lees for 15 – 18 months. A Lemon and rosewater buttermilk pudding, with biscuit, honeycomb, meringue, salted fudge, caramelized confit lemon, and apple mint, was served as dessert, inspired by Kokkedoor, Chef Johann said.
When I asked Pieter where the MCC range is going, Pieter said that the market is well covered with their seven MCCs. However, he would like to experiment with regional variations of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and they have something special up their sleeve for visitors to Graham Beck’s Robertson Tasting Room. Pieter also said that he would love to launch a recently disgorged MCC which has spent 10 years on the lees. As chairman of the Cap Classique Association, Pieter said that MCC producers have a unique opportunity to portray the sunshine in our MCCs, something the rest of the world does not have, giving our MCCs a unique identity. They do not try to emulate Champagnes, but do respect them. The South African producers all speak the same language, but need international exposure, Graham Beck’s MCCs being most visible internationally.
Being lucky to sit next to Pieter at lunch, I was able to ask him some further questions. We talked about Platter, and why the Graham Beck MCCs have never achieved 5 stars in the past twenty years. Pieter was critical of how impersonal the evaluation and relationships with the tasters has become. One senses that it is a sore point, but his goal is to crack the five star rating. They do not enter all wine competitions, but the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, Veritas, the Amorim Tsogo Sun Cap Classique Challenge, and Michelangelo Awards are the major local ones. They are guided by their business partners as to the most important competitions to enter internationally, the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards being important. Marketing will be bolder in future, Pieter said, and he will be travelling more, to lead tastings. Our function was one of three in the week, one having been hosted for the trade and restaurants in Cape Town, and another for the media in Johannesburg. The Gorgeous Bubbly Bar is moving from Steenberg, and branches could open in Sandton, London, and New York.
The sky appears to be the limit for Graham Beck’s MCCs, given the amazing publicity the brand has achieved to date with its VIP patronage without PR expenditure. Given its campaign to create greater visibility and offer more tastings, as well as Pieter’s pursuit of the perfect bubble, the range is truly set to wear the crown of celebration not just locally, but internationally too!
Disclosure: We received a bottle of Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2009 with our media pack.
Graham Beck Wines, Robertson (Tasting Room) and Franschhoek (Marketing & Sales). Tel (021) 874-1258/(023) 626-1214 www.grahambeckwines.com Twitter: @GrahamBeckWines
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage