Business Day 27 February 2020

Sometime in the 1980s the late Graham Beck, better known for coal mining and horse-breeding, announced that he would be dedicating some of his Robertson horse-stud to wine-production. People who didn’t know Beck muttered silly things about the area (at the time a far from fashionable appellation). When, a few years later, it emerged that the focus of the business would be champagne-method sparkling wine, tongues wagged again. The problem with Robertson, the pundits observed, is that it was warmer than the more fashionable sites in the so-called Coastal Region. Just because you have a horse stud as a convenient point of departure, people said, doesn’t mean it will be a suitable home for traditional bubbly.

What few of the skeptics failed to note is that the region has a more dramatic diurnal temperature difference than areas closer to the moderating influence of the oceans: more than 20º celsius between the daytime high and the night-time low. More importantly, Robertson’s soils, like those of Champagne, are calcareous.  The Champagne region is one giant chalk bed, made of essentially the same material as the white cliffs of Dover. England has become an increasingly credible source of good sparkling wine in part because its soil profiles look remarkably like the European mainland from which the lonely little island detached itself aeons before its current inhabitants voted for political separation. Beck worked out that the calcium-rich landscape of Robertson would provide a perfect home for the key fizz varieties – and he arrived at this conclusion long before cellars such as Dewetshof acquired their reputation as top chardonnay producers.

Fast forward to 2020. The Graham Beck Cap Classique business has been operating for thirty years. Its founding cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira, is still its chef de cave and runs an operation that is at least as large as several of the grande marque houses in Champagne. His wines enjoy a strong international presence (a Beck bubbly was served at Barack Obama’s victory celebration), though their market is still predominantly local. They have profited from a boom in Cap Classique consumption which has seen the major South African brands enjoy remarkable growth in the last fifteen years. What appeared in the 1980s to be a frivolous distraction for one of South Africa’s most colourful personalities has become a serious and successful business offering a range which covers everything from demi-sec to brut nature.

At the pinnacle of this brand pyramid sits the cellar’s prestige cuvée, a wine assembled only in the best vintages, and made from a selection of the best barrels/tanks. Called Cuvée Clive to commemorate Beck’s son who died in 1995, it aims to compete at the very top end of the fizz market. This is a bold enough undertaking given the strength of the major Champagne brands, and the price points associated with deluxe offerings in this segment of the market. The 2014 Cuvée Clive retails for over R800 per bottle, placing it in direct competition with the mid- to upper-end of a trade dominated by the French.

How does it perform when exposed to the pricing stratosphere? At its launch it was served alongside the 2007 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, against which it stood its ground comfortably. It is palpably creamier – a function of this particular vintage having been selected from 100% chardonnay base wines all of which had been vinified in oak barrels. This makes it very accessible, though as the standout 2009 tasted at the same time proves, it should improve with age. I also previewed the 2015, which will be released in the next year or so. At this stage, it is edgier, limier, and more nuanced – as indeed it should be.

With half a dozen vintages since the maiden 2005 sold out, the Cuvée Clive is now properly established as one of the few deluxe brands in the top end of the Cap Classique market whose price-point is not marketing thumb-suck, or shortage-driven sleight of hand.

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