The Graham Beck winery celebrated its 25th anniversary in suitably splendid style. When your primary business – at least from a visibility perspective – is fizz, it’s fit and proper to make a song-and-dance whenever an appropriate occasion arises. While 25 years in the world of wine is hardly an eternity, in the modern South African wine industry it’s the span separating the era of institutional management from the free-for-all of today.
Graham Beck established his Robertson winery South Africa in the days of sanctions and isolation. There was no formal export trade to speak of: the KWV, as the buyer of last resort, acquired the not-inconsiderable surpluses of the country’s wine producers and dumped them onto the European markets via traders operating out of Rotterdam. These brokers miraculously transformed the provenance of the Cape bulk to wines of Eastern European origin, taking the lion’s share of the revenue to cover the costs of this bureaucratic sleight of hand. The net income accruing to growers didn’t cover the running expenses of their farms.
Even the most prestigious wineries in the best-known appellations – Stellenbosch, Constantia and Paarl – were battling to keep afloat. The less well known areas were left with the crumbs. With depressed land prices everywhere, there was no need in invest in any but the best known areas of origin. Graham Beck, who had made his fortune in the coal business, was passionate about horse-racing and owned a stud in Robertson. He knew the areas well and decided that the calcium rich soils of the less fashionable, over-the-mountain location trumped the snob-value of the Coastal Region – at least insofar as the fizz business was concerned.
It was a prescient decision: today the difference in status between the inland and the coastal appellations has largely dissipated. However, the quality benefits of the lime-rich soil and the massive diurnal temperature changes are irreplaceable from a fruit quality perspective. Of course, to make fine fizz it’s usually necessary to source grapes from a number of sites. The Beck Blanc de Blancs uses chardonnay from Stellenbosch as well as Robertson and draws on a variety of clones. There are other distinguishing features: the base wines depend on a regime of subtle oak-ageing, and, more than most of its competitors, the Graham Beck bubblies profit from the elapse of time.
Rich men (who aren’t accountable to shareholders) are free to write the rule book as they please. Beck decided that a decent pre-release maturation period is more important than optimising the yield on his funds. He died in 2010, but this principle has been enshrined at the winery. The fact that the 1993 Blanc de Blancs is still very much alive, and the 2002 is on the plateau of perfection, confirms the founder’s vision has survived the transience of his flesh. The 2009 vintage of the Cuvée Clive – cellar’s prestige cuvée which celebrates the life of Beck’s son, who predeceased him in 1995 – is another example of the long-term percipience required to construct a monumental sparkling wine.
Since the winery’s first release its reputation for high quality bubbly has grown – adding to the overall credibility of the region. Today no serious Cape wine enthusiast would question its status as a Cap Classique Grande Marque. In the early days, its branding – under its proprietor’s name – lacked the vinous ring of some of the other properties. The passage of time has effectively disposed of that. No doubt there were consumers of Champagne in France in the 19th century who wondered why M. Mumm or M. Krug had put their not-very-French names on their products. For punters today, the name of Graham Beck is synonymous with fine fizz. More people care about this than know about about his fortunes made in the coal industry or his long-forgotten triumphs in the world of horse-flesh. The great man may not be as well-known as Tutankhamen, but a fizz palace in Robertson beats a sepulchre in the desert any day.