South Africa’s Best Bubblies 2015 – Silverthorn grabbing plenty of attention, with Thelema among most high-profile newcomers

AT THE DAWN of the new millennium there were only 20 or so South African wineries producing sparkling wine according to the traditional or classic method for which the French are famous. Today there are over 100 cellars in the Cape making Cap Classique on a regular or occasional basis. The category has been booming, in part at least thanks to its great value-for-money offering relative to Champagne – there might be very few MCCs at under R100 a bottle but most of them are way less than ‘standard’ Moët & Chandon Imperial or Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, say, at R400 to R500 a bottle. And taste wise, the best Cap Classiques compare with some of France’s finest – great quality, with some having Champagne-like characteristics and others respected for their own distinctive styles.

Simonsig of Koelenhof in Stellenbosch were the first pioneers in the bottle-fermenting, riddling and degorging of SA bubbly back in 1971. Since then vignerons outside the Champagne region of France have been stopped from using the words Champagne and Champenoise in their marketing – such have been the quality standards achieved in the Cape and elsewhere, high enough to make the guys in Reims and Epernay more than a little twitchy. Moreover, climbing SA bubbly sales figures have some of the Champenoise wanting to also lay claim to the term Cap Classique and to prevent non-French products having names or descriptors involving any French words – a big ask for countries including South Africa where there are people and places with a French connection that goes back hundreds of years.

There are 16 Cap Classique producers whose wines qualified for the 2015 SA Sparkling Wine Classification and a third or more of the Top 100 cellars are now either dabbling in or committed to the category. Currently the big names among the more established MCC brands are Graham BeckVillieraSimonsigDesiderius PongráczJC Le RouxBon Courage and LaborieBoschendal has been making a comeback, Colmant has been delivering on its promise and Môreson as well as Saronsberg have also had numerous good reviews in recent years. However, there’s been a relative newcomer among the specialists who’s been getting more column-centimetres than most other SA bubbly makers of late – partly due to outstanding quality, partly due to interest value, with the grapes grown in Robertson and the rest of the winemaking undertaken at Steenberg in Tokai on the Constantia wine route…

Silverthorn is the boutique wine farm of John and Karen Loubser, Brett Nagle and investment banker Steven Loubser, brother of winemaker John (also GM at Steenberg). “The Green Man is an ancient mythical figure representing the spirit of the forest, the continuous regeneration of life and the interdependence of all things.” The Loubsers explain that it is this spirit and the green hue of Silverthorn’s Chardonnay Cap Classique that inspired a break with tradition, personifying the wine rather than calling it Blanc de Blancs. The 2011 has a subtle nose, some perfume, length. According to the Loubsers: fine bubble, fresh aromas of green apple and acacia blossom, subtle minerality, R198 a bottle at the time of writing. And as regards recent reviews of the country’s top sparklers, victories for the Green Man at the 2014 Six Nations Wine Challenge in Australia were particularly impressive.

Of the top debuts in 2014, one of the more remarkable was that of Thelema on the Simonsberg in Stellenbosch. In fact, cellarmaster Gyles Webb made a MCC Blanc de Blancs in 1994 – a small quantity enjoyed mainly at his daughter’s wedding. It’s only now that a Thelema Cap Classique is being included as part of the range and readily available – R150 a bottle ex-cellar for the 2011, an Extra Brut made from Chardonnay grapes grown in Elgin. Instantly appealing, some apple, sophisticated. And among Thelema’s tasting notes for their 2011 Blanc de Blancs: citrus, floral and yeasty aromas; pairs particularly well with salmon, sushi and sweet cheeses.