Skip to main content

South Africans popping more bubbly corks

| Wine and liquor

I love red wine, but it’s difficult to drink at breakfast, says Didier Mariotti. Champagne, he points out, does not suffer the same limitations. Mariotti is chief winemaker at G H Mumm, the champagne maker based in Champagne, France. (His title in French sounds so much more romantic — Chef de Caves.)

In SA recently to promote the champagnes he makes, Mariotti was at pains to point out that champagne is not just for celebrations, and even if it is, "there are so many moments in your life to celebrate." Quite.

In fact, Mariotti is keen to pop a cork even when there is nothing at all to celebrate. "I always say to my staff, if you’ve had a shit day let’s open a bottle and you will leave the company with a smile." The world could do with more of that attitude.

Bubbly in its various forms is one of the fastest growing wine categories in SA, says Peter Short, wine manager at Norman Goodfellows in Illovo, Johannesburg. Much of this drinking makes use of sparking wine, or takes a price step up to Methode Cap Classique — sparkling wine made in SA in the traditional champagne method. But, says Short, French champagne is definitely on the SA menu. "A lot of people don’t wait for a birthday, they open a bottle for the hell of it. It’s a nice way to end off a week. If they crack a contract, they go for the (French) champagne."

Legally, only sparking wine made in France’s Champagne region in the traditional methode champenoise can be called champagne.

Champagne, says Mariotti, is versatile, and, as a wine, can also be paired with food. One just has to experiment, and — because sparking wine is light and elegant — sidestep heavy and spicy dishes. It can also be used in cocktails.

"Champagne cocktails are coming in big," says Domenico De Lorenzo, who won last year’s SA leg of the Diageo Reserve World Class Best Bartender in the World. "Classics like the French 75 — good gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup shaken and strained into a flute, topped with some dry sparkling wine — are doing well.... People’s palates are changing more to the dry drinks."

Like so many other producers of luxury items, Mumm entered SA "three or four years ago" on the lookout for ways in which to expand its market. Not only are markets abroad often saturated, but many luxury brands have felt the profit cooling effect of global macroeconomic "headwinds" in traditional markets such as the Eurozone and Russia, says financial advisory firm KPMG in its 2015 Luxury Goods in Africa report.

These headwinds have also been felt, to a lesser extent, in emerging markets, says the firm, adding that while Africa is also affected, "the continent continues to hold strong medium-term economic growth potential." It’s the potential Mumm is after.

"SA is a good champagne market, there is a growing middle class that is interested in international brands," says Sixtine de Laleu, G H Mumm brand ambassador. "And there is an established wine market. At the very beginning (of Mumm’s entry into SA) people were very curious and happy to discover a new brand to differentiate themselves."

The market for French champagne is around 60,000 cases a year, says Etienne Cassuto, assistant brand manager at Pernod Ricard SA. Pernod Ricard owns G H Mumm. Of that, Mumm sells 2,500 cases, 4% of the market.

Short counts around 80 different French champagne brands in the Norman Goodfellows stock range, and around 100 MCC or SA sparking wines. He says while there are many so-so sparking wines — because this is one of the fastest growing wine categories and there has been enthusiastic bandwagon jumping — good MCC or champagne is worth the higher price.

"Good bubbly takes time, five or seven years.... SA’s top end bubblies are great. A lot of farms make an everyday one and a premium cuvée, but there is something about a French champagne that’s very special, very delicious. We sell a lot."

The comment De Laleu made about an urge to show oneself as different is something also noticed by Cape Town wine merchant Lyzette Tamski of Caroline’s Fine Wines. "People want something from smaller producers, something more unique. There is a trend towards smaller estates that produce top quality products. There’s also a nice shift to (sparkling wines) Italian Prosecco and Crémant from Burgundy. They are cheaper (than French champagne) and very interesting."

Part of this trend towards the boutique can be seen, Tamski says, in growing interest in another traditional method of making sparkling wine, methode ancestrale (MA).

Riebeek-Wests’s Mullineux and Leon Family Wines started in 2013 to produce about 600 bottles of MA a year as part of its practice to "make small batches of experimental stuff to keep things fun," says assistant winemaker Tremayne Smith. His colleague, Matthew Copeland, winemaker at Vondeling Wines in Paarl, makes SA’s largest batch — 1,600 MA bottles a year — for a very different reason.

It’s because of the intense heat that settles on the Paarl valley in summer. temperatures often soar beyond 30°C, and so the grapes develop a higher than usual sugar load. This would complicate the process of making MCC. "We didn’t bother. It’s a competitive market and to make it you have to make a lot at a competitive price."

Where MCC uses a base wine that has finished fermentation and "settled" before the winemaker adds sugar and yeast to provoke a second fermentation, MA has the winemaker bottling the wine before the first fermentation is completed. The problem for an estate in a hotter area is that because there are two fermentations in MCC, the winemaker needs to ensure that the first doesn’t have high alcohol content. That means the grapes would have to be picked when they are "young, undeveloped and uninteresting".

MA, with just one fermentation, obviates the messing about with sugar and alcohol content. "It sounds more simple, but it isn’t," says Copeland, explaining that where a MCC winemaker can add the sugar and yeast that starts a second fermentation at their leisure, the MA winemaker has their moment chosen for them — when the exact sugar content needed is reached in the first fermentation. "That can come at 2am at the peak of the (general) wine harvest."

While sparkling wine in its various forms is more of a fair weather drink, Mariotti presses for champagne drinkers to treat it like they would any other wine, pairing it with food too, he says.

Pin It

Related Articles

Makro secures exclusive rights to SA’s most sou...

This week, Makro has launched its Festive liquor catalogue for 2023 - which its buyers explain is carefully crafted around local and international consumer trends. This year, the retailer managed to secure exclusive products from brands such as De...

Checkers adds 41 new wines to Odd Bins range

Checkers has added 41 new limited edition wines to its Odd Bins collection, of which two were awarded Double Gold and Gold at the prestigious Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards earlier this month. 

With petrol at almost R20 a litre, food prices ...

South African consumers will have to dig deeper in their pockets at the tills this festive season, with food prices set to rise on the back of rising petrol prices, feed, and input costs.

Petrol price shocker for South Africa

Filling a 45-litre tank will cost South African motorists around R55 more from tomorrow (3 November 2021).

Consumers to face higher prices this festive se...

CRM global leader Salesforce predicted that consumers would face higher prices this coming Festive Season.