Innovation among South Africa’s young winemakers is taking the country’s wines on an exciting journey; but innovation, through its very nature, has a sense of the unknown. In some cases this carries an element of danger, as it can in a style as tricky as Méthode Ancestrale.
Méthode Ancestrale is the original bottle-fermented sparkling wine which undergoes one, as opposed to Champagne’s two, fermentations. Therein lies the danger: exploding bottles. But there was no danger of that when winemaker Matthew Copeland and the Vondeling team organised a well-attended launch of their maiden 2013 Méthode Ancestrale, called Rurale (another name for this style of sparkling wine). The wine shows a degree of expertise and deliciousness which defies this first-time effort. In keeping with the rural theme, guests were treated to their first taste on top of the Paardeberg (Horse Mountain), which rises some 800 metres behind the farm.
Copeland explained just how potentially tricky the process can be. His wine is made from a single block of Chardonnay, harvested with a potential alcohol of 12%, riper and later than it would be for Méthode Cap Classique, in order to capture greater fruit in the wine without loss of vibrancy or freshness.
A natural fermentation commences in tank before the really difficult stage: bottling, a procedure that happens when there’s sufficient sugar left to create a vibrant bubble but not so much that the build-up of pressure causes the bottles to explode (Copeland admits that some did). As is the way with wine, this crucial stage could happen in the middle of the night.
Post bottling, the wine spends 16 months on the lees to increase the richness and creamy texture, but these are well-balanced by the high natural acid and that vibrant bubble. Degorging is followed by topping up, a procedure carried out with other bottles of the same wine, another reason for the limited number of bottles available – 1 200 this first vintage, all allocated to the local market.
Other producers around and on the Paardeberg are also honing their skills with Méthode Ancestrale. Vondeling’s neighbours, Willie and Tanya de Waal of Scali, make Scali Ancestor from Chenin Blanc. Their approach is to keep the whole process as natural as possible, from gravity settling and racking, to fermentation and bottling under crown cap with no riddling agents. The biggest challenge, say the de Waals, is to have as small amount of lees as possible left in the bottle after degorging but, at the same time, with as little loss as possible of the wine itself – sounds a bit of a Catch 22 situation! All this and still use the natural approach (they hand degorge every bottle) because that’s what defines the style. Scali Ancestor has 8.3 grams of residual sugar, slightly drier than the Vondeling’s 10.2 g/l, and a total sulphur of 26 mg/l. Their second vintage totals only 600 bottles, most of which are destined for export.
In the heart of the Paardeberg, Lammershoek’s Craig Hawkins’ 1 000 bottles of Ancestrale, named ‘Petty Cash’, were made from Hárslevelü and Chenin Blanc. Hawkins says his challenge is to get the wine as clean as possible before bottling, otherwise at degorging there’ll be too much sediment, which can result in losing around 33% of the wine. Racking twice during fermentation in tank does the necessary to lower the amount of lees. Bottling follows once the sugar level is around 35–40 g/l, a level which results in Hawkins’ desired residual sugar – around 11 g/l in this wine – once the C02 naturally halts fermentation.
Where ‘Petty Cash’ also differs from Rurale and Ancestor is the fact that no S02 was added; nor was it fined or filtered. Hand degorged after a year, the wine was topped with Chenin from 2012.
In both years that Chris and Andrea Mullineux have made their Ancestrale, Clairette Blanche has been the variety of choice and, in both, the wine has been offered to their wine club members. To control the amount of lees at the end of fermentation, the Mullineuxs’ first protein and cold stabilise the juice. Harvesting at 19° Balling allows the wine to ferment right out, ending with an alcohol of around 9.5–10%. One lesson the pair learnt from their first vintage was to leave more head space to avoid exploding bottles; an approach that happily worked well.
If producing a Méthode Ancestrale sounds difficult and stressful, drinking it is far less so. “It’s a really fun wine to drink,” say the Mullineuxs, who also admit it’s fun to make. While Hawkins says what he likes about the style is that it “makes people smile, the bubbles are softer and less aggressive, and one needs to drink the bottle quicker because the bubbles disappear more quickly”.
Judging by the number of bottles opened at the Vondeling launch it would seem that we, the media, enjoy it as much as the wine producers. Méthode Ancestrale might only ever be made in limited quantities but it looks set to become a permanent part of the South African wine scene.