Bubbles in the blood!

September 7, 2010
By Atlanta Wine Guy (http://www.atlantawineguy.com)

In my year long quest to taste 365 or more sparkling wines, one of the best discoveries I have made are the Graham Beck sparkling wines from South Africa. Made in the traditional method used in Champagne (along with a unique twist in the vintage rosé), these wines are all quite good, doubly so considering their price point.

I follow their Cellarmaster, Mr. Pieter Ferreira, on Twitter and have been meaning to do an email interview with him for many months. I finally got my list of questions and below you’ll find his informative and entertaining responses. Do yourself a favor and pick up his wines, especially the vintage rosé and the demi-sec, Bliss.

You said you have “bubbles” in your blood. Tell us more about why you are so passionate about sparkling wine? I have been very fortunate that when I started in the wine industry I worked with Achim van Arnim, who was the first specialist Cap Classique producer in South Africa. I spent seven ‘mad’ years with him developing his brand Pierre Jourdan in Franschhoek and during this time I did several harvests in Champagne. I worked at Champagne Mumm in Reims, at the research station at Moet & Chandon, at Champagne George Veselle in Bouzy and at the experimental laboratory associated with the CIVC. I just love the intricate steps and involvement of the whole process that makes one passionate and develops bubbles in one’s blood. If you don’t eat, sleep, drink it you are better off selling Coca Cola.

Tell us about the unique process you use in making rosé. This is truly unique! I follow this for our Vintage Rosé and it involves doing a grape selection prior to pressing rather than blending various components of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay together. Blending still remain the art of a good bubbly and for consistency but as it is a vintage product I find it gives a better reflection of the vintage in this way. As Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripen they eventually overlap in ripeness which allows us to select four loads of Pinot Noir and one load of Chardonnay of grapes which these grapes end up whole bunch in the same press and then we carefully and very low pressure extract the cuvée juice that goes to fermentation. Somehow we get a little more floral and spicy aromatics from the grape-mix from the press. Therefore I believe that our Graham Beck Brut Vintage Rosé is unique and individual.

Tell us about the blending process and how you go about it. I consider blending as the art of a great bubbly. Not only can you ultimately select the best of the best if you have many components but you can blend for consistency and continuity in style. It is one of my ideals to maintain this as the customer develops a taste for a style and they do not want to be surprised. At Graham Beck Wines we will on a good year end up with at least 30 parcels of various Chardonnay and some 25 Pinot Noir components that will be up for blending. They may be different because of ripeness levels, different clones (becoming more and more interesting!) and that they come from different geographical areas. Diversity is one of South Africa’s strengths (could be a weakness) but it is a great advantage in Cap Classique. So our blending process really starts in the vineyards as we select and class our vineyard blocks allocated to Cap Classique into the various styles of bubbly we produce. As it is all our own vineyards we know by now the potential of each block and the are farmed accordingly. We will at harvest time keep all of the comments and block separate and then have fun in the blending.

What is the most challenging aspect of making sparkling wine? Sunshine! Is most probably the most challenging aspect. However we embrace sunshine in South Africa and we do have a lot of our vineyards in warmer areas. We have managed over time to overcome the effect of heat and we have changed our viticultural practices so much, that we have some of the most ideal condition for grape growing for base wine preparations for Cap Classique. We have the highest natural limestone soils in the Western Cape and it helps in the acidity of the grapes and our main area Robertson, the vineyards are allowed to sprawl to create more shade in the fruit zone. Even the vineyard rows are planted in directions to encourage shade. Irrigation application is very scientific and it is linked to GIS and automatic weather stations.

What are your favorite food pairings with each of the different sparkling wines you make? Now this is interesting! Up to recently in South Africa sparkling was kept as a celebratory drink not much used for pairing. We are constantly promoting pairing lately with our sparkling wines. As cooking is one of my hobbies I have been at this for a long, long while. I must add before I give you my favourites is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to pairing. However I have my favourites and here they are: (This is a general list but could send you some recipes)

Brut NV – Oyster in various forms.
Brut Rosé NV – Salmon or any other pan-fried fish.
Blanc de Blancs Vintage Chardonnay – Blanquette of Veal.
Rosé Vintage – Roasted duck.
Bliss Demi Sec – Ideal for any dessert (Crème Brule…..).
Cuvée Clive – Foie Gras and Caviar.

What other sparkling wine producers do you admire? As I have been fortunate to work in Champagne on 4 occasions and that I have had made many study trips to the new world producing areas, I have a few that I admire and respect. It would be unfair to think of one, no matter how big or small I admire more. Here is a short list in no particular order: Champagne Taittinger for Comtes de Champagne, Champagne Krug, Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley for their Quartet, Champagne Salon for Salon, Champagne Billecart-Salmon for Rose, Segura Viudas for Cava and Jansz in Tasmania.

What do you think is the best sparkling wine you’ve ever made? I think I am still on a journey “in search of the perfect bubble”. I constantly learn and adapt and tweak my approach towards making a finer bubble year on year. If there is one that excites me a little more than the others, it will be our next release of the Graham Beck prestige Cuvée, Cuvée Clive Vintage 2005.

How did you feel when you learned your wine was poured at President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech? When we received the call I happen to be in Chicago visiting the trade at the time. At first we could hardly believe that this was true – we had to quickly rush around to find some Graham Beck Brut NV to send to the collection point in Chicago. I was extremely proud. We love been part of celebrations of this nature.

The winery’s founder and namesake recently passed. What are some of your favorite memories of Mr. Beck? I have extremely fond memories of Mr Beck. I have been with him for twenty years, since the inception of Graham Beck Wines. He was more than an employer…. A true mentor and friend. There are pages of memories and anecdotes but a famous wine related one is the following. Mt Beck loved to learn from people he met. On an occasion he met Robert Mondavi at the Nederburg Wine Auction. He (Mr B) asked Robert to teach him when a wine is good or not… the story goes like this …. Robert Mondavi told Mr Beck that you should cut all the pedantic stuff in looking, swirling, sniffing and then tasting it… as it is far more simple than that. When you taste a wine from a glass and the glass leaves your mouth and going towards the table (to be out down) and your minds tells you that you need another sip of that wine, before putting it down, then it is a good wine.

What music do you listen to? I love fusion jazz and blues to a little rock. I guess it also depends on one’s mood but it does not stop there.

If there is a Heaven, what would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Don’t worry Pieter! there is enough Champagne and Sparkling Wine here!”

Who is your favorite author? I have recently loved the Stieg Larsson series of books. They were pretty good reading. Another author I like is Dan Brown.

If you could drink bubbles with any 3 people (Living or dead), who would they be and why? Wow I have so many favourite people I would like to drink bubbles with…. Tuff question…. Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama and Sir Winston Churchill.

What is your favorite quote? There are a few interesting wine and Champagne quotes. I enjoy the Champagne one’s. I recall Sir Winston Churchill having some classic one’s, Napoleon’s one on “In victory you deserve it and in defeat you need it” but my most favourite one is Madame Lily Bollinger: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

That concludes the interview. Many, many thanks to Pieter for being so gracious with the time he spent answering these questions. I really enjoyed reading his answers and look forward to the day when we can toast our mutual love of bubbly in person. I’ve said it before and will say it again, you really should try at least one of his wines.

Until next time, live well, love much and drink great wine…with friends.

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