The wines of Graham Beck, South Africa
Visiting this sparkling wine specialist, based in Robertson, who are also making increasingly good still wines


My visit to Graham Beck's headquarters in Robertson was memorable on a number of levels. Of course, the most important level is the wines, and these impressed. But another level was how I got there, by helicopter from Cape Town airport. It's just the only way to travel. I arrived from London at 8 am in the morning, and before too long was up in the air again, flying past Paarl mountain and over the du Toitskloof mountain (above), then flying over the flats of Worcester to Robertson.

Graham Beck makes a wide range of wines, but the great talent here is fizz. Winemaker Pieter Ferreira (above) is a leading figure in the MCC (Methode Cape Classique) association, and makes a wide range of superb sparkling wines. MCC is on a bit of a roll. The first MCC producer was Simonsig in 1971, the MCCA was founded in 1982, and now it has 82 members, with a potential  current membership of 137. This covers 20 different geographic areas and production is 6-7 million bottles a year, although 7 producers are responsible for 85% of that total. 

The Graham Beck nature reserve in Robertson

What's the secret to making good sparkling wine? 'Whole bunch pressing is essential,'  says Pieter. 'It is pivotal to the success of MCC.' Whole bunch pressing produces juice with lower levels of phenolic compounds, which aren't desirable in sparkling wine base wines. When Graham Beck press they have a threshold of 80 mg/litre of phenolic compounds. They make a cut here and then keep pressing, and these pressings (the taille in Champagne) have levels of 120-160 mg/litre. These are kept separate after fermentation, and are used as a filler if needed in blending. The higher the temperature of the grapes at pressing, the more phenolics you get, so if you want to do any skin contact, you need to do it cold.

Tasting base wines

A portion of the Chardonnay is fermented in barrel. Oak adds texture and warmth.

We then looked at some base wines from the 2013 vintage. 85% of the grapes Graham Beck use are estate grown, from a number of regions. Pieter says that they know what they have in Robertson, but they are now scouting for interesting small parcels to put in the mix. Every sub-region has warmer and cooler conditions, and it's the cooler ones they are interested in for fizz. 

Malolactic fermentation is not encouraged. Malic acid levels in 2013 were 1.7-2.9g/litre. 'Natural acidity is the key element for the freshness and liveliness of the wine,' says Pieter. For NV, he's aiming for 7.2-7.5 g/litre, while for vintage 8 is the target.     

'The essence of any good bubbly brand is consistency and continuity,' says Pieter. Customers relate to a brand of sparkling wine and expect it to be similar year in, year out. 'For NV we have a global reserve wine, and we use it like a solera,' says Pieter. 'It was a nightmare keeping lots of little parcels. The new blend goes to top up the reserve.' Graham Beck have now been doing this for 12 years.

'Time on the lees is the crucial element in building complexity and creamy flavours,' he says.

The top wine in the range is the Cuvee Clive. Each year they start with 65-85 parcels, then select down. The best ones are considered for Cuvee Clive, the next best go to vintage and then the remainder go to the rest of the range.

But there's more to Graham Beck than bubbles, fabulous as those bubbles are. 'We did a brand audit,' says still wine winemaker Erika Obermeyer (above), 'and we now want to bring a bit more focus on the still wines. People know us for our bubbles, but two-thirds of production is still wines.'

The still wine range is structured in a number of ranges. Ad Honorem is the ultra-premium, terroir-driven wine. In the middle, the super-premium wines have been revamped with a new range, The Game Reserve. 'We noticed that people wanted a story,' says Erika. 'Stories do sell wine.'  Then there are the everyday favourites, such as the Rail Road red, at the premium level.

We began tasting with some 2013 base wines. First, Chardonnay:

  • Robertson: lively, tight, fresh and fruity. Zesty, limey.

  • Natural yeast: stinky reduction, creamy edge, fresh, zippy, good acid

  • Walker Bay: nice elegant fruit, lively, rounded, tropical fruit, white peach

  • Darling: very fresh, lemony, amazing acidity, intense and lemony

  • Robertson, barrel ferment:  it goes brighter quicker in the barrel.  Nutty, rich, powerful, spicy. Lovely. Barrels average 6 years old here.

Pinot Noir:

  • Robertson: cherry, spice, citrus, lovely fruitiness

  • Slanghoek Valley: more colour (it travels further), rich, a bit nutty, lively, nice pear and cherry fruit.

  • Stellenbosch: tight, fresh, good acidity, some cherry, lovely fruit

  • Elgin: lively, toasty, lovely precise cherry fruit, great acidity

  • Durbanville: the ripest, richest and fruitiest.


Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV South Africa
This is the last of the 2010 bottling. Lovely fruity nose and palate. Tight and expressive with nice pear and peach character as well as subtle toast. 89/100

Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV South Africa
First of 2011 bottling. Lovely fruity, cherryish nose, with toast and citrus too. The palate is lively and ripe with nice toast and cherry note and some rounded richness as well as freshness. 90/100

Graham Beck Rosé 2009 South Africa
80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay. Pale salmon pink colour. Beautiful delicate citrus and cherry fruit with hints of spice and lovely subtle toastiness. Pieter  did a co-press here with four loads of Pinot and one of Chardonnay in each press. Extended lees contact, too. Fine, expressive and complex, 92/100

Graham Beck Brut Zero 2006 South Africa
This has zero dosage, with 1.8 g/litre of unfermented fructose. Some toast and spice on the nose. Lovely rich toasty style. Fresh and powerful at the same time. Fresh and fine but with nice richness. 92/100

Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2008 South Africa
Taut,fresh, lemony nose with hints of toast. Very fresh and fine on the palate with some creamy texture but also great acidity. Chardonnay needs more time on the lees to build autolysis characters. Youthful, precise and lovely. 91/100 (6.5 g/litre dosage)

Graham Beck Demi-Sec Bliss NV South Africa
Lovely precision, great acidity and some sweetness. Nice fruity style with a sweet finish. Great precision.88/100

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2007 South Africa
Very fresh and precise. Notes of almonds, honey and nuts, as well as citrus and pear fruit. Great acidity to this fine, structured sparkling wine. Nice depth here. 93/100

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2008 South Africa
60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir. Precise and tight with some richness. Pear, spice and ripe apple flavours. Lively with good acidity and some pith and herb notes. Concentrated. 92/100

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2009 (first version) South Africa
80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. Tight, citrussy, limey nose. Very tight and pithy with lovely rich fruit allied to freshness. Primary. 93/100

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 200 (second version) South Africa
Hint of reduction on the nose. Very fresh and focused. Fresh and citrussy, with an amazingly lively personality. Taut and backward with great potential. 94/100

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2011 South Africa
70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir. Crisp, taut and precise with amazing presence. Lovely fruitiness with lively lemon and white peach characters. Great intensity here.

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2012 South Africa
100% Chardonnay. Great acidity and purity here in this linear, intense wine, which shows incredible potential. This is going to be fabulous.

Graham Beck The Game Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Coastal Region, South Africa
Tight and crisp with a grassy green nose. Lively citrussy palate with some grapefruit characters and green pepper notes. Supple and stylish with rounded fruit. 88/100

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Coastal Region, South Africa
100% darling fruit. Lovely aromatics with tropical fruit, tangerine and citrus notes supported by grassy greenness. Some passion fruit on the lively palate which is fresh and open, and also shows some blackcurrant character. 92/100

The two Chenin Blancs come from old bush vines between the Paarl and Swartland, with yields of 3 or 4 tons a hectare. Erika looks for a bit of raisining and some botrytis to add richness, as well as a bit of skin contact. 400 litre barrels imported from the Loire by Ken Forrester are used for the oaked portions. ‘I’m looking for ripe pineapple, lemon rind, hot cross bun,’ says Erika. ‘I am too much of a control freak to wild ferment,’ she adds: preferred yeast is CY3079 from Lallemand, which gives some tropical fruit character, and long fermentations.  

Graham Beck The Game Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012 Paarl, South Africa
Apple, pear and some citrus. Rounded with lovely ripe fruit character: tangerine, apricot and spice. A brilliant effort. 90/100

Graham Beck The Bowed Head Chenin Blanc 2011 Paarl, South Africa
Lively, aromatic and full with some spice, grapefruit and vanilla. Lovely palate is full, spicy and pure with rich apricot and nectarine flavours. Full flavoured but not confected. 92/100

Graham Beck The Game Reserve Shiraz 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Deep coloured. Ripe, juicy, vivid and dense. There’s sweet blackberry fruit and some fresh raspberry, as well as a meaty edge. Juicy, smooth and ripe, with a slightly bitter twist on the finish. 88/100

Graham Beck The Ridge Syrah 2011 Robertson, South Africa
This is a highly researched vineyard: satellite imagery has identified weak or over-vigorous spots, and the harvest is conducted over a 10 day period in three different parcels. Fresh, tight and youthful with vivid, juicy fruit. Ripe but not sweetly fruited with good acidity. Tight and focused with some subtle herb botes. Needs time. 93/100

Graham Beck The Joshua 2009 Coastal Region, South Africa
This has a bit of co-fermented Viognier in the blend. Very rich, ripe and intense with powerful flavours of black fruits, spice and tar. Nice acid and grippy structure. Really dense wine. 91/100

Graham Beck The Game Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit nose is open, full and aromatic. The palate shows sweet, supple, juicy fruit with nice spicy tannic structure. 89/100

Graham Beck The Coffeestone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Juicy, ripe, sweet blackberry and blackcurrant fruit: ripe, supple and firmly tannic. The new oak (100% new French for 24 months) has completely been absorbed. Serious, backward wine, which will age for 20 years. 93/100

Graham Beck Ad Honorem 2007 Stellenbosch, South Africa
72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Shiraz. Ripe, sweet, well defined nose with some graphite and chalk minerality as well as spicy black fruits. The palate is sweet, powerful and intense. Vividly tannic with precise characters as well as the ripeness. 94/100

See also:

Visiting South Africa (series)
The Swartland Revolution (series)

Wines tasted 03/13  
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