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.
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
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.
Robertson: cherry, spice, citrus, lovely
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
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.
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
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
Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2008 South
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
Graham Beck Demi-Sec Bliss NV South
Lovely precision, great acidity and some sweetness. Nice fruity
style with a sweet finish. Great precision.88/100
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2007 South
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
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.
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
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
100% Chardonnay. Great acidity and purity here in this linear,
intense wine, which shows incredible potential. This is going to be
Graham Beck The Game Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Coastal Region,
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.
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
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
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
South Africa (series)
Swartland Revolution (series)
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