South Africa’s first Cap Classique ever made – the iconic Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel – celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The milestone also marks the birth of the country’s Cap Classique category, which has become the ambassador for South African wine excellence at home and abroad.
Kaapse Vonkel was conceived at Simonsig in 1971 from the passion and perseverance of Malan Family patriarch, Frans Malan. Since then, Simonsig and the Malans have proudly continued the pioneering tradition and developed Kaapse Vonkel to an international benchmark of quality and standard bearer for South African-made, bottle-fermented sparkling wine, better known as Cap Classique.
To commemorate this grand occasion, Simonsig makes a dramatic new introduction. This month sees the release of Kaapse Vonkel with updated packaging and a stellar new look for the Kaapse Vonkel Satin Nectar and Satin Nectar Rosé.
“I’m exceptionally proud of seeing how that small, first start of Kaapse Vonkel by my father, Frans Malan, has grown to such an extent that some 200 wineries now make Cap Classique in South Africa,” says Johan Malan, named most recently as Diners Club Winemaker of the Year 2020 for Kaapse Vonkel 2015.
“I’m also proud at the regularity with which international wine authorities’ recognise the exceptional quality of the category as a whole.”
Johan is excited about South Africans increasingly discovering and enjoying Cap Classiques. “It is a lifestyle wine and fits excellently with the modern wine drinker. It is fresh, fruity, lively, refreshing, elegant, stylish and puts you in a good mood. It is the most versatile wine there is – from breakfast to midnight!”
It is in this spirit that the new packaging for Kaapse Vonkel Satin Nectar takes a bold new step. Featuring a shrink-wrapped sleeve, brightly decked with unmistakable icons of the Cape’s floral kingdom. It represents a fresh, jovial and vibrant approach that exalts the spirit of Africa Rising and its creative and fearless peoples. A special neck label highlights the 50th anniversary year.
Frans Malan made the first bottle-fermented méthode champenoise wine in South Africa, at a time when sparkling wine comprised carbonated and mainly sweet products. He was also one of the three founders of the wine route concept in South Africa.
He’d just started bottling Simonsig wines under his own label in 1968 when a visit to France piqued his interest in Champagne. Once home, he set to work and that first, locally made, bottle-fermented sparkling wine came in 1971. It was made with Chenin Blanc because these were all he had at his disposal.
As with any pioneering work, Frans’s journey was by no means easy. For example, there were no locally-made pupitres – a special rack to hold the bottles in a downward position for the riddling process. A carpenter was commissioned to make them. The result was an object that resembled a rickety spider, but it did the job.
Many other challenges were eventually overcome. Of course, wine lovers also needed some education about this new product on the South African wine landscape because Kaapse Vonkel was then very dry and, at R3 a bottle, the most expensive wine in South Africa.
Every bottle included a pamphlet with photographs to illustrate the processes involved in the wine’s making. The label applied further emphasis, stating: “Fermented in THIS bottle”.
It had been Frans’s dream to see the wine excel overseas and he travelled continuously to achieve that goal. The floodgates opened in 1995 when the International Wine Challenge named Kaapse Vonkel “Queen of White Wine”. Many, other awards have subsequently followed.
The wine also spawned a range of Cap Classiques that, along with the full portfolio, continue to collect local and international accolades.
It was Frans’s winemaking son, Johan, who in 1987 turned to using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the first time to produce Kaapse Vonkel. A decade later, Pinot Meunier was added.
Johan initiated what would become the Cap Classique Producers Association in 1988. He was its founding chairman too. Together with other producers, they realised the new appellation – Méthode Cap Classique – that denoted the traditional method of production in South Africa.
Other highlights of the Kaapse Vonkel journey are:
- In 1999, Simonsig launches Cuvée Royale, a wine produced from the 1991 vintage. The wine is only produced from exceptional harvest vintages;
- In 2006, the Brut Rosé takes flight, a wine using Pinotage and Pinot Noir as its base;
- A decade later, Kaapse Vonkel Demi Sec is launched; and,
- In 2019, Kaapse Vonkel Satin Nectar Rosé is released.
Reflecting on the 50-year anniversary of the brand, Johan Malan says what stands out for him about the wine is how the learning has continued. “We still see how a sometimes seemingly insignificant detail can make a major improvement in the wine, years later.”
“Fortunately, I’ve been making Kaapse Vonkel for 39 years and experience brings a lot of value. I’ve come to realise the incredible contribution that Chardonnay makes and more so the Chardonnays from Simonsig’s own vineyards.
“The soil types are weathered shale, and those cuvees are phenomenally intense and powerful, but still beautifully elegant. Chardonnay will play an even greater role in Kaapse Vonkel in future. For that to happen, the wine will have to mature for longer; my long-term ideal is three years on the lees before degorgement,” says Johan.
“At this stage, we’re comfortably between 15 and 18 months.”
Kaapse Vonkel is not only a blend of three different grape varieties, but also fruit from other regions such as Darling, Elgin and Firgrove, which are well-known for cool climate, and Robertson Chardonnay that grows in lime-rich soils.
“Every different source brings something unique and adds building blocks for the final cuvée and that’s where greater complexity is derived,” Johan says, adding that cooler areas are also likely to offer solutions with regards to climate change.
“We are also looking at the possibilities that other cultivars such as Pinot blanc offer, especially for the good natural acid it possesses.”
The drive for quality is a cornerstone of Simonsig’s philosophy and underscores the legacy of Kaapse Vonkel. “The focus must remain on the best grapes and classic pressing of whole bunches to make the finest, most delicate base wine,” says Johan.
“The long, difficult road is still the best way!”
Also entrenching this philosophy is Michael Malan, the third generation Malan winemaker at Simonsig who heads up red wine production; and, Charl Schoeman, who is responsible for Simonsig’s Cap Classiques and white wines.
Commenting on this year’s harvest for Kaapse Vonkel, Charl reports that “everything just came together. We had good winter rain and favourable climatic conditions, together with a positively energised team determined to place this 50th anniversary wine among the best.”
The grapes, he says, are very healthy and with a marginally smaller harvest than the previous year, flavours and concentration will be good.
“We recently acquired a new clay amphora and look forward to seeing the outcome of the wine, in addition we also started working with Pinot blanc. The results having been fantastic, we’re excited to be making this an additional component to our Cap Classique blend,” he says.
These wines and more – including large size bottles and older vintages – are available for sale from the online store at www.simonsig.co.za.
The winery is located on the Kromme Rhee Road, Koelenhof, Stellenbosch.