Cathy Marston On Judging Amorim Cap Classique Challenge

Top image: Cathy Marston

The winners of this year’s Amorim Cap Classique Challenge are to be announced on 30 September. Well-known wine writer and educator Cathy Marston, who has been judging this competition since 2013, gives her impressions of this year’s entries as well as Cap Classique in general. 

  • Having been exposed to Cap Classique for two decades, are we seeing (a) a level of improvement in general quality and (b) any excitement, innovation in styles.

Absolutely, we’re seeing more quality. I think our top MCC makers are up there with the best, partly helped by the fact that they are able to travel overseas and pick up new ideas and make new contacts around the world. There is still quite a lot of things we don’t 100% understand about MCC (look at all the trials Graham Beck and Colmant are doing) so it’s very important for bubbly winemakers to have an open mind and to have a good network of fellow bubbly winemakers so they can help each other out. In terms of styles, I think the rise of the extra brut style is good, but people need to learn to balance that with fruit and lees if it’s going to be successful. 

  • Your leading role with WSET allows you to educate students on bubblies from around the world. What are the USPs of Cap Classique (MCC) if any, compared to what the rest of the world is dishing up?

Believe it or not, one of our biggest USPs is the name!! Every other New World bubbly has to call itself (deep breath) ‘Traditional Method Bottle-fermented Sparkling Wine’ which isn’t exactly catchy. Now that the term MCC is included in WSET level 2 (by far the most popular level) it means that thousands and thousands of people around the world now know what that means and this can only help with sales. Other than that, I’d say that one of our strengths is the number of options available to winemakers in terms of sourcing fruit. We have a lot of different micro-climates scattered around the Cape (and beyond) and those can help add nuance and complexity to the final wine. 

  • How does the judging/tasting/scoring/scrutinising of bubbly differ from those of other wines? 

I have learnt a massive amount from judging bubbly with Amorim and I’m absolutely delighted that I still learn more every year I do it. Bubbly is very technical so it’s always good to taste with winemakers who can give solid opinions on what’s gone on in the winemaking process. Bubbles show up everything – there’s little room to hide in a bubbly wine so you really need to get everything spot on because it will accentuate all flaws. Other than that, you also need to be much more precise when it comes to how it’s served – temperature is very important when judging MCC. 

  • Should there be restrictions on grape varieties allowed under the banner of MCC? I mean, if we really want to pursue premium status under one generic term, can this happen if MCC may be produced from any available grape, from Colombard to Cabernet Franc? 

I’m happy to taste other grape varieties alongside the classics – who’s to say that we won’t discover a different grape which works really well? Having said that, it hasn’t happened yet – not here, nor anywhere else in the world. The French have been doing this for some time – I think they’ve probably found the best grapes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

  • Give me some thoughts on the older, Museum Class bubblies you have had? Are they hidden gems awaiting to be discovered? 

A negative thought first – just because your bubbly is old, doesn’t always make it good. You need to plan to keep a bubbly for some time which means paying attention to every step of the production process so that your wine can age appropriately. When that happens, it’s magical and you get an incredible balance of richness, complexity and enlivening acidity. I wish more people bottled wines they want to keep in magnums. Big bottles of bubbly are beautiful things.  

  • A substantial number of South African wines are only available on allocation, and people are willing to pay and stand in-line for them. Not so for MCC. Why not? Is Champagne the only game in town for a punter looking at top-end? 

It’s interesting you say that because Champagne is actually having a huge crisis itself at the moment! According to how fine wine markets have gone over the past couple of decades, Champagne is severely undervalued and should cost much closer to the prices of top Bordeaux or Burgundy so everyone in Champagne is in a tizzy over how to achieve price increases in the non-celebratory times of Covid. I think part of the problem is that people don’t believe MCC will age successfully and/or people don’t like the flavours of older MCCs. Again – magnums might give people more confidence to keep their fizz longer. 

  • Of the categories judged, is there one that stands out for you generally

Blanc de Blancs. It nearly always is Blanc de Blancs. I love the thrilling purity of Chardonnay, the vivid acidity and the concatenation of flavours, structure, mouth-feel and length. It just makes me happy. 

Cathy is the owner of the International Wine Education Centre and a WSET Certified Educator, holder of the WSET Diploma and a Stage 2 Master of Wine student