Bot River and bubbly

In the middle of harvest, with juice doing its frothy fermentation thing Melissa Nelsen made the trek from her farm on the Karwyderskraal road near Bot River into Cape Town for a visa to travel to Europe. It’s just one more sign that life is beginning its inexorable return to normalcy because she’s planning a sales trip to Belgium, just one of the markets she exports her Genevieve Cap Classique to.

As usual, the effervescent Nelsen is upbeat and positive about the prospect for the 2022 vintage which her loyal customers will only see from 2025 onwards. That’s because 15 years on from her first vintage, she is adamant about maintaining a mandatory three years on the lees. “I learned my lesson the hard way,” she said. That was in 2010 when she took 5 000 bottles of her maiden 2008 vintage bubbly to market for the first time. It was a real thrill – and major validation – when her brand new bubbly sold out in a matter of months. But it also created something of a headache with eager customers demanding more but being forced to wait 18 months until the next vintage was ready.

“It made me stop in my tracks and look at what I needed for a brand to outlast a season,” she said. “Uniformity and reliability were the top qualities. I wanted to create a bubbly of value from great grapes and aging on lees to gain those secondary flavours and this would bring the consistency and signature to a brand.”

Consequently, Nelsen won’t compromise on quality because her all chardonnay Blanc de Blanc Cap Classique is about elegance and drinkability. It’s for that reason that the three years on lees is non negotiable. She still sources chardonnay from a special block at the base of the Van der Stel pass but the yields are beginning to taper off as the vineyard ages. Nelsen took the plunge and bought a farm in 2017. There’s been a lot of work since, grafting over sauvignon blanc grapes to chardonnay as well as farming the shiraz vines already on the Karwyderskraal property. It’s allowed her to introduce a new bubbly: a shiraz-driven Brut Rosé that only spends 18 months on lees. To say it’s been a hit would be putting it mildly … production this year has tripled from the introductory 6 000 bottles!

“We had a late start to summer and some hot spells leading up to harvest,” she said of the 2022 season. “I constantly remind myself each year that although picking grapes for Cap Classique is based on super fine timing we generally get the best of the grapes when they come in and not too reliant on the seasonal developments later in the harvest time for red wine producers.”

Which is a good thing because Nelsen said 2022 appeared to be a shiraz year. “Yields all around are on the increase,” she said. “From our block here on the farm we are super satisfied. We spent a lot of attention throughout the year on the vineyards leaning towards using more organic products which has worked well and the vineyard has remained healthy throughout the year. Smaller bunches with good acidity making it easy to handle in the cellar.”

It’s been a challenge making the Rosé Nelsen admitted – but then she’s not one to shy away from a test. In a Zoom call with Dan Nichol last year she mentioned that she knew office tedium wasn’t for her so she thought she’d become an air hostess after school. Her mother said why settle for being an air hostess when you could be the pilot? So that’s what she did! And it was her viticulturist other half who set the wheels in motion in 2008 by daring her to make the bubbly herself.

Nelsen concedes that making Rosé bubbly had expanded her approach to winemaking. “My broad rule is to have enough balance in acidity, flavour and fine mousse in the first sip so as not to overpower any taste sensations – but enough that you’re intrigued to take the next sip. With the Rosé I find there has to be finer flavours; it takes more to make a bubbly that has so much expression but to be enjoyed in a light approach.”

Bot River is an area known for its reds with Luddite, Beaumont, Wildekrans, Momento, Arcangeli, Villion and Gabriëlskloof all proving that maxim with shiraz, pinotage, mourvèdre and cabernet franc – as well as chenin blanc. Nelsen is the only one focussing solely on bubbly. “I’m enjoying this next stage of Cap Classique development and think it is evolving well,” she said. “Shiraz from the Bot River area tends to have more feminine qualities for me that make world-class red wines with their layered complexity for drinking but now also for Cap Classique!”

The grafted chardonnay produced its first small crop in 2022 Nelsen said, also mentioning that more chardonnay plantings are planned in order to create consistency as the yields on the contracted older blocks wane. “I still believe that Chardonnay from this area is beautifully balanced with a natural expression of acidity and flavour that asks for very little intervention in the cellar.”

Future plans? “More exports to spread the Cap Classique quality brand and always more celebrations locally and abroad to enjoy the fruits of life with friends – and future friends met through Genevieve Cap Classique.

And with Nelsen heading to Belgium soon, as well as volumes of the Blanc de Blanc having doubled in 2021 to 25 000 bottles, it’s obvious that the former pilot has filed her flight plan and is well on track to attaining cruising altitude.


- Blog by Fiona McDonald